December 31, 2008

Days and Nights to Remember

I have a terrible memory for names. My ability to memorize phone numbers is increasingly spotty thanks to an ever-growing dependence on mobile communication technologies. Sometimes I forget to set my alarm or check my voice mail. I confuse details from film narratives and forget exactly where or when I read the articles I try to cite in daily conversation. But it seems that a good deal of my capacity to remember is consumed by OUTFITS.

NYE: December 31, 2007-January 1, 2008 Manoush dress

And this "skill" predates the self-indulgent Internet trend of cataloging and broadcasting your "OOTD," or "outfit of the day," via websites like Mystylediary or Flickr Groups like Wardrobe Remix (both of which count me as members, so I mean no foul when I say "self-indulgent").

I wore the outfit on the left (anthro skirt, ann taylor top, chie mihara shoes) to go shopping with China. It was so much fun until we discovered we were being towed for parking in the wrong place. I wore the tibi sweatercoat on a South Hills suburban date with Chris to Fiori's and the Galleria. I bought the mbmj dress I was wearing underneath in DC. That day I went to see Batman: The Dark Knight for the first time. I remember being nervous to put my Coop bag on the sticky movie theater floor.

I can tell you exactly what I wore on my first day of Kindergarten and on many other first school days. I know how I was clothed for every school dance I ever attended, and I can recall this information in sequential order. I spent weeks of my adolescent summers toiling over the perfect casual but cute combination for Kennywood Day.* I remember the weddings of my loved ones according to the dress I wore. I know birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries by clothes.

28th Birthday Outfits (April 5th, 2008) Chris gave me the Nanette Lepore dress on the left and I wore it to my party. I wore the outfit on the right (Anthro skirt, Gabes sweater) to a birthday meal with my family.

Granted, this arguably useless capacity is supported in part through photographs, home movies, and conversations with other people in attendance. But I find the phenomenon of outfit recollection to be no less remarkable. Although I am not proud of every outfit I've worn in my natural life, I view what I wore as a component part of the sum of my fondest and not-so-fond memories.

I wore this Juicy Couture dress on July 1, 2008: My first day as a Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

As you can imagine New Year's Eve is no exception. Even on the Eve's when I've opted to be low-key, staying in, I still dressed in something worth remembering. If you know you will remember it anyway, you might as well make it worth your while. To bid this year farewell this post features the outfits of my favorite memorable days and nights of 2008.

L2R: Rag and Bone dress I bought in DC and wore when I closed on the house!
The "fancy walk" James Coviello dress Chris goaded me into putting on before our lovely walk in the park!
I told Chris early in our relationship of my skill and that if he intended to make a memory, he should ensure I was wearing something worth remembering. I am glad he talked me out of the ratty Rush t-shirt and faded jeans I was going to wear.

I bought the BCBG dress at the outlets with China in early 2008 after we went to Cleveland. I wore it to the engagement dinner at Legume.
Chris wore the Vince sweater I got him for Christmas to a holiday party.

Outfits worn during our trip to the San Fransisco Bay Area to attend Michael and China's wedding (during which we are pictured at the far left). I am in Tibi dresses, Chris wore a Theory Suit.

I caught Chris taking his own OOTN photo in our hotel room in Emeryville.
I jumped in so you can see my DVF Nadine and his Marc Jacobs jacket and Trovata shirt.

I wore the blue A.P.C. dress on the right to the beach near the Cliffhouse and on Haight Street where we ate crepes and shopped. I also wore this dress earlier in the year to see Batman The Dark Knight for the second time (but this time with Chris in DC), where I bought it.

I look forward to all the outfit memories to come, and wish my readers an all-consumingly wonderful 2009!

December 19, 2008

For the Love of the GABES!

Across South Western Pennsylvania (and Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, stretching into Virginia) Gabriel Brothers stores feature close out prices on clothing, housewares, food, shoes, toys, accessories, and just about everything.

