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I Found the Secret to Shopping

A woman in jeans with colorful patches on them carries three white shopping bags Photo: Melanie Galea/The Street Muse/Trunk Archive

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Remember the carefree days when shopping for new clothes meant going to the mall after your allowance (or, in my case, cash-under-the-table payment from a suburban outpost of the chain ice cream store where I scooped worked) came through and spending whatever your wallet would allow in the name of instant gratification?

I don’t shop like that anymore. Instead of shopping for clothes, I “build my wardrobe,” carefully considering how an item will work with everything else I already own and how long it’ll last me. And recently, I’ve fallen into a very specific way of wardrobe building: by doing it one category at a time.

It started in the fall of 2015, when I realized that I was seriously underprepared for the cold New York City temperatures ahead of me. So I decided that for the fall/winter season, I’d put a serious emphasis on buying coats — especially if they were on sale. In addition to the Veda x Pamela Love collab I had my eye on for literally years and finally bought at the leather jacket brand’s sample sale for several hundred dollars off retail, I added a Mackage puffer with a fur-trim hood, purchased at that brand’s sample sale, to my arsenal. Also Everlane’s wool trench, bought from the company’s name-your-price sale the day after Christmas, and a little fancy bitch-style white and gray coat from AYR’s first-ever sample sale (plus a couple others).

Coats weren’t the only thing I bought in that roughly six-month span, I’m sure, but sitting in front of my keyboard right now, trying to remember what else I might have acquired during this time, nothing comes to mind. What I can recall vividly is the sense of satisfaction I had opening my closet to multiple quality outerwear options for the first time in my adult life. By prioritizing my purchases to a singular category, I had a whole new set of choices in just a few months.

I didn’t implement this shopping strategy for spring/summer 2016, at least not consciously — I did pick up a lot of lightweight statement jumpsuits I’m still wild about and can’t wait to break out again — but I brought it back with a vengeance this past fall to revive my sad excuse for a shoe selection.

My new footwear now includes 3.1 Phillip Lim suede slides that are truly perfect, the Nike x Bandier rose gold sneakers I scrambled to order the day after they came out, white New Balance sneakers exclusive to Bergdorf Goodman, Rebecca Minkoff’s blue velvet booties that are kind of impractically tall but definitely sparked joy when I found them on sale on Black Friday, and my first-ever Loeffler Randalls, a red block lace-up heel that I only added to my holiday wish list once I saw them go to 50% off. I went hard in the paint on this one, but I’m so happy I did (despite the unintended storage consequences) — because I’ve got options now, baby.

I’m not saying this is the “right” way to shop, but it is a method that’s helped me cut through the millions of products that brands put forth on a ceaseless basis and focus on what I should put my limited clothing budget toward for the biggest payoff. Because while teenage Laura was satisfied — nay, thrilled — with picking up a new whatever from Express just because she had the money to do so, and new Racked hire Laura would buy just about anything so long as it came from a sample sale, current Laura wants a healthy selection of well-made, very me things that will last for a long while.

If you want to try this for yourself, start with one big category (let’s use jackets as an example here) and then come up with sub-categories (a jacket to stand up to heavy winds, a solid leather jacket, a non-black jacket, and so on) to further refine what you and your wardrobe need. Pinterest might come in handy here, if you’re that sort of person. I’m still undecided about what I’m going to center on for spring — the broad strokes of “tops” and “pants” have been flirted with thus far — but whatever I settle on, expect me to go HAM.