The phrase "shopping on a budget" means different things to different people. To some, a $20 budget might only buy a tube of lipstick. For others, it can buy an entire dress. Fashion aficionado Tim Gunn can tell you what it won't buy. "Not to sound disparaging toward anyone, but when people cite J.Crew as budget shopping—it really isn't," he says.
Long before Project Runway, one of Gunn's students at Parsons The New School for Design reminded him of what budget shopping means. "I can remember during my teaching days a very sobering moment in class," Gunn says. "We were having a discussion, and one of my students from upstate New York said, 'I just want all of you to know'—meaning all of you in the class—'where I grew up, the Gap was considered exotic shopping. For me, going to the Gap was like going to Bergdorf Goodman because the only other options we had were Wal-Mart and Kmart.' She said it was a specialty store, so don't knock it, everybody."
Gunn is sharing his fashion advice for every budget, advice anyone can benefit from. "I'm all for budget shopping, no matter how deep your pockets may be," he says. "I really feel people who shop on a budget and who are mindful of that make better decisions than people who just can spend recklessly—because that's exactly what they do. They end up having reckless items that really don't work together."
Gunn says he's frequently asked by men and women what of-the-moment item to buy. He says his response is Socratic. "I come back with them with a series of questions," he says. Before you shop, ask yourself:
What do you wear with frequency?
What kind of items do you resonate with?
What do you believe you really need?
The last—and most important question—usually leaves people mute, Gunn says. "They don't have a response to that question because they honestly don't know."
Those who have watched Tim Gunn's Guide to Style can answer that question. He's said it before, and he's saying it again. There are 10 essential items every woman should own:
1. Basic black dress
2. Trench coat
3. Classic dress pants
4. White shirt
6. Cashmere sweater
8. Day dress
10. A comfortable alternative to the sweatsuit
Gunn's favorite item is number nine. "The one item on that list of 10 that I believe every woman and every man has to have is a blazer, a sport coat or a dressy jacket," he says. "For a woman, that can be a shrunken jacket, it could be a menswear-tailored jacket, whatever it is that's appropriate for her needs."
A great blazer is a simple way to dress up a casual outfit, Gunn says. "You can go almost anywhere if you just don a blazer or a jacket. It's so easy. I tell people, even in a very casual work life, keep a blazer on the back of your chair or on a hook behind your door," he says. If your boss calls you in for a meeting, throw it on. "It's saying: 'I respect you. I care about how I'm presenting myself to you.'" For the Moderate Budget
Before setting foot in a store, Gunn says to shop your own closet. "People are delving into the back of their closet and pulling out items they haven't seen in a long time, so people tend to not be investing in apparel these days," he says.
Instead of buying something new, think about spending part of your budget on tailoring clothes you already own. "For most of us, we just can't wear things off the rack," Gunn says. "Those of us who can are very fortunate and in a minority, frankly." Send them to a dry cleaner, a friend or pull your own Project Runway and learn how to sew. "But even I hate hemming pants, so I send them out," Gunn says.
To enliven a well-worn outfit, indulge in fun jewelry like a statement-making necklace, bracelet or cocktail ring. "You don't have to spend more than $30 or $20," he says. "I just find with most women that a new accessory just perks them up, improves their morale, and they feel as though they have an item that they can wear with lots of different outfits and to different occasions." For the Nonexistent Budget
One of Gunn's favorite style tips is actually free, although for him it's the result of 12 long childhood years of piano practice: good posture. "We look better, people perceive us more positively and we look as though were completely confident in how we're presenting ourselves to the world," he says. "You can be immaculately dressed, and if you have poor posture, then you're not going to be able to pull it off."
Gunn is constantly keeping his posture in check, but even he experiences the midday slump from spending hours in front of a computer. He's working on his second book (on a subject he may know even more about than fashion: modern manners) and says he pretends the keyboard is a piano to keep himself from slouching. "It just helps," he says. "But, of course, I have the advantage of having played the piano. Does anyone play the piano anymore?"
The bottom line is, blowing your rent money on one outfit isn't dressing to impress. What matters, he says, is how you present yourself. "So many people say to me, 'Oh, I'm not a fashion person,'" Gunn says. "Well, I don't expect you to be a fashion person. What I do expect you to accept responsibility for is how you present yourself to the world. It's the semiotics of clothes: The clothes we wear send a message to the world about how we want to be perceived. So accept responsibility for that."