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Dress for Success: 10 tips for ladder climbing fashionistas on a budget

The verdict is in: people who dress well earn more money.

In a Utopia, we would not be judged on our appearance. But that, unfortunately, is not the world we live in. There are statistics now proving not only that people who maintain more professional appearances earn more money, but that people who do so feel more powerful when they do. The proof is in the numbers. If you want to make more money, or just stand a bit taller and prouder, the odds are better if you dress a notch above the current status quo. If you still don’t believe how you dress affects how you feel, the latest on such findings is here.

Luckily for you and me, the last decade brought with it daily deal sites such as Groupon, which worked their way into more curated sites such as Gilt Groupe. Eventually the deals entered into the world of online fashion. And now you can find nearly every designer in the world featured for  50% to 90% off in a small number of online stores such as Gilt, HauteLook, Ideel, Rue La La, and The Outnet.

Long gone are the days of clearance racks filled with the clothing no one wants, in ugly colors, ill-fitted shapes, and dizzying patterns. It’s a deal purchaser’s marketplace out there now. Current-season Christian Louboutin, Chanel, Helmut Lang, Alexis Bittar, Rachel Pally, and nearly any other label currently being sold for full price at Barney’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom … it’s highly likely you’ll find them on one of these online stores, deeply discounted.

However, there are “tricks” to these sites. Some are better than others. I’m here to guide you through the quirks of each, so you get the best deals before someone else snatches that Givenchy Nightingale handbag or Diane von Furstenberg silk dress right out from under your Lanvin love-ringed fingers.


Major discounts for fashionistas willing to spend serious money on high end fashion labels, jewelry, home furnishings and accoutrements. Many of the pieces are from this season.

Exceptional customer service. A phone number is offered where associates assist you while speaking in gorgeous English accents. You might be able to sweet-talk them into refunds on “no refund” on occasion. (Don’t tell them I told you).

Free shipping is given on all future purchases up to 29 days, after you make an initial purchase.

Credits acquired from shopping, or even just viewing the site every day without buying anything,  can be applied as discounts, and to purchase other goodies.

The Insider Program. Offers even more benefits and allows you access to shop the sales one hour before everyone else. This often makes the difference in getting that bag you want, or not.

The Waitlist. Anything I love, but sold out in my size, is added to the Waitlist. Nine time out of ten, the item returns to the site, and an email alerts me that I have a second chance to buy.

While deeply discounted, many prices are still higher than most people want to pay.

Most items can only be returned for credit. Some, not at all. The ones that can be returned seem to be always the highest-priced luxury items.


Major discounts on many luxury labels you’d find at Nordstrom, but mixed with more casual everyday wear at lower prices than you would find there.

Prices are often a few dollars lower for the exact same item on other competitor sites.

Excellent return policy. You can return by mail for a fee, or better yet, return within 90 days to any Nordstrom Rack, free of charge.

Customer service is solid and quick through online chat or phone.

For those looking for a more curated fashion experience, Gilt would be a better choice.

Taking returns to Nordstrom Rack can wind up having you spend more money in the store.


Deeply discounted fashion that includes some new and lesser-known designers mixed in with high-end fashion and everyday wear. Great deals to be found, for sure.

A mid-range discount price point is the norm, making this an affordable option for basics.

Not having the customer service of Gilt, or the easy return policy of HauteLook, this online store is left scrambling to offer something to put them at the same level.

While new designers are featured, which separates them from the better-known labels on the first two sites, much of it is ill-fitting made-in-China clothing that leaves much to be desired.

This site, above all others, offers deals that are so good you will be tempted to purchase non-returnable items. They may make one exception for a return, with a good story offered, but no more after that.

Refunds are often very slow to return, and I have caught some that have been missed.

Customer service is online only, slow, and hit or miss for the most part, in my experience.

Rue La La

Like Ideel, the selection of deeply-discounted fashion and home goods is mixed, with varying price points, allowing nearly every shopper to find a good deal.

You aren’t even allowed to look at what they have to offer until you sign up for a membership.

Once you put an item in your cart, unlike other sites that put a timer on how long you have before someone else can purchase it, Rue La La lets other shoppers take the item right out of your cart. With the nature of the deal sites making everything limited in selection and sizing, and each purchase costing a shipping fee, this makes shopping at Rue La La feel, less like a race for fashion deals, and more like a ticking time bomb of disappointment.

The Outnet

A partner company of Net-A-Porter, this is arguably the most curated shopping experience for discounted designer labels, but there are no hurried ticking-clock time limits like the other sites mentioned. No games, just drop dead gorgeous fashion at semi-affordable prices.

