As temperatures soar toward record-breaking highs, the last thing you feel like doing is running out to buy a nice and toasty wool winter coat. But while you'd rather be at the pool, now's the best time to hit the sale racks for cool summer bargains and a new wardrobe you otherwise might not be able to afford.
But remember not to buy on impulse just because it's a bargain. If you don't need it, you overpaid no matter what the markdown. "First think about how much use you are going to get out of it -- don't stock up on ball gowns if you don't go to balls," says Ruth Shaw, whose Cross Keys boutique bears her name.
Take a quick inventory of your closet before venturing out into the markdown melee so you know what you have to work with. "Break that matchy-matchy mentality," says Veronique Vienne, a spokeswoman and fashion consultant for Express stores. "The modern way to dress mixes pattern and texture to form one cohesive look."
Traditional, heavy-weight cloth no longer dominates the fall season; the sheer fabrics that flooded the stores for spring have extended their stay. "I saw so many whisper-weight fabrics all over the fall collections on both sides of the Atlantic," says Heather Femia, Nordstrom's regional fashion director. "What you're seeing on the sale racks for the most part will cross over into the next season."
"Most of the easy pantsuits and flowing dresses out there on sale, in seasonless fabrics such as silk knits, rayon, chiffon, silky microfibers and wool gabardine, are good investments," says Sima Blum, owner of Trillium in Greenspring Station. "Wear them now, with separates and lighter accessories, and then move those pieces into fall with an opaque leg, darker coordinates and a heavier shoe."
Ms. Femia suggests looking for "darker colors in light-weight textures on sale to layer, such as sheer flowy chiffon palazzo pants -- a holiday must-have."
Almost any style pant is right for now -- slim, wide, straight, cropped, "but save the patterned leggings for exercise class -- it's a dead look," says Ms. Shaw.
Now's also the time to snatch up one of those tiny floral print dresses that everyone has been talking about. Wear it as a
flowing layer over a bodysuit, shorts, slim trousers or even another dress. Or take it into fall topped with a crunchy hand-knit sweater and lace-up granny boots. "Velvet anything will be very important next season," Ms. Shaw says. "Come fall, why not update that little granny dress with a velvet jacket or velvet leggings?"
Another piece to look for is the button-front, sleeveless dress (shown on the cover) in a neutral-color solid that can do triple duty: Beat the heat in style with bare legs, sandals and some ethnic beads; for transition, wear it backward with the buttons down the back, cinched with a woven belt, and throw a patterned jacket over it; and after Labor Day, wear it like a vest -- mostly unbuttoned over a feminine white blouse, print pants and granny boots.
If you don't already possess a great white shirt, get one. If you already own one, get another. You can never have too many white shirts, and there are racks of them on sale. "A romantic ruffled-neck poet's blouse that can be worn with trailing shirt tails and cuffs will instantly feminize last fall's menswear-inspired suitings and top off this year's dandified pinstripes," says Tina Sutton, national fashion consultant for Hit or Miss stores.
Sales also provide an opportunity to buy into trends you may love but know will be short-lived. Saks Fifth Avenue's regional fashion director, Chi Chi LaBrock, suggests picking up a pair of ++ moderately flared bell-bottoms in black. "We have them on sale now in all price points, and for fall they're still going strong."
Also seek out anything in patchwork or brocade -- it's a major trend accompanying all the antiquey 'mixed bag' looks for fall, according to Express stores' Ms. Vienne.
A long skirt is another must-have to snap up on sale. Whether long and slim in black, or a pleated print or solid crinkle sheer, it'll keep you feeling cool now (no pantyhose required when the leg is so fully covered) and looking cool the rest of the year.
Summer sales are also great for picking up cotton sweaters if you're not all that fond of wool ones in the winter. Other versatile items like ribbed T-shirts look sporty now with shorts, or under a suit jacket or baggy jumper, says Beverly Matthai of Femme downtown. She also advises keeping an eye out for colorful, solid washed-silk blouses to wear with everything -- tied up over jeans, under a sweater or suit or unbuttoned, jacket style over a tank.
When it comes to winter clothes, "procrastinators will lose out," warns Macy's national fashion director, Carolyn Moss. She suggests jumping on the preseason sales bandwagon in August; for fall must-have items such as cashmere sweaters or the all-important greatcoat, you'll knock 25 percent to 30 percent off the prices you see once September rolls around.
Cross dressing will be everywhere come fall. "Cross motifs that began to appear this past spring are now on sale, and have
gained in importance dangling from chokers, belts or long chain necklaces," says Ms. Femia. She also predicts that smaller earrings will be big for fall. "We all have a jewelry box full of oversized earrings, but if you can find some smaller ones on sale, that will prove to be a great bargain in the long run," she says. More accessories to look for are little crocheted skullcaps in seasonless yarns that Ms. Shaw thinks look particularly sharp worn to soften a severe Armani-like pantsuit or tweed suit.
"If you see a pendant you like on sale, buy it," says Ms. Vienne. You can always double it up to wear closer to the throat or detach the pendant and string it around a silk or velvet ribbon as a choker. Ditto for anything with cameos, crocheted or lacy gloves, trailing oblong sheer scarves and fabric flower pins as important accents.
"Platforms, platforms, platforms," chants Ms. Vienne when it comes to a good shoe buy. "What we will be wearing is so creative, it needs some height." Judy Kesner, of Joanna Gray of London, also sees platforms stepping forward, as well as mules and clogs or anything that ties, like an oxford or lace-up boot. Ms. Femia touts the riding boot as a key footwear investment.
"There are a lot of final closeouts on boots because classic equestrian styles weren't the rage of the season last year as they will be this fall, due to all the latest English dandy inspirations. A basic black or luggage color is a great investment," she says. Along the same lines, check authentic riding stores for sales on riding pants. Equestrian Connection in Hunt Valley has a good selection on sale right now for 35 percent off of the original retail price.
ON THE COVER
Cotton dress, on sale for $26.90 at Nordstrom's Brass Plum Department. All other clothing, accessories and footwear, courtesy of Nordstrom. Lace pocket hankie, courtesy of Joanna Gray of London.
Styling by Suzin Boddiford. Hair by Annette Haines for Eclips Salon, McLean, Va. Makeup by Dianna Burgess of Three West Casting. Modeled by Allison Dacey of New Face Models. Photographed at Studio 700.