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Hunting deals with the Budget Fashionista

Want some deals? Ride along with shopping columnist Ellen Warren and Kathryn Finney for designer deals and frugal fashion expert tips.

Ellen Warren

Shopping Adviser

April 29, 2011

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For years, I've been nagging Kathryn Finney to take me shopping.

That's because I was dying to see her in action. Kathryn, 35, literally wrote the book on frugal clothes shopping ("How to be a Budget Fashionista") and her blog, thebudgetfashionista.com, is filled with savvy advice on looking good for less.

She and I boast about our bargain finds when we talk on the phone, but we'd never been in the same city at the same time — until now!

Her first words to me when we finally met face to face? Of course, "Let's go shopping." My kind of woman. And did we ever!

"This year I've decided I'm not buying one black thing … Nothing that's not color," she said. "When you put on color it really changes your disposition. You smile. It's hard to frown when you're wearing red and purple" (as she was) — as opposed to black (me).

So, finding colorful items at a great price became our mission at three different categories of stores where bargains abound.

Giant fashion retailer The tri-level Forever 21 is a vast palace of budget fashion on Chicago's Mag Mile and a Kathryn must-see. I turned my back for just a second and she'd bolted — for the giant first-floor accessories department.

By the time I caught up, she had a death grip on a pair of bright beaded bangles ($5.80 each). "Accessories at Forever 21 are hands-down amazing," she said — especially the jewelry and extra especially the earrings.

"There's a lot of stuff you can buy here (540 N. Michigan Ave., forever21.com) regardless of your age and size," she said. For instance, the floor-length tube-top dress she bought for herself in magenta for $12 off the "yellow tag deals" rack. She'll wear it as a skirt with a belt, with the top tucked in, "almost like a slip."

And she screeched to a halt at a rack of colorful camis for $2.50. "No matter who you are, you can get a couple of these. If you're younger you wear this alone. If you're older, then wear it under a jacket."

Kathryn tips:

•A $4 steal is no bargain if you won't wear it.

•Afraid of color? Find an online color wheel to learn what colors work together.

•Hats and outrageous hair clip-ons are an outfit "game changer."

Consignment shop Some of my best buys ever came from McShane's Exchange, 815 W. Armitage Ave., mcshaneexchange.com (there's another branch at 1141 W. Webster Ave.) so our next stop was a no-brainer.

"You need to try on everything," Kathryn declared like it was one of the Ten Commandments as she efficiently pawed through the vintage area. That's because sizing is so drastically inconsistent.

One of her favorite finds here was an $8 denim Gap trench which looked forlorn on the hanger — and had belt loops but no belt. "I'd change the buttons," she said, then she added a fuchsia $14 belt. The ho-hum coat perked up immediately. Kathryn's point made: Color is powerful.

We both craved an Italian silk Moschino blouse, very pricey at $168. "It's about buying things that you love. It's about buying things that you'll wear and there are things you'll spend some money on." For her, it's the designer Lanvin.

Kathryn tips:

•Don't think you can't leave without buying something.

•An expensive item (like her own Burberry trench) might be a good value: Consider "cost-per-wear."

•Designer labels (especially purses) retain value and you can profit by re-selling later on eBay.

Thrift store Ever since I found a pair of Manolo Blahniks for $6.99 there, I've been a regular at the well-organized Goodwill store at 1201 W. Washington Blvd. Natch, this place had to go on our itinerary.

Kathryn zoomed to the sale rack, even at this place where almost everything costs under $10. "Dresses and suits tend to be better products rather than pants. I think it's because people don't wear them as much," she said.

I caught her sniffing the arm of a jacket."I always do the smell test. It's very difficult to get the musty smell out." And stains probably won't come out either, she said. People donate stained clothes (like a BCBG Max Azriaorange-and-pink dress we saw for $6.99) because they've already tried to remove a spot unsuccessfully, she explained.

Kathryn bought a $1.99 "old lady bag," a blue faux patent clutch that wouldn't take up much luggage space in her trip back home to New York. I splurged on a $29.99 blue fox jacket with a Marshall Field's label and the previous owner's monogram on the lining. But we passed up some $6.99 Kate Spade evening pumps with mink pom poms.

We hadn't shopped 'til we dropped but almost.

A final Kathryn tip: Recuperate with truffle fries and chocolate like we did.

Kathryn tips:

•A suit or a set can still be a good buy, even if you'll only wear one piece.

•Petite? Shop the boys section, especially for blazers.

•Men can find huge bargains here, especially like-new dress shirts for $4. "The opportunities are amazing."

shopellen@tribune.com

Follow @ellenwarreninfo on Twitter