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What a Surprise Trip to T.J. Maxx Taught Me About Shopping

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Nancy* is one of my "fairy godmothers," as my mother calls her. She's the person who permanently loaned me my first pieces of Louis Vuitton, which were just "gathering dust" in her closet. Growing up I'd admire her outfits as she slid into synagogue, lowkey wearing Prada and Gucci. When I eventually becoming a fashion editor myself, Nancy was still the person I associated most with living, breathing designer style. She embodies luxury in an effortless and utterly unpretentious way. So during my last visit home from NYC, when Nancy asked my mom and I if we would accompany her for a trip to her favorite Saks Fifth Avenue in suburban Philadelphia, I jumped at the chance.

Nancy doesn't just show up to Saks. She has her "girls" who call her whenever a new shipment comes in or her favorite designer goes on sale. When she arrives, they already know she's coming and exactly what she wants. I pictured us swanning around in our own movie montage, salespeople trailing us with complimentary Champagne and catching garments as we flung them left and right. I'd been building up an encyclopedic knowledge of runway fashion and celeb style all these years; now I had an opportunity to put my own shopping chops to use alongside a woman with an unusual level of access, whose style I'd respected since childhood.

Nancy was still the person I associated most with living, breathing designer style.

As we entered the store, we were immediately met by warm hellos. More staffers were called over to greet us: "Hey, come on over — Nancy's here," they yelled out. "Look, Nancy brought her friends!" As expected, the saleswomen at Saks were generous — holding dressing rooms for us, advising on which floors to hit first, bringing us bottled water, fetching a seamstress when something needed to be "brought up just an inch."

My mother and I basked in the luxury glow and left with enough goods to satisfy: a silky Rag & Bone striped dress, a pale blue cotton shift, and a lacy romper that I was told would be "great for cocktail parties." (Alas, a floral Valentino dress, which fit so beautifully that several saleswomen were called over to look, didn't make the cut.)

We were hauling our bags into the car when Nancy hit us with a curveball: Our day of shopping wasn't done yet — we were headed to T.J. Maxx.

TJ Maxx Photo: Paul Morigi / Getty Images
On the drive over, Nancy informed us that this T.J. Maxx in particular had the best "runway" section in the tri-state area, overflowing with castoffs by Helmut Lang, Stella McCartney, Valentino and more. She wasn't kidding: As soon as we walked through the automatic sliding doors, I spied an Alexander Wang Rocco bag at the top of a display.

So we browsed again, only this time without the help of eager sales assistants or refreshments of any kind. We had to sift through racks, separating the ugly from the ironically ugly with our own keen sense of what was actually stylish and cool.

Suddenly, I felt totally helpless. Under the glare of the fluorescent lights it was impossible to hide my dirty secret: Despite my love of clothing and fashion, I'm actually a terrible shopper.

It's not that I lack the desire or the willpower. I just don't have what it takes to score a good deal. I get overwhelmed when the selection is too wide. When high-end items are mixed in with low-end items — and gorgeous pieces are mixed in with duds — I easily lose my bearings, and all of the sudden I can't identify a trendy culotte from a dated stretchy flared jean. I get impatient sifting through sales racks and quickly abandon them for more curated (and pricey) pastures. I rely far too much on friendly saleswomen, as well as the same rotation of trendy but certainly not groundbreaking stores (hello again, Zara and Aritzia).

Despite my love of clothing and fashion, I'm actually a terrible shopper.

And so, surrounded by messy piles of discount designer goods, I swallowed my fashion pride and humbly submitted to Nancy. I ended up walking out with Rebecca Taylor cropped pants, Italian leather sandals, and my first-ever pair of Gucci heels (black, skinny heel, classic gold horse bit). Sure, it was still a discount big-box store — my leather Guccis were summarily tossed into a flimsy plastic bag, sans box, at the checkout. But we spent more at T.J. Maxx than we did at Saks. Turns out, so many of Nancy's Prada and Gucci pieces I'd spied in synagogue were purchased here.

I went into the day ready to burnish my fashion bona fides with a trip to Saks; instead, I ended up becoming a Maxxinista. I had always fancied myself a "good shopper," because of how much I love fashion: I know the brands, I know the trends, I know the cool stores. But actually shopping? That's its own beast. It takes patience and a discerning eye. It takes trusting your own taste rather than relying on "curation." It takes savvy.

Most importantly, it takes leaving your pretension at the door. Which is a fashion lesson I was a lot more likely to learn by leaving New York City and finding my way to the humble suburbs, led by a woman with more shopping trips under her belt than I could ever dream of.

* Name has been changed.

Quantity versus quality and getting a bang for your buck