by BONDie and Guestblogger Bree Perlman
In my mind, a sample sale has always been the fashionista equivalent of those Black Friday news stories where they show parents beating each other up in the parking lot of some big box store over an Xbox. Scary. But all of that changed two weeks ago when I accidentally stumbled on a sample sale coming out of a meeting with a colleague in the Garment District when we walked passed a sign for Helmut Lang and Theory on the second floor of a non-descript building. Despite my fears of being crushed alive or wrestled to the grown over a blouse, the “70% off” in big black letters was just too much to pass up. While I’m happy to report I came out mostly unharmed, made out with some prized goods, and am a bona fide sample sale convert, I definitely made some rookie mistakes. I decided to consult some sample sale experts to get a leg up on my next go.
Tip #1: Decide what type of sample shopper you are and plan accordingly.
Climbing a fluorescent lit stairwell to the top of a bland office building floor, I had no idea what to expect. We followed the trail of men and women coming out of a two doors at the end of a hallway carrying overstuffed plastic bags complete with hangers poking out of them. We entered a loft space at the end of the hall and timidly proceeded to the back where racks of clothing filled the room. I was pleasantly surprised that I could actually see the clothing. This didn’t seem like what I had imagined at all. Even more incredible were the prices. Among the insane bargains were: Theory pants for $25 (originally $260), Theory dresses for $25 (originally $230), and Helmut Lang blazers for $50. What I learned post- sample sale shopping from Laurie Brucker, a certified image consultant and speaker and blogger at: http://www.lauriebstyle.com/, “Timing is everything.” Explaining, “There are two strategies here: Show up first thing in the morning on the first day to snag the best stuff before anyone else, sometimes showing up hours early is necessary as lines do form.” Or she says, “Show up at the very tail end of the last day. The sample sale’s purpose is to get rid of as much extra product as possible and by that time they may be willing to lower their prices.” It turned out to be the last afternoon of our sample sale which explained the prices (a little post research on racked.com showed the prices were initially listed at double that.) Knowing what type of sample sale shopper you are helps. In retrospect, had there been a line out the door, I know I would have kept walking. I will never be the camp out on line to be the first 25 in, but will happily risk the inventory and rush on the last day to get the best bargains.
Tip #2: Know your designer.
After my colleague and I got over the initial daze of the place, we split up to see what we could find. I quickly scooped up five pairs of pants, a white linen dress, and a white Helmut Lang tuxedo blazer. Andrea Donlon, Blogger: WifeRedefined says, “Know how the designer fits you before you go to the sample sale.” This was my first rookie mistake. While I was familiar with how Helmut Lang fit, it had been years since I tried on anything by Theory. I was hopeful, vaguely remembering a pair I loved from the early 2000s and figured with this many to choose from, how could I really go wrong?
Tip #3: Bring a friend and/or co-worker
According to our sample sale experts, I accidentally got this part right. Nancy Brenner of garmentdistrictdiva.tumblr.com says, to “bring along a co-worker” because “sample sales are a great networking opportunity and excellent substitute for a traditional networking lunch.” He also happens to be a friend–who hates shopping. A key distinguishing factor according to Brenner. She says, “Friends who love shopping will be off doing their own things. Friends who hate shopping will come along and do things like hold things and stand in line.“ He also happens to be a friend and 6’4″which came in handy for Brenner’s next tip: “bring a friend to protect your turf since there is often a team hoarding of four or more shoppers” and “act as a mirror” explaining there often isn’t one. While there was a mirror in the dressing room, it was great to get some live feedback. Bonus: my colleague got on the huge line to pay while I did a second round in the dressing room.
Tip #4: Get into survival mode.
Sample sales are the opposite of that scene in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts shopping. Sample sales are more like an episode of Survivor, and I wish I had prepared accordingly. Two tips I definitely could have used before I went: Brenner says, “Don’t Jamba Juice, Starbucks or ingest any other liquids before you go as there is rarely a bathroom.” Another rookie mistake? I wore heels. Very high heels. Brenner says, “wear flats: bring heels. You want to be comfortable moving back and forth around the floor and able to carry large armloads of clothing without falling over.” Having the heels with you Donlon says are for getting an idea of a “full look when trying items on.”
Tip#5: Most dressing rooms are communal so come prepared.
