Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shopping For Wardrobe Basics: Eileen Fisher

Silky sleeveless tunic, pencil skirt, 'oval' sweater with skinny arms by Eileen Fisher

oh, have i missed you guys! I have been adjusting to Mr. E's new work schedule (i drive him to the bus stop in the morning and pick him up at nite), on top of that my grandma turned 100 and we had a big family party down in Fresno. But i'm getting my balance again, logistically. But at the same time, i've been bursting with wardrobe/sewing ideas and research, with concepts tumbling through my brain much more quickly than i can blog them. One of these ideas is that i am much more interested in presenting concepts that will help people pull together their own wardrobes and personal styles than i am blogging about my outfits of the day. I am sure i will use my own clothes to illustrate these concepts, as they are ready to hand, but the emphasis will be on the concepts.  This blog has been trending in the 'concept' direction for a while now anyways, so i hope that making this direction more explicit will help me write more helpful, easy to understand posts.  And as always, send me your questions or ideas - pygmyowl at sbcglobal dot com.

Now, on to today's topic - shopping for basics. These pieces go by many names: essentials, the glue that holds the wardrobe together, the cake (not frosting), the veggies (not dessert). The perfect white tee, the black dress you can style up or down, the uber flattering black pencil skirt or trousers. Stylists and wardrobe experts sing the praises of these items, but in the blogging world and in real life shopping they do not get a lot of love. It's understandable, as their charms are subtle and are more likely to unfold in a long term relationship, rather than in a passionate but short-lived affair. So, how to find 'the one' when you only have a few minutes together in a bland little room?

ponte sheath with stretch silk lining - heaven to wear!
About two months ago i decided that i was secure enough in my personal style and wardrobe requirements to put a bigger investment in my clothing. This means, for me, higher quality fabrics and better construction techniques, and a commitment to fewer nicer pieces. My vision is to develop a number of 'tried and true' sewing patterns for these pieces so i can keep the closet populated with these workhorses (as long as i keep at the sewing machine).  To begin, I re-doubled my research on 'closet vegetables', those staple pieces which form the backbone of a well-oiled wardrobe, in a quest to develop my own list of personal essentials.

In my search for inspiration i became quite enamored of Eileen Fisher's take on essentials. First, i appreciated that she explicitly addresses this concept with her 'System' pieces. You can find these items in the store by looking at the hang tags - system items have a little clock on their tag. And i loved the aesthetic of these pieces - wonderful fabrics that feel good and perform well, cuts that work with the body, and stylish design that adds interest while allowing the piece to honestly play it's 'background' role.

Eileen's famous stretch ponte pencil skirt with my own Merona tee
All very yummy. But for those of us with less mainstream styles, it can be well nigh impossible to visualize these pieces playing productively in our closet. Many Urban Warrior Princesses struggle with just this issue - they could really use some veggies, but where do mistresses of RATE and ALGO fly in Ms. Fisher's flock of serene, impeccably groomed, flats-wearing meditation queens?

To answer just this question, after dropping my brother off at Oakland International Airport the other day i spent an hour at the Eileen Fisher outlet in Marina Square, San Leandro. I learned a lot about the role veggies in my own personal style and aspirational wardrobe.  Here's what i did that made this expedition worthwhile:

Take along your trademark accessories. I brought a hat, some pearls, a belt, and the "fakeskin" heels i wore all summer. I would be likely to wear these pieces with any basics so it made sense to take them into the dressing room. You will notice that putting these 'trademark's together with a whole meal of veggies does a couple of things. To begin, it makes outfits out of these basics. As well, it makes these outfits look like my outfits. It's hard to visualize a plain black skirt as 'you' when you're standing in stocking feet and an old, dingy bra, hair full of static from the dozens of garments pulled over your head.  Frankly, that is a tall order for any garment.  And you aren't going to be wearing that skirt 'styled' in that manner, anyway. So make the effort and style these pieces in the dressing room.

