It’s Not About the Benjamins…

Image taken from page 43 of Nina Garcia’s Little Black Book of Style

This post / essay could also be titled 10 things I’ve learned from Nina Garcia.

Or why I’m not buying bell bottoms this season. I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets the urge to splurge (did I just say that??) as soon as the weather changes. I stumble upon something on a blog or, and I go from feeling really great and confident to panicked. “I have NOTHING to wear and everything I own is drab and uncool!” It’s a sudden and ridiculous lie! Of course this is perpetuated by the fact that our culture is obsessed with STUFF and how it makes you look. But like Nina reminds us, “Fashion is expensive. Style is not.” So let’s talk about style instead. When it comes to fashion and style, one can exist without the other.

A little narrative to start the conversation: Let’s say that I stop by a certain store that starts with the letter “A” on a Saturday just to browse when I’m wearing a frumpy / doing chores kind-of outfit. Now, even though I think that store “A” is over-the-top (confession: I even make fun of it sometimes), the truth is that they really get me with the smell and the music and the little DIY touches and just everything. I go from being a classic minimalist to a person who thinks it might be a great idea to buy a long, baggy sweater that’s patch-worked floral with bell sleeves and some amazing (weird) crochet detailing (mess) around the collar and a rope belt that has a ball hanging off each end. I will, of course, not end up buying it and later, I’ll forget the thing even existed. But when I’m in that store, everything is beautiful and new and amazing.

Look at all those Nina books on the back of the bookshelf.

That’s how buying “on trend” clothing feels to me. It feels like being duped. Last year, I decided it was time to learn how to be smart with my wardrobe. Partially this is a quirk of mine where I must.know.every.minute.detail.about.fillintheblank if I’m interested in it. Part of this is just plain OCD. But I set out to learn more about style planning and organizing…all in an effort to save $$ and to try to build a wardrobe that is more lasting and of higher quality. I’m still working on it.

So, I turned to Nina. But more on that in a minute.

I want to add the caveat that of course there are some new trends that are just a fresh take on classics or just plain fun. I’m not talking about that kind of thing when I say I feel “duped.” I’m mostly referring to the feeling that you’ve got to update everything to feel current. Or buy that one super expensive thing that is really “hot” this season. Maybe I’m just getting older (hello 30!) or who knows, maybe its the recession, or maybe…maybe it’s really…Nina.

Ms. Garcia (whom I haven’t blogged about yet but I might just start a series devoted to her) has left a huge impression on me. You may be thinking “Isn’t she that lady from Project Runway?” or maybe you know that she is the editor of Marie Claire Magazine. But, really, she’s a very intelligent woman with highly sophisticated taste who knows fashion history. And she’s written a bunch of books about being a woman who’s into fashion but with a critical eye. Nobody is fooling Nina! And she wants you to be just as savvy.

Another Nina book in our house

So, without further adieu. The top 10 things I’ve learned from Nina:

  1. If you feel confident and beautiful, then you will look it, no matter what you’re wearing. Confidence is everything and you can’t buy that.
  2. “Your shoes, bag, and coat will reveal your hand right away. Spend your money here. A simple timeless design for these three items is best.” She points out that in the winter, you’re mostly seen in your coat anyways, so make sure its something you love and fits you perfectly. You can be wearing a so-so outfit underneath and you’ll still look amazing most of the time.
  3. Keep things simple and understated. Rich colors like camel, ivory, navy and black look amazing on everyone.
  4. Entire outfits in one color are instantly chic. (Example; head-to-toe camel or black or ivory is amazing and doesn’t have to cost a lot.)
  5. A good tailor is a lifesaver. They can turn anything you find into a one-of-a-kind keepsake. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to have things taken in or hemmed up or let out, etc…
  6. A miniskirt is okay for a woman of any age. Just pair it with the right shoes (flats usually) and the right silhouette.
  7. If you’re wearing something big on top, go skinny/fitted on the bottom. The opposite is true. Big/flouncy on the bottom pairs best with tight on top.
  8. Spend your money on the classic foundational pieces: a white button down, a nice pencil skirt, a cashmere sweater. And pair them with inexpensive items.
  9. Ballet flats are a must.
  10. Heels really make the silhouette when you’re trying to step it up. And shoes are a way to go crazy with trends and have fun.

So, I’m working on it. Definitely not there yet… I’d LOVE to hear any tips you have for saving $$ but also looking luxe.

P.S. Bell bottoms look horrible on me. I’m really tall and they just make me look taller and silly, that’s why I’m not buying them even though I know they are obviously cool this season!