Though there is one near my parents' house, my mom didn't really frequent Gabes when I was very young. She stuck to Hills (rip), Gimbles (rip), Kaufmann's (rip), and Penneys. I imagine it was the stigma of the closeout store that kept her from exploring it until I began insisting as a teenager. That isn't to say that my mother wasn't a deal hunter. Her brick and mortar shopping prowess is unmatched and she taught me everything I now know about bargains, sales, promotions, and coupons.

The issue was that Gabes' local reputation has evolved over time. When I was a child, Gabes was known as the place to find shirts with extra arm holes, jackets with the word "DAMAGED" written in black sharpie, or shoes with no soles attached. It was where all the misfit goods and products; Crystal Pepsi 2 liters, Peppercorn Ranch Cheese-its, out-of-market unpopular sports team merchandise, and Big Mouth Billy Bass went to die.

And it is still known for that to an extent. But a keen eye, patience, and persistence yielded me many rewards across years of regular visits to their nearest outposts.

Some of my favorite finds from Gabriel Brothers:

1. Anthropologie housewares, clothing, and sleepware.

Gabriel Brothers has recently begun buying the overstock of Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie (which are owned by the same corporate parent). Resultantly, I have purchased perfectly gorgeous dresses, nightgowns, pillows, shirts, skirts, picture frames, and books for between $1 and $15 a piece. Most of the items fall in the $1-5 range.

$1 Anthropologie top

2. Theory

Gabriel Brothers gets a plethora of Theory stuff. I have no idea how or why. I think they've gotten Bloomingdales' leftovers. Previously I have gotten beautiful tops, skirts, and men's dress shirts priced between $10 and $40. This week I got two pairs of leather flats:

One Silver and one Marine metallic leather flat (each had a mate, one of which is not shown).

3. You never know what you will find! But over the years I've found a lot.

The most random things have found their way into Gabes and then into my closet. I got a Miu Miu ruffled button down dress shirt for $10. A Lauren Moffatt skirt for $15.
Givenchy fishnets for $2. Seven for All Mankind jeans for $7. Stainless Steel Cuisinart Coffee maker for $30. C Label shoes for $5. American Apparel tshirts for $1-2. Ben Sherman dress shirts for men for $15. Penguin polos for men for $15. Calvin Klein Bedding, Nautica Bedding, Juicy Couture clothes, Marc by Marc Jacobs jeans, Wrangler for Barneys denim, J Crew cast offs, curtains, rugs, towels, bras, giftwrap, chocolates. I could go on and on and on. For a while I would scan my outfit and count how many items were Gabes finds. Although I do not visit as often or buy as much from them as I used to, I still adore the store.

Juicy Couture ruffle dress from Gabes for $20

Some things to keep in mind: Gabes is NOT for the shopping-weary. It is also not for the shopping-snobby. They have a counter in front where they cook (on a rotator) and presumably sell (though I've never seen anyone purchase one) hot dogs that appear to be from the late 1800s. The smell produced by the food counter is not glamorous. You will not be given little branded bottles of water, freshly baked cookies, or Godiva chocolates, should you become exhausted from all your hunting. Avoid the communal dressing room and opt for a private booth if you can. There is usually fresh but chewed gum in the corners of the individual changing booths so make sure your valuables don't get stuck, literally. And under no circumstances do I endorse braving the bathrooms. Maybe they have improved since I last attempted a visit? I have not explored to find out. But I can argue with confidence and anedcotal evidence that it is not worth the risk.

Finally, not every trip will yield greatness. As with any outlet style shopping, it is best to go regularly since stock is always turning over. Regardless, be sure to take your time. I am not convinced that a person can effectively visit Gabriel Brothers without spending a solid hour combing the stock. In that regard it is very much akin to outlet shopping.

In a way Gabes is an outlet. But it is also a closeout, so be sure to inspect the merchandise thoroughly for damages, holes, stains, and tears. Though it isn't the case as much recently, you don't want to get home only to find one of your precious new treasures is emblazoned with the sharpie'd word, "SAMPLE," "IRREGULAR," or "DAMAGED," unless you plan to make them part of some newfangled viral marketing campaign for DIY message tees. Remember that outlet shopping is prime "Sale Goggles" territory so be sure to keep a level head, especially since Gabriel Brothers locations are not in the most convenient locations for city dwellers and their 14 day return policy during the year (extended slightly to return gifts during the holiday season) is rigid.