A little diversion: Kismet at work! Lisanne of sewingplum's blog has an excellent post up on sewing a wardrobe of basics and deriving the style interest solely from accessories. Lisanne is working from Janice's concept of the common wardrobe. View Janice's many takes on accessorizing the common wardrobe here. All of the pictures in this post illustrate this idea.

Bring a couple of 'frosting' pieces you think you will want to wear with these basics. I didn't do this, though i did try on the pencil skirt with a vee neck tee from my closet. But when i was in the dressing room i realized how smart it would have been to have a jacket, coat, statement blouse, or boots. I will do this on my next 'veggie safari', even if it's 95F outside and all i want to wear is my skivvies!

i want this rayon spandex dress! style could not be easier.

Take pictures and/or a trusted friend. This goes double if you have trouble wrapping your mind around essentials and how they would work with your own non-mainstream style. Both suggestions will help you get some objectivity and think about these pieces in a more practical manner. Trying on clothes can be a very emotional experience in the best of circumstances. When you are stretching your comfort zone it can be downright fraught. You want to be able to see beyond the emotions, so bring a camera and a friend. A camera can also take notes for you - take pictures of the labels for price, style, and fiber content. It's also helpful to take closeups of hard to see design or construction details.

These suggestions should help you to figure out if these pieces really will stretch your wardrobe. Eileen Fisher's pieces are very well cut, very very comfy, the fabrics droolingly exquisite. I would happily invite many of her items to stay in my closet! But i cannot afford $160 for a pencil skirt. The amazing wool knit wrap in the first picture in this post was almost $200 on deep deep discount. What are some ways to get this type of groove going in the closet at an investment i can realistically make?

Buy designer pieces on sale, with coupons, on consignment and on e-bay.  If you go this route, do your homework. Investigate as many different options as you can, because pricing is complicated and fluid and doesn't work in a 'sensible' way.For example: I went to Eileen Fisher's outlet thinking i would find great prices. I found many of last season's pieces at 25-50% off of retail. I found a fair selection of 'system' pieces (my main interest) but all were offered at full retail pricing. Fiddlesticks!

However, the next week i was at Macy's Broadway Plaza. Macy's was having a store-wide sale where everything was at least 20-30% off, and many pieces had a 25-40% price cut on top of the store wide discount. When the math was done, new 'system' pieces could be had for 60-70% of retail (or even less if you use a Macy's credit card, like Mr. E does). There was a nice selection of styles, sizes, and petites and plus offerings. Which just goes to show that you need to search search search to get your best price.

tunic from first pic, pencil skirt. silk jersey collapses against the body and packs beautifully.
Buy knock-offs. The key here is to educate yourself about the cut, construction, and fabric used in the designer pieces so that you can choose a good quality knock off. It makes no sense to buy a cheesy knock off just because it costs less money - if it doesn't fit and flatter, the fabric pills, and seams fall apart. I have seen pieces of good quality and really nice design offered at many price points. But you won't have the confidence to snap these pieces up if you aren't familiar with 'the real thing'. Again, do your homework by going to the originals, trying them on, feeling the fabric and investigating the seams and interfacing, and reading the fibre content labels.  Don't worry about taking up the sales people's time. Just tell them you love the label but you have a limited budget so you need to really take your time deciding what you can realistically buy. (If you tell them you're 'just looking' they may decide you're ripe for an impulse buy, so i have become leery of using that phrase.)

Pursue custom made. Even if you can afford designer retail prices, for around that amount of money you can have a piece custom made by a tailor or seamstress. This may be a great option if you have special fitting concerns, fabric preferences, etc.  And of course many women use Eileen Fisher's approach as inspiration for their own wardrobe sewing projects.

I've certainly learned a lot about wardrobe essentials/basics by studying Eileen Fisher's take on this concept. What is your experience with this part of the closet - do you find you appreciate and depend on your 'veggies', or are you so enamored by 'dessert' that you worry about becoming 'malnourished'?  In the last couple of months i've acquired a couple of pretty basic 'essentials' and i find myself practically living in them, especially when life gets hectic. This has confirmed the wisdom of my plan to head in this direction and focus on a core of basics before focusing on the fun pieces. What say you?