About Stephanie

Stephanie is an internationally recognized calligrapher. She employs a wide variety of calligraphic tools, papers, textiles, inks and found objects to articulate both words and portraits.
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16 Responses to It’s Not About the Benjamins…

  1. Tranny says:

    Steph – LOVE THE POST. I can totally relate to this. I’m moving to new york in a few weeks and I’m both excited and scared at the same time about what? not finding a place to live, but the fashion! the shopping! one thing I’ve started doing is going cheap for the summer. since I live in a city, I use and abuse my clothes during hot weather months – biking, walking, (trying) to be active. I’ve found cheap fun pieces at stores like forever21 (yes I’m 27) and target and H&M. that way I don’t feel terrible that I’ve sweated through my beautiful silk top from anthro that cost me a fortune. I also feel like splurging and redoing my entire wardrobe every season – I’ve started buying small accessories (scarves, jewelry, etc) to spice up the wardrobe I already have. There’s nothing wrong with a splurge here and there, but sometimes, as a huge shopping like myself, I forget the stuff I’ve already invested in and that its ok to reuse them each season, if you do it right.

    Keep writing!! I’m now going to go read all about Nina G.

    • Stephanie says:

      Ooh that’s great advice. Scarves and accessories really can make the outfit. And they’re not that expensive and also last forever.

      I also like the idea that in the summer you can get away with less expensive fabrics, and focus on those in the winter months.

      I’ve read all of Nina’s books and I can say they really get into the meat and potatoes of figuring out how to be more savvy. Not like a lot of “fashion and style” books that are merely coffee table books. I’d lend you mine but I love them too much hahaha. xo

  2. Emily says:

    My husband is trying to keep me to one-three great pieces per season. But, he said my budget could go up… Who else has noticed that this is a much more difficult way to shop?

  3. Margaret Kelley says:

    I think the interesting thing about shopping is that it always interjects some small (or large) bit of inspiration into our daily routine. We imagine our wardrobes and lifestyle in a whole new light when entering into a new experience. These places/stores mold and enhance our interests, and help to nudge forward our existence as unique personalities. It’s hard not to buy when you’ve thrown yourself into a place that exudes creativity, but you must not let it get the best of you. We can easily outsmart their cleverness in trying to make us spend our hard-earned money.

    Finding out who we are and expressing ourselves through fashion decisions takes work ($). I think growing up and realizing who we really are helps to slow things down a bit, and understanding our bodies with confidence makes it much easier to shop as time goes on.
    At every age, I think we finally settle into what we like and what we don’t like.
    A few years ago, Steph, I remember you once told me that you liked to buy one trendy piece every season. That really resonated with me because I never actually thought of myself as someone who did that. I now realize that I do, but never actually admitted it. I shopped at the regular places (including consignment), as well as not so regular, and bought what I needed or liked or could/couldn’t afford. Now that I’ve moved past my twenties, and am settling into a career and womanhood, I have come to appreciate the classic pieces (that look good on me) which make confidence that much easier to pull off.

    Recently I have been in the business of saving money, and haven’t particularly bought anything “cheap”. I am currently in the business of finding pieces that are long-lasting and well-made, especially shoes. This decision came from a straightforward comment my mother made about a basic poly-blend cap-sleeved black tee I was wearing from Zara. I was horrified and embarrassed. She could immediately tell that the shirt was cheap and somewhat trendy. (It was.) She urged me to purchased higher quality fabrics, and I took her advice. Leathers, silks and luxe cotton and linens are what I am look for in clothing and accessories now. I steer clear of anything that “looks” or “feels” cheap, the pricetag could reveal otherwise, though. I now only buy things if I have the money, and have whittled down my closet to the essential pieces that can be worn every year. I am still struggling with looking professional and interesting, though.

    I’ve followed Nina Garcia on Project Runway, and have always valued her straight forward approach and critique, but have never read her books. You’ve piqued my interest and want more of this conversation!!

    • Stephanie says:

      Wow great thoughts. Agreed!

      I think you’re right. As we get older we figure out what we like and what looks good. I love that story about your Mom! I got rid of an entire pile of pilly (spelling?) cotton shirts that were balling up and faded after I read the first Nina book. Most of them sat in my dresser unused. And to think what all of those shirts would’ve added up to in 2 nice shirts. Sheesh!
      Also. Your linen outfits inspire me. I want more of that in my life!!

      I’d def. recommend Nina’s books ^


  4. Carissa says:

    Nice post, Steph. The matter of fashion (or style) gets a bit more complicated with motherhood, I’ve found. Beyond body issues (which is an ENTIRE post–or several–unto itself), I now have to think, “can I get poop / drool / food on this shirt and will I a) not be too upset about it, b) be able to wash it out? This line of questioning automatically eliminates most luxe fabrics. Moreover, as a stay at home mom, I have had to go through everything I own–that I was saving for “work clothes–and purge those as well. Not that I won’t one day go back to work, but I am sure I will want to invest in fewer and more high quality pieces at that time (I had amassed a lot of dressy-looking clothes that I only sort of liked). That said, I am finding that investing in fun, functional, and high quality shoes is a great way to stay current (read: stylish). I can wear throw-away H&M clothes–mixing in a few special expensive items–and finish things with shoes that I love and feel stylish.

