A FEW YEARS ago, back in the decade of conspicuous consumption, society women flaunted their Paris originals bought for the price of a Porsche.
In the '90s, those same women are heard exulting in their latest Victor Costa knockoff bought at a 10th of the cost of original. And while they might be wearing a Giorgio Armani jacket, the T-shirt is a Fruit of the Loom and the jeans are from The Gap.
Stretching a clothing budget is becoming an economic necessity for women at all income levels.
"I see it in people who shop in the malls and people who shothe designer trunk shows. They're worried about the economy, and they don't want to take any chances that it might get worse," says area fashion stylist Barbara Zatcoff.
"Just comparing last year with this year, there's definitely been a change," says Sharon Ward, a representative of Cache, a higher-end clothing store. "People don't just plunk down $1,000 anymore without blinking an eye anymore. I see people looking at the sale rack who always paid full retail before, and we're marking down a little sooner than we used to."
Sales are just one of the many strategies that consumers are using to battle the escalating price of clothing and the possibility of diminished income.
Start with the basics
Women could get much more mileage out of their wardrobe if they'd only make sure they had the basics to start with, advises Ray Mitchener, manager of Ruth Shaw's clothing store. "A lot of women just don't own the basics that you can do so much with -- the basic black pants, a basic white shirt and a great navy jacket.
Making the most of it
Gena O'Brien, manager of Georgiou, has a three-step plan for stretching your budget. "No. 1 is to work with seasonless fabrics such as raw silk, wool crepe, cotton that will take you all year around," she says.
"No. 2: Find a designer who fits you and stick with that designer because he's already done the color story for you and you can mix and match from the different pieces in the collection.
"No. 3: Always buy a base suit." Whether it's a natural shade, black, khaki or navy, she suggests buying a jacket, shirt and skirt all in the same, solid color, so that these can be mixed up with whatever you have in your wardrobe already.
"If you put the top and bottom together with a belt, it looks like a dress, and then you can just wear the jacket with pants or a skirt you have, and you can do all kinds of different things."
And if you can't afford to invest in three matching pieces, take heart in the advice given by Charlotte Fischer, owner of the Red Garter. "I think fashion is much more eclectic than it used to be, so I tell my customers how to mix things up more and put things together in a much less coordinated way than they used to years ago."
Taking a neutral stand
Neutrals have always been the most economic way to build a wardrobe. Paula Geipe, manager of Carroll Reed in the Owings Mills Mall, carefully planned her fall wardrobe by choosing a navy, beige and white plaid suit, a navy suit and a black suit.
"The navy is so dark I can fool it so it looks black, and I can mix it around with lots of different things.
"We also have a boiled wool jacket in cranberry that can fool the eye," she says. "It's just enough of a vague red that it can go with many different prints and plaids."
While chartreuse and lime look great in magazine pictures, the most practical bright is usually red.
Nancy Sachs, fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue in the Owings Mills Mall, says, "The bright in my wardrobe is always red. It's a staple; it knows no season and there's a shade for everybody."
Another color with surprising flexibility, she says, is mustard. "It looks great with black in the fall, but then in the spring you can wear it with white."
The long distance runners
If you're wondering whether or not the much-touted longer jacket is going to be in fashion long enough to be worth the investment, the answer is a resounding yes from all fashion forecasters, who're seeing it around for several seasons ahead.
Ms. Sachs says, "You can get a tremendous amount of wearability from it, and with a short skirt, it's very flattering to most figures. And you can even wear it over a dress, so it's not just part of a suited look. I bought a long black jacket from DKNY, and I think it looks terrific with a skirt and with trousers."
Slim-cut trousers are another silhouette that Ms. Sachs predicts will be around for a couple of more seasons.
Keep an eye out for other secondary designer lines such as the Donna Karan line mentioned by Ms. Sachs. An avalanche of lower-priced lines have been let loose on the market this fall with prices often half the original line.
There's But Gordon from Gordon Henderson, Mr. Beene from Geoffrey Beene, Kors from Michael Kors, to name a few. In some cases, costs have been lowered by choosing cotton instead of a luxury fabric like cashmere; other times the item is cheaper because it's been produced in Hong Kong rather than domestically or in Europe.