There are high-end labels on this site that it would be unusual to find on the others, even Gilt. Such as Rick Owens, Roland Mouret, and Issa of London. I was able to get a sold-out Lanvin two-finger love ring for 50% of its original price. It was the last one online, anywhere, for less than full price, which was not in my price range.

On any given day, you can Google items selling on The Outnet for 50% off that are still selling for full price elsewhere online.

With more time to browse, you’ll make fewer buying mistakes than on other time-sensitive sites.

If you purchase an item and it is further reduced within the next five days, they will give you a refund for the reduced price.

The customer service is excellent and returns are issued faster than any other site on this list.

While a dream for women use to spending serious money on clothing, and a source of clothing to last a lifetime, this store’s prices may be out of reach for some budgets.

Selection is very limited. While the other sites normally offer at least one of each item, The Outnet might have a piece in only one size and when it’s gone it may never return.

While further discounts can happen, you will not want to wait to purchase, because the risk of sell-out is so high.

Shop to Win: Final Tips for building a fashionista’s wardrobe, on a recessionista budget

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Tip Number One

Sales start promptly at the listed time. Thousands of women are lined up to get all the great handbags and shoes meant for you. If you aren’t fast enough, within minutes, you may find your size is already gone. This is a war, over very few available items in your size, so the shopping gods favor the quick and decisive.

If you aren’t a Gilt Insider, or are one of the majority who aren’t allowed access to look at the items beforehand, you will want to jump right into the designers listed that you know you love. Set the sizing at the top of your page and scroll through every color you don’t or won’t wear as quickly as possible. Anything in your size and color and price point that you might love, put it in the cart. You can have a better look in a few minutes before the cart expires.

Gilt has a handy tool where you can scroll over each item’s picture and see the available sizes and price. This is genius. It saves a lot of time. Don’t click on the picture, just select the items in the size and color you think you might want. And remember, putting the item in your cart only holds it for up to 14 minutes, so keep your eye on the clock.

Tip Number Two

Once you have filled your cart, go through each item carefully. First, every item that says “not returnable” must be deleted from the cart. I don’t care how cute it is. I know it’s the best deal of them all. I know you think you want it. Trust me, you will regret buying it. If it has a No Returns status given to it, something is invariably wrong with it. The fit is off, or it has some weird detail you can’t see in the photo… don’t waste time thinking about it. Just let it go.

Likewise, the next level to be considered is the Return For Credit Only level. Is trying this item worth potentially having to shop there again if it doesn’t work out? For me, it is. But not for everyone. If you aren’t OK with Gilt holding your money for the next clothing gambling round, as I am, buy only the items that say Refundable.

Tip Number Three

Next, carefully weigh your remaining options. Weigh price versus desire, versus practicality.

How many times will you wear it, do you already own something just like it (guilty), are you having a moment where you are fantasizing about attending a polo match or picnic in whatever you are about to buy but in real life wear all black in a rainy city? (Don’t judge me). Is the phrase “I will look so cute in this if I lose some weight” going through your mind as you look at the item? Or are you thinking “This is such a good deal. Maybe I’ll wear it because it’s such a great price”?  If so, remove the item from your cart, immediately.

These sites are for fashionistas what crack is to an addict. Listen to your inner voice and, based on what it’s telling you, buy only what you will wear and can afford.

Tip Number Four

Check the sizing graph next to the item’s description to make sure you have a chance in hell of it fitting. I highly recommend buying dresses with a bit of nylon or lycra in them for stretch. This assures the fit will be even more likely. Don’t buy anything sleeveless if you hate your arms, don’t buy anything shorter than a pencil skirt if you hate your knees. Things you can try on because “maybe it will work this time” are not OK to order in your real life, right now.

This is a fast-moving, high-risk shopping situation and you don’t have time or money for daydreaming. The majority of those returns will cost you in shipping fees. This is time to get real.

Tip Number Five

If you are running out of time, and still want (or need) to shop, do not let your cart expire. There is some other woman stalking that pair of Jimmy Choos in your cart. The minute your cart expires, she will pounce and you will lose those kitten heels, you would have loved like no other, forever.

Don’t loose those heels. Start the process of placing your order before the time runs completely out. You won’t have to go all the way through with it, but the clock will start over and give you up to another 15 minutes to go through each item carefully before making a final decision.

You’re welcome. Happy shopping, you smart, savvy, fashionista, you.

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