Even with the lackluster return policy and the stale hot dog smell, I am excited to see what Gabes will bring to my closet the next time I can visit!

December 17, 2008

Consumed by Coats! The New Addition to my Outerwear Collection

Every year, in the bitter cold of Pittsburgh's late fall/early winter I convince myself that none of the already perfectly acceptable, and even arguably fantastic coats in my closet will be enough to carry me into spring. I started to get the bug in October, when I promptly staged a "shop my closet" style intervention, trying on all of my coats, which subsequently forced me to acknowledge my wealth of outerwear. This practice facilitated a short-lived but practical approach to the impending coat season. When out shopping, or looking at magazines, I could encounter the finest cashmere topcoat, the warmest duffle or puffer jacket, the quirkiest-classiest peacoat, etc. without even blinking in their direction. But around late-November my sensibility snapped.

(3.1 Phillip Lim, Zara)

I revisited the closet, and suddenly nothing was right. The black Mackage topcoat was too long to wear with flats and too dressy to fit my lifestyle. How did I not notice this last year? My red funnelneck jacket was starting to pill and one of the buttons would not stay fastened. I should have known better than to trust the quality of fast-fashion retailer, Zara. I swam in my formerly beloved reversible tweed number by Phillip Lim. And even my See by Chloé and Marc by Marc suddenly felt average rather than extraordinary. While a few of my vintage coats looked beautiful on the outside, their linings were torn and their pockets had holes. They hardly made a persuasive case in defense of my closet when they were in such poor condition.

(MBMJ, See by Chloe, Mackage)

So began another hunt. A quest for the one coat I permited myself to buy per season. Of course, I have bought more than that per year. But after amassing a collection of versatile, unique, and stylish pieces that suited a range of social circumstances, there became little reason (other than self indulgence) to buy more. Knowing that I didn't have any gaps to fill and that I didn't want to buy something that was just a new version of what I already had, the task became daunting. I went to all of my favorite etailers, department stores, and local boutiques to scope outer-wares. I established a price point I was comfortable spending while balancing the demands of holiday shopping. And I came up with a few contenders. That is, until impulse (and the super sales of late-aught-8) took over and I saw this insanely loud, 70% off, harlequin print "clown coat" as I have dubbed it.

It is officially called the Domino coat and it comes in two colorways (one of which is slightly more muted than mine). It is from Marc by Marc Jacobs. And I am not surprised it went on sale. It is awfully bright. Not for a wallflower. And sort of hard to match. If I match it exactly, (and I have a pair of blue J Crew cords that do match exactly, so I speak from experience), I end up looking like a reject from a Joker lookalike contest at a Batman convention. And if I bring in other bright colors, it feels like I am seeking attention in a bad way.

But having said all that, I kind of love it. I think the shape suits me and the pyramid stud button snaps are an exciting subtle detail that keeps the coat from being too twee or prim. It is plenty warm and the length is just right. I can wear it with dresses or pants, flats or heels. And it certainly fills a unique niche in my coat collection (some of which wasn't even pictured here). I am not sure it was the most practical purchase, but with a collection full of already-practical coats I had room for something a little more daring. And so long as I remember to pair the matchy matchy cords with another coat in my closet, I am sure it will get a lot of wear this winter!

December 08, 2008

The Perfect Presents: Datamining for Gift Ideas

Among my friends and family, and to some of my colleagues, I've developed the reputation of being a savvy shopper (to put it kindly). My relatives ask for advice on where to locate specific styles and brands; my mom asks me regularly to proxy online shop, since she is loath to input any personal credit card data; my partner consults with me about estalking, hunting deals, finding the most competitive price, and using coupons; and friends tell me that I make a fun, albeit enabling shopping buddy/accomplice. I enjoy being solicited for advice by my loved ones and I derive value from feeling as though I've been helpful.

