THE CLOTHES CIRCUIT Bargains beckon at fall extravaganzas


Let's hear no excuses about the sorry state of your wardrobe. We've heard them all: No time to shop; the baby sitter borrowed and ripped your best dress; the dog ate your designer scarf.

Make time, hire another sitter, forget that old scarf. It's time to pull yourself together for a serious fashion workout. And you'll feel better about yourself because you'll be saving money and helping a worthy cause.

The Virginia Slims Shopping Fling is in full whirl at Festival Hall, and it runs through Sunday. It's the first time here for this mammoth shopping event. We're talking an acre of clothes and accessories under one roof, pulled together by some of America's top designers and fashion professionals. LifeSongs for Aids benefits, but so does the shopper.

More than 20,000 clothing items and accessories have been gathered from more than 200 designers and will be sold at 50 percent below retail price. Most of the clothes fall into the famous label bridge category, but there is also a glitzy boutique of designer originals.

Let's drop some names: C. D Greene, who dresses fashion plates such as Ivana Trump, Robin Givens and Whitney Houston; Anna Sui, Gordon Henderson, Albert Nipon, Tracy Reese for Magaschoni. See what we mean? We're talking big here, and if it all sounds a little overwhelming, not to worry. In addition to the clothes, there is expert advice on just about any fashion problem. Need to match a blouse? A professional shopper will find it. Looking for a new hairdo? There are lots of demonstrations. Hopeless with eye makeup? A cosmetics expert will guide your hand. Need a coffee break with a friend? There is an assortment of snack stops.

And throughout the day, there are fashion shows which give a life to current trends and help shoppers to develop an eye for the changing scene.

The fashion industry, which over the years often has been labeled as vain, bitchy and unrealistic, is remarkably giving and caring when help is needed. The Shopping Fling, at a stop in Atlanta before coming to Baltimore, generated nearly $220,000 for AIDS Atlanta. That's certainly more than a mere bagatelle, my dears.

At the other end of the fashion cycle, but just as lively, is the 28th annual Johns Hopkins Best Dressed Sale and Boutique, which runs today through Saturday. This shopping event attracts a big band of loyal followers who know their clothes but also know how to look good on a tight budget. Famous designer names show up on the racks of previously worn clothes at the Evergreen Carriage House, especially among the gala gowns and evening wear. They're always a good buy because gowns are worn infrequently and hold their style through many seasons. There is also a good selection of men's and children's clothes. It's a free-wheeling event which continues to support patient-care programs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

For women who need a pretty break after the gritty job of putting a wardrobe together, there is the annual Ebony Fashion Fair, which comes to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Oct. 11. It's one of the most spectacular fashion shows in the world, but not the place to shop -- many of the clothes cost as much as a compact car. However, it's a fashion feast that displays the work of the world's top designers -- Lagerfeld, Lacroix, Valentino, Saint Laurent. The models are marvelous, the mood is festive and proceeds support the educational and scholarship projects of the Baltimore Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

The sleek, sophisticated Ebony Fashion Fair will inspire you to go home and practice your walk.

VIRGINIA SLIMS SHOPPING FLING: At Festival Hall, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday. Noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission $5. Call (800) 849-0248.

JOHNS HOPKINS BEST DRESSED SALE AND BOUTIQUE: Evergreen Carriage House, 4545 N. Charles St. 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Call (410) 955-9341.

EBONY FASHION FAIR: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at 7 p.m. Oct. 11. Tickets $20, $28, $30 and $35. Call (410) 783-8000.

Shopper survival tips

It's every woman for herself at marathon shopping extravaganzas. This is not the time to indulge in competitive dressing. Leave the jewelry and flourishes at home. After all, a day in the clothes racks takes concentration, endurance and agility. Just in case you're out of training, here are some practical reminders:

* Wear something simple, smooth and slick such as leggings, running tights or a unitard with an oversize top so you can slip on a skirt or pants for a test try without getting all undressed.

* Find a little shoulder bag just large enough to carry your mad money and cards. If you wear it slung across your shoulders you will have both hands free to work the racks. Or wear a fanny pack.

* Wear the most comfortable, slip-on shoes you own. Sneakers may sound like a good idea but they need to be laced and tied. They will also detract from your mirror image.

* Get a focus and a grip. If the one thing you really want and need is a working suit, go for that first. Once you've found it, you can relax and indulge your whims.

* On the other hand, if you see an impractical, extravagant one-of-a-kind something at a good price, go for it. It will do wonders for your mental health.

* Trying an armful of unfamiliar labels could be a time-waster. All lines are not cut equally, so go with what you know. If you have a favorite label that always fits and works for you, pursue that first. Familiarity with a label will also give you a better sense of price and value.

* Respect privacy, but do pay attention in the dressing room if it's communal. Seeing clothes on a body gives an entirely different perspective on their possibilities.

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