I had heard about the dressing rooms at sample sales (one of my key sample sale fears) and the communal dressing room at this sample sale did not disappoint. A woman barked at me to take my place in the back corner. Women were in various stages of undress next to what seemed like an entire store’s worth of inventory, making my items seem like an appetizer. Feeling timid, I stood dumbly by my pile, trying to remember what undergarments I was wearing this morning (getting dressed with a two year old that insists on simultaneously undressing you can make it uncertain that you are in fact, wearing undergarments.) Brucker offers this advice: “Wear undergarments you like. Most sample sale changing rooms are communal which means you will be changing in front of other women.” The idea of getting undressed in what felt like one of those high-school-cafeteria-naked-dreams was making it hard to stay and I began to rationalize the price tags. At $25, does it really matter if they don’t fit? Lucikly, I avoided making another rookie mistake and after what felt like an eternity jumped in with two feet. Which according to Bruker was the right thing to do. She says, “Don’t skip the trying on part no matter how unpleasant. Sample sales are final sale and trying on is a MUST. If you feel conservative, try a nude cami and boy shorts so that you don’t feel too naked as you change.” This tip doubles as a time saver according to Dolan who says wearing the cami/boy shorts combo is good for speed, “This way you can try tops on right at the rack or while you’re waiting in line for the real dressing room.” I will definitely remember that next time.
Tip #6: Check every inch of your garment.
I turned my attention to my most prized piece of clothing: a Helmut Lang white tuxedo blazer I had also been in search of to replace one I had worn well past its prime. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but standing under the fluorescent lights, there is a large black streak on the shoulder. Brucker warns: “Check every inch of the garment. Look for holes, snags, tears and more. While you may be getting the best price on something, it’s still worth knowing what you are getting yourself into when you purchase it.” She explains, “if it’s not mendable, it’s not worth it.” Rookie mistake or delusion by price tag, either way, sadly I took the blazer. My rational at the time for purchasing a garment I can never actually wear? I’m growing my hair out and will keep it down and over the spot.
Tip #7: Do not covet thy neighbor’s items.
Except for the white linen dress, my pile was largely a bust. A young Asian woman next to me with a similar body type had 15 more styles of white pants that I had apparently missed. She also had an entourage (clearly a sample sale veteran). She put on a pair that I absolutely loved. After turning back and forth and back and forth and doing several circuit like training moves in the pants, she rejected them (or at least that is what I interpreted the nose crinkling, head-shaking to be.) She took them off and dumped them in a pile of other discarded items. Without thinking, I asked her if she was going to take them. It quickly became obvious she didn’t speak English nor did anyone else in her group. I motioned and mimed in my best infant fashionista that if she didn’t want them, I would take them, peppering with “fit”, “my body is your body” and “me want”. They got the last part and immediately her friend grabbed them and started shaking her head no. Her other friend shook her head no. And then she joined in. Unbeknownst to me I made another rookie mistake. According to Busayo Michelle Olupona of busyayoonyc.com, “never ask in the communal dressing room, “Are you going to take that?” Olupona explains, “Once those words leave your lips, you make the piece all the more desirable.” She warns, “Don’t even look at the piece that sparks your interest. You have a 50/50 chance that the person leaves the piece and then you can pounce.” Ultimately, she took it ,and I was left to head back out to the sea of white trousers in search of this one style I could only discern on the hanger by the small button.
Tip #8: Know how alterations work and familiarize yourself with their cost.
Back outside, my colleague had scored a blazer and shirt, paid and was ready to go. I came out of the dressing room drained but on a mission: find those white pants. We split up to search and incredibly, he found them only in the wrong size. Perhaps I can blame this next rookie mistake on the sample sale delirium setting in, or the place having no air, bathrooms or having lost all sense of time and place. But considering how hard we had worked to find them, the price, and the fact that they were the EXACT white pants I had been searching for, I decided to go for it. Mariana Leung, founder and editor of Ms.FABulous Media, a fashion blog and who has two decades in the fashion industry and as a designer and shopper has worked the sample sales from both sides advises, “Before you compromise on fit or color or damages, ask yourself if you would have considered the item at full price. Also ask yourself if you would buy it if it had an unknown designer’s name on the label.” Once home, I tried the pants on again. Having returned to reality, it appeared from the sagging in-seam and butt the pants were going to have to be completely re-made. My trusted tailor confirmed my suspicions at a price that well exceeded my savings and perhaps the original cost of the pants.
Tip #9: Bring cash.
And for my last rookie mistake: Luckily, the Theory/Helmut Lang sample sale took credit cards. Donlan explains, “credit cards should be accepted but they aren’t always and sometimes they don’t inform patrons of this till the very end aka when you are on line waiting to pay.” After all of that, the horror!
Tip #10: Do your research.
Despite my ups and downs, I see why sample sales can be addictive, and I’m ready to get back out there. Brucker says, “Let Twitter guide you! Use Twitter to search “#samplesaleNYC” to get instant access to sample sales happening at that exact moment.” If you don’t want to go that far, racked.com and Newyorkmagazine.com are both great places to find out about sample sales around the city.