Most of all, I love accumulating information about their styles, tastes, and wants. I mine this knowledge like data, using it as my own private arsenal of "market research" toward future gift purchasing. I absolutely love giving gifts! Holiday shopping has me thinking about gift-giving quite a bit. One of the benefits of shopping (or discussing shopping) with those near and dear to you is that you can gather information about suitable gifts in otherwise organic settings. No need to call and ask your mom what to buy for your brother's birthday! Think back to the last time you were together! Didn't he say he needed something to wear to the Pitt football game? Didn't your sister linger over a particular scarf at Anthro? Didn't your closest friend lament a hole in his beloved record collection? And didn't your father email to you a book review of the latest biography of the Beatles? All of these moments are ripe for the gift-picking!

(vintage Cardin and Balenciaga ties)

The only disadvantage of establishing a reputation as a savvy shopper is that the gifting stakes are pretty high. Not in terms of the price you are expected to spend. On the contrary, I have found that the cliché about thoughtfulness counting most rings true. Your gift betrays to the recipient(s) what you have learned about them in your process of mining gift data. This is what fills me with nervous excitement around birthdays, anniversaries, and December holidays. And this is also what sends more timid, indecisive, or exhausted gift-givers retreating to the giftcard kiosk at the grocery store.
(all the presents under the tree at the old house)

My own personal standards for gifting are rigorous, occasionally to a fault. I fear that an ill-conceived gift will ruin my rep as a savvy shopper. Will a more obvious, though nonetheless practical or even necessary gift seem lazy to the giftee? Or will they appreciate the pragmatism with which you shopped? While I know that love is generally offered without conditions, I fear that warm receptions of the gifts I give this holiday season will not be a given. And while many regard the gift giving process to be more ritual than personal, for me gift buying and giving are inherently intimate. Sure I have phoned it in before! And sure I've felt less than 100% about some of the things I've bought for others this season. I am not perfect. But I aspire to find the Perfect Presents when the opportunity arises.
(Speck made out like a bandit that year)

It is reassuring to remember how fondly I received everything I've ever been given: homemade nightlights, Christian and para-Christian ornaments that I've hung on my decidedly-secular tree, itchy acrylic scarves, slippers two sizes too big, etc. I loved and remember with love all of these gifts. My standards for gifts do not go both ways. I actually adore receiving gift cards even though I generally don't give them without accompanying gift materials. I have always loved getting clothes for presents, even when something doesn't quite fit . My mother, a first grade teacher, has joked that I was the only child she ever knew who was equally excited to receive a sweater, a dress, or a Barbie doll for my birthday.

Incidentally, it was my mother from whom I inherited my gift-giving prowess and my penchant for bargain hunting. She told me harrowing tales of Black Friday shopping, in the trenches, looking for the hot, sold-out toys on her kids' wishlists. She proved herself year after year after year, remembering those mundane moments where someone would mention in passing a "want," so briefly they would forget until they unwrapped it under her tree. When she was 8 and a half months pregnant with my brother, she maneuvered her way to the front of a long, winding line outside of Hills Department Store, claiming she had to use the restroom, to ensure she was able to acquire from the widely-advertised, limited shipment of brand new, perpetually-sold-out, Cabbage Patch Dolls to give to her first born. I wanted one with blonde hair just like mine. She purchased Jilly, who I am fairly certain still resides in my childhood home. As such, for a few years in my early 20s, I refused to give my mother anything mediocre. If it wasn't so spectacular, so emotive, so grand, that she wouldn't be overcome with emotions upon receiving it, then I passed. That became exhausting pretty quickly, but we have many memories from it.

All of this is to say that gift giving can be more than just material. It can be more than just marking someone off of your list. It isn't about buying someone their holy grail watch or bag or car. It isn't about spending the most money.