    I am with you on the cult of Anthro. I do love a lot of their clothes, but after being thoroughly sedated by their scented candles DIY in-store displays, I have walked out with more than a few regretted purchases. It has actually taken a good bit of thought and self-reflection to realize that much of Anthro’s style is just not my jam (as pretty as it looks in the catalogue and in the store…).

    I’d love more Nina posts in the future!

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks, Carissa!

      I love you that pointed out the complications of dressing when you have a baby in the mix. I’m curious, (since I know first hand that you always looked super cool as a preg. lady and now as a Mom I’m sure its the same) where should one go for cute but not-to-cheap stuff when pregnant or juggling a baby? You always seem to be wearing amazing shoes. What are your recommendations? Favorite pants? I was just talking with a pregnant friend today and she’s looking for suggestions because it is just now time to start buying a few items…

      • Carissa says:

        You’re being too kind! Hah. I felt so sloppy when I was pregnant–at least during the late part. For clothes, I found a woman on Craigslist who was getting rid of all of her pregnancy clothes in my size. She let me comb through her stuff (two huge bins of clothes) and take away what I wanted for about $30. I got a lot of staples that way: black pants, black skirt, jeans, etc. I shopped H&M for other items, but in all honesty, the color black was my friend for a lot of the pregnancy! Like Nina said, I went for a lot of one color ensembles and then accessorized with fun jewelry and shoes. I wore staples. I stayed away from crazy prints or pattern, as I felt those only made me look silly as a pregnant lady.

        Speaking of shoes, I shop endless a lot and price match on Amazon (I would say Zappos, too, but it seems to always be the most expensive). Now that I live in a town where there is a Zara (!!!) I get shoes there, too. I’m now a little obsessed with Gilt Group, a flash sale website and ASOS (big over here in the UK).

  5. Becky says:

    I like this post. Most of your 10 things list I’ve learned on my own (but 30 was quite some ways back for me, so perhaps experience teaches some of this). Although I have to say, miniskirts do NOT look good of women of all ages. Some of us reach an age earlier than others where this no longer is a good option.

    I’ve never set foot in A. I have looked at their website for years, found much of their clothing overpriced and poorly made and so stick with stores that I know I will get much more of my money’s worth from, that I can wear for years on end.

    I wear a lot of linen during the summer and a lot of wool during the winter. I stick with natural fibers in all my clothing, with few exceptions (long underwear). There are a number of great consignment shops in Charlottesville, but I have always found the best items and the best prices at the Salvation Army and Goodwill, for a fraction of the cost of anywhere else. Years ago, my husband married me wearing a pair of Banana Republic pants he found at Salvation Army with the original pricetag still attached.

    For a really fun fashion book, check out Diana Vreeland’s “D.V.” sometime.

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks, Becky! Which Salvation Army do you like the best in Charlottesville?

      And what a score on those B.R. pants, nice!

      I’ll def. check out DV…

      • Becky says:

        The one on Cherry Ave. I recently scored for $9 the following for my daughter:
        Never worn girls Lands End mary janes, pink, in my daughter’s size.
        Hello Kitty fleece PJ pants
        Grey GAP cable sweater
        Talbots Kids Lime Green Cardigan (also the reason for my misson that day. SCORE!)

        I like both Goodwills, but sometimes the 29 one across from Albemarle Square really is the better one.

  6. Carrie d. says:

    I have noticed the hype of bellbottoms this year…not sure why, I look like I’m 15 again in them. Sticking to rolled up bootcut and skinny jeans!
    One thing I’ve discovered is my love for blazers!

  7. Emily says:

    In defense of bell bottoms, some of us look better in them than skinnies. I’ve been pulling them off by going vintage in recent years. Now, I can get a pair that’s not literally from the 70s.

    • Stephanie says:

      Exactly! Remember that pair of bell bottoms I bought at Finch? They look terrible on me. J calls them “Britches” because they don’t have pockets. I think they’re cute…but he says they are unflattering. Sheesh. Maybe I’ll wear them with the wedges one day 🙂

      Also, I started wearing skinny jeans after coming back from Spain like 6 years ago and people were like “Oh I hate skinny jeans, they are not for curvy people etc etc” and I think its just right to go with what looks good on you.

  8. Margaret Kelley says:

    Another thought. I agree with Nina Garcia on this idea —
    As much as I love high-end boutiques for clothing, I continue to praise the thrift and consignment shops. Charlottesville seems as though it would be a treasure throve of clothing in that respect! I think if you know what you like or steer towards classic colors and pieces (and like to dig), you will almost always find something perfect. And it won’t break your bank.

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