Just about everybody agrees that if you can afford to buy only one thing this season, it had better be a skirt.
But not just any skirt. Whether you shop at Saks Fifth Avenue or Express, a long, lean, leggy skirt -- preferably with a slit up to there -- is the best investment for the fashion-conscious this fall, say those in the know.
Investment shopping is something most of us have to think about come the beginning of the fall season, when we spend most of our fashion money for the year.
There are plenty of ways you can update your wardrobe for the fall without going broke. The good buys are out there:
* Inexpensive items -- accents -- that make last year's clothes look au courant. (Like an animal print scarf, $9 from Marshall's.)
* Not-so-inexpensive additions that are going to be "keepers." Explains Nancy Sachs of Saks Fifth Avenue, "I have a Ralph Lauren gray flannel pants suit, a man's tailored suit I bought I don't want to tell you how long ago. We're bringing back his collection this year. I saw it and realized I already own it!" Nothing's hotter than the menswear look right now; she can team it with a feminine shirt to soften it or go all the way with flat shoes, a man's shirt and a tie.
* Clothing you fall in love with that's also so versatile you'll probably wear it out before you get tired of it -- in spite of the fact that you may have bought it on impulse. Irresistibles has a cotton knit jacket by I. B. Diffusion that sounds, well, irresistible. Selling for $159, it's an interpretation of canvasback jackets that cost $300 or $400. It has bright abstract applique and embroidery on a black background, and you can wear it equally well with jeans or a dressy black skirt.
Here are some more suggestions from store owners and buyers on ways to get the look you want for less.
Nancy Chistolini of Hecht's recommends a lace T-shirt or body suit, which you can find in intimate apparel or sportswear departments. Wear them -- say -- under a chalk stripe jacket. "We carry a long-sleeved T-shirt with Lycra lace in about six colors for about $22," she says. "It's a very reasonable price."
She also suggests a beret in all kinds of wonderful knits and colors for $18 to $28. And a lace pocket square (about $12) to update last year's jacket.
Like the western look but only in small doses? Octavia has denim-colored knit gloves with silver conchas and suede fringe for $28. Or denim work shirts for around $50.
Trillium has long pocket watches with antique faces on a heavy chain. A perfect menswear accessory, they look like they cost much more than they actually do, according to owner Sima Blum.
Wear it with a vest from J.C. Penney. They come in navy or gray, in pin stripes and houndstooth, for around $18. At that price you could buy a couple.
More on menswear: Rococo has hand-painted silk ties, some of them with sequins. "Kicky," says co-owner Linda Scherr.
There it is: a crisp white shirt from Liz Claiborne or J. H. Collectibles. It's 100 percent cotton and has special details -- maybe ruffles at the neck or a French cuff. Nordstrom's, which is opening a store in Towson next month, has it for around $75. A bargain? Maybe, if you consider that it's a classic.
Nordstrom's will have the new longer skirt in its Point of View shops for $52. Ending at midcalf, it comes in wool gabardine in a range of useful colors like black, navy and loden green. You can wear it with last year's jacket and jazz it up with a man's silk tie or a lace body suit.
Elaine Bower of Woodward & Lothrop describes the pants suit as "the newest way to dress" -- preferably in a pin stripe and preferably in gray, a key color this season. It's a pants suit with a feminine attitude; the jacket is shaped and the trousers softened. When pants suits start to look old, you have a jacket to wear with skirts and a pair of pants to wear with shirts and sweaters.
She also recommends investing in a versatile jacket, one that looks good with a career skirt or denim jeans, and can be used as a layering piece. For the newest look, choose one with military detailing -- piping trim or gold buttons. Nancy Sachs of Saks likes a man-tailored jacket "with a feminine point of view." This year, she suggests, get a double-breasted jacket in a neutral like navy, wear it with a man-tailored shirt during the day and something more feminine at night.
Almost everyone in the know is recommending those menswear vests. You know they'll look great this season, and they'll be back even if they fall out of fashion for a year or two. Marshall's has them for under $30 -- vests that spokeswoman Mimi Golub says would cost you $92 if you weren't shopping in an off-price store. But wherever you buy them, they're a solid fashion investment.
Ever bought something wonderful and funky that you thought was impractical but you couldn't resist it? And then you found it was one of the most useful items in your wardrobe because it was versatile as well as irresistible?
Toni Rosenblatt of O'Ney's loves a fringed skirt in red ultrasuede. She believes western is going to be around for awhile, and this skirt is a sophisticated interpretation of the look. O'Ney's also carries wool fringed skirts in a blanket plaid if you're not the red ultrasuede type.
Nordstrom's has Sesto Meucci booties from Florence, all leather, for under $100. They complete the long, lean silhouette and work with either skirts or jeans.
Express is the place for denim jeans in 10 marvelous colors like salmon and turquoise. They're five-pocket, 100 percent cotton. Prices are reasonable, and you can wear them with last year's jackets and shirts and still look fabulously up-to-date.
Irresistibles, known for its novelty looks, has a glitzy argyle sweater with a black background and wonderful colors: royal blue, fuchsia, emerald green and gold. It's decorated with Lurex and beads, and can be dressy or sporty.
Miller Brothers goes western with a black jacket that has appliqued boots in pale blue, but "in a very subtle way," says sportswear buyer Hilda Levin. It looks great with a denim shirt, which picks up the blue of the applique. It sells for under $200.
Mary Carroll Formwalt of Panache recommends an animal-print vest in suede in muted colors. "It's for someone who loves the colors but isn't so crazy about animal prints," she says.
And finally, for a completely different look in vests, how about a big, hand-knitted vest with a shawl collar? Tricia Justice of Octavia describes it as "Aztec-y, with about 20 different colors. It would go with everything in your wardrobe, from a natural skirt to rusty suede pants." It sells for $135, but for something that will go with everything . . .