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From Couture to Cool: The Payoff in Consignment and Resale Stores

The change in seasons brings a change in wardrobe, but when money is tight, clothing purchases can fall victim to the household budget axe. Fortunately, the ample supply of local consignment stores means that Pittsburgh shoppers won’t have to forego fashion just because they’re watching their dollars.

“If you’ve never shopped consignment before, I’d recommend you give us a look,” says Kelly Pezze, District Manager of Ambiance Boutique. “I think people would be really surprised at the quality and types of items we have here.”

Like thrift stores, consignment stores specialize in selling gently used clothing. However, instead of donating your clothes outright, you can make a little extra spending cash by going the consignment route. Most consignment shops split the profits 50-50 with the seller.

Pittsburgh has consignment stores aplenty in both the suburbs and the city. The list below highlights a handful of the local options and is by no means comprehensive.

Located in Shadyside, Designer Days Boutique (DDB) specializes in couture fashion and carries only the most exclusive designers. Clothes, accessories and handbags that would cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars in a retail shop—think Chanel and Gucci—can be had for a fraction of those prices at DDB. Shopping at DDB also allows label-conscious shoppers to support a social enterprise. The store’s proceeds benefit programs of the National Council of Jewish Women, which serve populations from toddlers to seniors. The boutique is a spin-off of the NCJW’s annual Designer Days fundraiser, a huge two-day used clothing sale that’s held in late October or early November.

Another option for philanthropic fashionistas is Ambiance, which benefits Bethlehem Haven. Ambiance has two locations, one in Regent Square that sells only clothing, shoes and accessories, and a slightly larger space in Oakmont that also carries housewares. With a variety of labels on its racks, Ambiance also is a good destination for picking up designer goods on the cheap. Its “Best Designers” rack holds pieces from Armani and Diane Von Furstenberg, and the shop’s policy of marking down goods that have been around for 30 or more days present the opportunity for serious bargains.

The fluorescent lights and pulsating music in Squirrel Hill’s Avalon Exchange convey the store’s hip vibe that makes it so popular with the student crowd from nearby Oakland.  About half of the clothing is men’s, which sometimes can be tough to find when shopping consignment.  Avalon recently opened a second, larger location on Washington Road in the heart of Mt. Lebanon’s business district. The stores are also unique in that they buy clothing up front, while most other stores wait until an item has sold before paying out to the consigner.

With 3500 square feet in a two-story house, Consignment Cottage in Moon has enough space to carry anything and everything. So they do. Along with the women’s attire expected at a consignment store, the store’s racks hold clothing for kids, teens and expectant mothers and even some men’s items. They also offer books, DVDs and home accents. The shop has an extremely loyal base of consigners too. Owner Terry Chesky notes that former U.S. Airways employees who have moved away from Pittsburgh still mail her clothes to consign! Consignment Cottage also has a much smaller Sewickley location that has the feel—but not the prices— of a chic boutique.

A 45-year-old stalwart located in Mt. Lebanon’s Beverly Shops, the Clothes Horse retains many of the touches, like horseshoe hooks, that reflect the original owner’s equine adoration that gave the store its name. It’s on the second floor, and the trip up the stairs makes a shopper feel like she’s visiting a friend’s attic. And in a way, she is. Owner Judy DeFrancis makes a concerted effort to get to know her clientele, both sellers and buyers. She can even recommend a certain consigner’s items based on a customer’s body type.

The number of resale shoppers is on the rise. The National Association of Resale and Thrift Stores reports that nearly 90 percent of its members witnessed a jump in new customers last September and October. All of those extra shoppers mean more competition for the best deals, and store proprietors have some suggestions for making the most of a limited amount of cash.

Be flexible: If you’re looking for a very specific item, you may come home from a consignment store empty handed. Being open to a variety of fashion finds is essential.

“If you’re really creative and have a little patience, you can really get a good deal,” says Bonnie Rubin, interim executive director of the NCJW.

Think of the search as an adventure, too. “It’s a treasure hunt,” notes Rubin.

Become a repeat customer: Many consignment stores are relatively small operations, but that can be a bonus for a dedicated customer. If you take advantage of the personalized service and get to know the employees, they can look out for you, too.

“All of our regular customers—we know the kinds of items and designers they like, and we call them immediately when something comes in,” Pezze says.

Looking to make a little cash at the consignment store rather than spend it? The pros offer the following tips:

Do your homework: Before you consign, make sure you have a good sense of the store and its market.

"Never assume you know what they're looking for," says DeFrancis, who recommends visiting a store to get a feel for their merchandise and talk to the owner or employees before taking clothes to sell.

It’s clothing, not wine: That sweater you’ve been hanging on to since the Clinton Administration is probably a no-go. Most consignment stores are looking for modern, stylish items (unless, of course, they specialize in vintage wear.) Items that have been in your closet more than a few years may be hard to sell.

“Even if it’s ‘new’ with a tag, if it’s 10 years old, I don’t have a market for it,” Chesky says.

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Kelli McElhinny snagged a pair of skirts for $10 (total) while she was researching this story. She may never shop retail again.

Ambience merchandise; Kelly Pezze; shopping at Avalon; more at Avalon

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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