(Chris liked his BeeGees notebook)

Gift giving and the process of gift acquisition can be the locus of a beloved narrative between the person giving and the person receiving. It can evoke a shared history, triggering memories you thought you had forgotten. It can be something that seems obvious, serving a practical purpose, but improving the basic quality of daily life for the recipient. A gift can also represent the optimism of the future you presume you will enjoy together.

December 03, 2008

All-Consuming E-Stalking

"E-stalking" for the purposes of this particular blog refers to the time spent toiling and trolling websites, ebay, stores, etc. to eventually enable the savviest, most sensible purchase of any particular item that catches your attention. One doesn't always buy the e-stalked items but at any given moment, for me at least, there are a half dozen or so items for which I am on the prowl. Some of the things within this bunch could be considered "holy grail" purchases, but they aren't all big ticket goods. A lot of them are just so many seasons old or so random and rare that finding them has proved to be nearly impossible. That small glimmer of hope-- the "nearly" but not "entirely" impossible chance-- keeps me hunting.

(Recent Moschino Coat and Older Prada Dress currently e-stalked)

As all dedicated consumer e-stalkers know, the hunt is usually no small task. So it helps to keep one's "wants" to a minimum. During certain moments in the retail seasons (i.e. post-holidays, transitioning seasonal merchandise, final calls, third cuts, 80% off, etc.) my "wants" seem to grow exponentially, thanks to the delusional power of sale goggles. But in general, it is wise try to keep your list reasonable. That way you don't devote the equivalent of a part time job to e-stalking.

(Recent Jimmy Choos and Older Marc Jacobs Sweet Punk being e-stalked)

Spotting something I hope to someday acquire generally marks the beginning of a long, arduous, often research-intensive process. Whether the source came from something seen in a brick and mortar store or boutique, on a person's person, in a photograph from a street style website, or in an ecommerce shop, it helps to approach the potential acquisition with practicality and patience. Is the item priced appropriately? Does it serve a purpose or fill a hole in my material life? Will it be too similar to or too outlandish from my preexisting collection of stuff to be useful? How rare is this and is it possible that it will sell out at retail price? Is the retail price a good value or is it worth waiting for a discount? Can I/How can I find it for less?

(Many-seasons old Milly and Chloé dresses being estalked)

It isn't formulaic, per se but it can seem procedural and if it isn't worth your time then the item isn't worthy of e-stalk status in the first place. There is a methodical approach to e-stalking that I implement with varying degrees of rigor. Determining the time devoted to the research is simple. The more expensive something costs, and the closer it is to its suggested retail price, (generally speaking) the more time I will spend researching and being patient. The more mad money I have available, the easier it is to indulge my wants. Consuming is often contextual and subjective, so a myriad of variables will influence my personal e-stalking patterns and behaviors. One such variable to consider is consumer loyalty.

(Estalked and acquired Tibi dress from Net-a-Porter who offer impeccable service)
(Coviello dress from Anthropologie via Ebay for far less than Anthro's price)

Although I am not generally a proponent of consumption as democracy (i.e. "vote with your dollar") I do believe that it is important to be an informed and when appropriate, loyal customer. This recession will be a chance to practice consumer Darwinism. More than in the years prior, deciding where to spend your precious dollars could influence the fate of your favorite stores. Which shops deserve your patronage and which are not worth saving? Which boutiques, etailers, or department stores have offered you the highest level of service versus those that have utilized these troubled times as rationale to overhaul once-favorable return policies, free shipping, price-matching/protection, or other promotions that benefited shoppers?

(Estalked and acquired MBMJ captoe mj's from Ebay and Balenciaga Day from TPF Marketplace)

Over the last few weeks I've received the most attentive, helpful, and appreciative service at Saks so they have won me as a customer for life. The free lattes, champagne, biscotti, and Godiva chocolates were just icing because this most recent sale enabled me to finally choose sales associates to patronize exclusively in handbags, shoes, intimates, mens, and women's contemporary. And although I will still use a shopping rubric that involves research, patience, and loathsome feelings toward paying retail prices, I will weigh among the variables, the fact that I wish for my favorite local stores to thrive or at the very least survive this period of economic downturn.


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