Tuesday, September 11, 2007

First Job Fashion

I've gotten a few e-mails recently from recent college grads starting their first jobs this fall with a closet full of casual clothes and a very tiny budget to shop for a professional wardrobe. I can sympathize with their dilemma, as I've had to build up a small collection of interview and internship-appropriate clothes in the last year. Shopping for professional clothes can be a humbling experience if you're a college student or recent grad on a budget, especially if you're in a major city and have recently realized that 80% of your income will go toward renting a shoebox apartment in a dumpy neighborhood. Thank you, liberal arts education.

The first step to building a work wardrobe is to find out what clothes you need. "Work-appropriate attire" can vary greatly between industries, and even between similar companies. You want to make sure you have a good feel for what's acceptable within your company, and don't start shopping until then. I bought a lot of button-down shirts, conservative heels and dress skirts before I started my internship at an advertising agency this summer, only to get on the job and find that most of the people I worked with wore jeans and casual shoes every day. The exception was when they met with clients, when suits were the norm. I also found that people in different departments or on different brands dressed differently.

My suggestion is to talk to someone at the company or in the industry and ask for advice about what clothes you'll need, but only buy a few items before you start working. Once you've been there a couple of weeks, you'll get a better feel for what you need, and you're less likely to waste money on items you won't use.

Assuming you aren't lucky enough to have a job where you can wear whatever you want every day, you probably need a lot of business or business casual clothes. Those Theory suits hanging in the windows of Bergdorf's are gorgeous, but they probably cost as much as your weekly salary. My advice is to stay away from the department stores, as they'll tempt you to spend outside of your budget. So where do you go for work-appropriate clothes you can actually afford?

Outlet malls: If you have access to a car and there's an outlet mall within a couple hours of your city, take a day trip with a couple friends and hit the outlets. I've had great luck at finding huge discounts on really high quality pieces (if you find a suit marked down from $500 too $100 and it's just a little big, buy it and tailor it), not to mention good discounts on already reasonably priced clothes.

Target: The Isaac Mizrahi line is great for reasonably priced work clothes, and you can find other staples for less (nylons, bras and underwear, socks, belts, etc). They also have a great selection of purses (though this varies by season).

Loehmann's/TJ Maxx/Marshall's/Filene's Basement: Digging through racks of discount clothes can be exhausting, but the work pays off once you score a great piece for close to nothing. The turnover is really high at these stores, so if you don't find much on your first trip, check back in a week or two and you might have better luck.

H&M: Though the quality can vary a ton, I've generally been impressed by H&M's selection of work clothes. You'll find solid basics (pencil skirts, dress pants, suit jackets) and trendier pieces to accessorize with. The big city stores get picked over quickly though, so try to find out when they're getting new shipments and shop early in the day.

Thrift stores: There are a lot of great thrift stores out there, and a few minutes of Googling will help you find the best and biggest ones in your area.

When budgeting, spend the most on pieces that you know you'll wear a ton and that won't go out of style by next season. But as I stated earlier, make sure you know for sure what those pieces will be before you buy.

Anyone else have advice for building a work wardrobe on a budget?


Cristina said...

I bought almost all my work clothes on ebay. The rest I bought in thrift stores. I think I bought one button up from the GAP. Wrap dresses are almost always work appropriate. I started with dresses since you only have to buy 1 piece, versus 3 pieces for a suit! Shoes you should buy in person and if you find a style you really like, buy it in black and brown. You'll wear your shoes more than any other item in your wardrobe, so value them accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Great tips! One more: if you're just beginning to build a professional wardrobe, pick a color. That is, choose either neutrals that go with black (shoes, bags) or neutrals that go with brown (shoes, bags)--this makes your wardrobe a little duller, but saves money, and you can always branch out later. You could even choose a single neutral color (grey is one I like, as it's versatile and never too harsh) and build everything around that.

Anonymous said...

