Navigating Mainstream Retail Stores Like a 17 Year-Old When You Are So…Like…OMG, Not 17.
I have designer Ken, of Project Runway fame, to thank for the inspiration for this post, having struck a chord in me when he recently uttered the comment "I don't design for 40 year-old women" in front of millions of viewers. The producers must have been delighted with that little controversial sound byte, even if the designer himself will one day (if he hasn't already) come to the realisation that he has just crossed every fashion editor, let alone every woman with a long-standing professional job (and therefore money to buy designer clothes) off of his client list. What's that Iman? You want to walk in my runway show? Nope. Sorry, you're over forty. Lauren Hutton, you want to wear one of my tailored menswear-inspired pieces? I think not.
Though we have certainly seen this type of ageism before from the designers on Project Runway, I am happy to report that in the real world, things are a whole lot better, whether we realise it or not. I hear people all the time saying that they can't, or won't shop at some of the major fashion retailers because they feel they are over the age threshold. In my opinion, this is unfortunate, and I would encourage anyone who has ever felt that they had a "Ken" moment while shopping to not let that put you off. The people who really, truly think like that are fewer than the marketing campaigns would have you believe. Sure, you get your odd character like the (being polite here) unfortunate Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, who is constantly sticking his foot in it regarding everything from plus-sizing to the attractiveness of his staff, but the resulting bad press, not to mention the vertical stock plunges, speak for themselves and act as a type of fashion poetic justice.
There are some treasures to be found in fast fashion, to be sure. There are a whole lot of stinkers as well, more stinkers than treasures really, but the treasures are out there, you just have to be patient and enjoy the hunt.
How to Navigate The Mainstream Retailers Like Your 17 Year-Old Self, Only Smarter
1. Shopper, Know Thyself
If you are a member of the 40+ brigade (and even if you're not), you probably already have a very keen sense of what size you are, having had 40-odd years to familiarise yourself with it. Know your measurements, know what fits you. You can quite often tell just by looking at something if it will fit or not based on the cut, the shape of the waistband, whatever your thing is.
2. Try It On
One of the wonderful things about the large retailers is the large, anonymous dressing rooms. No pressure, oftentimes no waiting either. Try everything on, even if it is just a t-shirt. I am always surprised by how something either disappoints or surprises me once it is on my body.
3. Feel Everything Up
Okay, maybe not everything (you don't want to get arrested), but definitely feel the fabrications of the garments. I very often will be drawn to something from across the store, and when I get up close, once I have felt the fabric, walk away without even bothering. Cheap fabric has been the undoing of mass retail, so tread carefully. I avoid overly viscose-y things, anything being marketed as "burnout", things that look flaccid on the hanger, and those sheer flimsy polyester blousettes that are so prevalent.
4. Do Not Fear the Teenage Sizing
Sure, if you are plus sized, or even what they call a transitional size (US sizes 8, 10 and 12), or have a tall inseam (I am two of those three things) you may struggle with limitations in certain stores (Forever 21, Zara), while others yet will perplex you with their overly-generous sizing (Gap, Old Navy). By and large, humans are getting bigger every year at every point of the age spectrum, and retail is following suit. I always grab a size bigger and a size smaller that I think I need before going into the dressing room.
5. Beware the Knitwear
If you've been following, you will already know that I have a real beef with the nosedive in quality that knitwear has suffered in recent times. I tend to avoid mass market retail knitwear altogether, but I do make some exceptions. Look for material that has a good hand feel to it; something that holds its shape and has some weight to it. Cotton is always a safe bet. I tend to disregard acrylics altogether, though I do profess to having one in my cache that I could not live without (I hasten to add it passes the fabric hand and weight tests with flying colours). With knitwear, hanger appeal tells you a lot. If it looks terrible in the shop, leave it there.
6. Exercise Free Reign With Accessories; Bags and Shoes, Not So Much
Mass retail accessories are where the fun is at. There are all sorts of cool collaborations out there and a wide variety to choose from, and it is virtually guilt-free spending. That navy blue enamel Old Navy bracelet in the collage above was purchased for $1. Yep.
Shoes are a little more tricky. Cheap plastic shoes can be very conspicuous. They make your feet stink, and have a certain sound quality on the pavement that you can identify from a mile away. That, and they hurt like hell. Some of the major retailers like Topshop and River Island are foraying into some nicer footwear (that is, with better materials), but you still have to search. I will occasionally pop for a cheap pair of little fabric ballet flats, but for anything else, I feel you are better off investing in something more substantial. Bags are all so different, you have to take each individually. Some mass marketed cloth and synthetic bags are quite lovely, while others give me the heebie-jeebies. My rule of thumb is that if I can smell that plastic-rubber-toxic smell coming off of it (you know the one), it stays where it is. Rightly so.