I've had great success with Ann Taylor LOFT. The prices are lower than Ann Taylor, and they always have great steals in the store. I've bought skirts for under $10!

Kelly Mahoney said...

I bought a lot of black and khaki, then some colorful dress shirts so I had a lot of options. JcPenney has some great work clothes for super cheap -- I got a cute suit there for $35.

Brava97 said...

Macy's moves things to the clearance racks very quickly because they're always getting new merchandise. I have purchased several pairs of nice work slacks for under $15 (that were originally $40 or more) off the clearance racks. (I don't usually buy skirts, but I'm sure they're on the rack, too.) With a good pair of slacks and a feminine-cut button-down blouse or sweater top, I think you're always dressed appropriately for the office.

Anonymous said...

I like Express for pants and skirts that are styled like Theory items.

Sarah said...

I just started a new PR job on July 30. I already had a few black suits, dark gray suits and some business casual staples, but I needed some high-profile outfits. The summer-to-fall transition period is a little weird, so I bought a brown and white Ann Taylor wrap dress on clearance, a brown Limited pinstripe 3/4 length sleeve suit, a beige Limited linen-blend suit and a light gray Limited blazer, skirt and pants. I mix and match the light gray Limited stuff with my black stuff and accent my outfits with colorful shirts and scarves. Mixing and matching works for me. In my work environment, you can get away with no blazer if you're wearing a skirt, so often I wear an oxford shirt with a skirt and low heels. I also invested in a wide black belt that I wear high-waisted over these shirts, which is kind of stylish here in the mid-west.

By the way, I've been really disappointed with everything I've bought from H&M ... I guess I'm just unlucky. I really like the Limited, Express, Ann Taylor and Macy's. I used to like J. Crew, but agree with Meg's assessment that they've gone nuts.

Anonymous said...

I've been in the working world for a few years, and one thing I've learned the hard way is: buy quality not quantity. You may find a $12 top at Forever 21 or H&M, but a year later will it still be wearable? Or will you still want to wear it? I really recommend hitting the sales racks of stores like Anthropologie, Gap, Bananna Republic and Department Stores. Go in with a firm budget and when some pricey eye candy calls out, remind yourself of why you're there. A few great pieces can lay a firm foundation for a fabulous wardrobe.

Anita said...

Once you get an idea of what brands work for you, and your size within those brands, try going to your local Goodwill stores. I have lost and gained weight in the last three years and have picked out a wardrobe for both sizes at Goodwill. Talbots and Ann Taylor are labels I love. In my area, Target stores now donate their unsold merchandise to Goodwill and pieces sometimes turn up that are still available on the Target website! Also, if a person is a plus size, Land Bryant has some great workwear; so do etailers like Land's End, LL Bean and Eddie Bauer, for all sizes.

Perry said...

The Guerilla Shopper actually just just had an interesting post on the quality of apparel found in discount stores: http://guerillashopper.blogspot.com/2007/

And I have to agree, sometimes the quality isn't so good; I've had stuff fall apart sometimes. Also have to agree with previous commenters; the Gap usually has good sales as well as Ann Taylor and Express (great for their Editor pants!).

becka said...

I am in love with Express Editor pants. I have 2 pair, 1 brown, and 1 dark gray. They are a bit pricey, but sometimes they have them on sale, and i usually get at least 1 express gift card for christmas, so that helps too :-) They are definitely worth it though. They fit wonderfully, and somehow manage to look professional, and, as my sister likes to say "schmexy, but not tooo schmexy".

I also agree on making an investment on a good, classic pair of black shoes, and 1 brown. Then you can buy those cute shiny red flats when they're on sale at marshall's but when they go out of style, you'll still have your basics to fall back on, until you find that next pair of trendy inexpensive shoes. (I actually own the shiny red flats from Marshall's, and i love them, but i know that in a few months they'll be old news, so i only spent $20 on them)
For tops, you can wear just about anything, if you have the basic pants/skirts. Just use your common sense when buying stuff. (maybe put on your "grandma hat")