Where to Get a Gown

Shopping for a dress that will make an impression.

By Kim Johnson Gross
Photos by Jeff Harris

A Classic Foundation

My mother taught me the art of bargain shopping when I was very young. Each excursion was a treasure hunt.

We scavenged discount stores, where I learned to distinguish the misses from the hits: the garments that could be transformed from fair to fabulous with a little altering or a change of buttons. Clothes with labels that had been sliced were our gold standard. Superbly made in luxurious fabrics, they had once been for sale in swanky stores. My mother was convinced the clothes hadn’t sold because they were a little too jazzy or dramatic for most women. Still, to her they were finds that added flair to her classic wardrobe, especially for dressy occasions. When you mix in a unique piece, you own the look.

That’s the real secret of party dressing: Start with a few really good classics and embellish them. Classics, by my definition, have clean lines, are beautifully made, and never seem to go out of style. My party wardrobe is based on two perfect black dresses — a long Armani gown and a Vera Wang cocktail dress — plus black Gucci evening pants and a pair of black faille Manolo Blahniks. I give these pieces new life by mixing them with finds from thrift and consignment shops.

The best shops are in upscale places such as Greenwich, Connecticut, and Palm Beach, Florida, where you can find fabulous designer discards from the rich and fashionable. (Shopping at thrift stores is less expensive because they’re tied to charities; people donate clothes in exchange for a tax write-off. Consignment shops are run as a business, with sale proceeds split between the shop and the donor. Their prices are higher, but the quality is better because they’re choosier about what they accept.)

I bought my favorite black evening bag at a Palm Beach thrift shop more than a decade ago for $35, and I picked up a few jewel-toned clutches for a song at a Boys Club sale in Locust Valley, New York. I have a shimmery gold Chanel coat I bought at a sample sale for $125, and a "you can’t buy this kind of quality today" emerald-green satin wrap coat that a friend bought for me in a San Francisco thrift shop for $40. I found my New Year’s Eve pants — a spectacular pair of gold brocade palazzos — in my mother’s closet.

New Ways to Find the "It" Dress

If I’m in the mood for color, sparkle, or frills but don’t feel like breaking the bank, I shop where I took my daughters to find their prom dresses. The designs are fun and stylish, and the price is right. Even Vera Wang now has a line of prom dresses; they’re usually tucked behind the trendy everyday clothes in the teen department. Be brave, follow the loud music, and march through it.

You can also shop the Internet. Many of my friends spend their sleepless nights hunting for vintage finds on such Web sites as Michael’s Consignment Shop for Women (michaelsconsignment.com), Bis Designer Resale (bisbiz.com) and La Boutique Resale (laboutiqueresale.com).

Think of shopping as an ongoing treasure hunt, not a chore. If you stumble across something fabulous when you’re not even looking, scoop it up. You won’t regret it. As you build your party wardrobe over time, you’ll find you no longer panic when you receive an invitation. You may not know what you’re going to wear, but you’ll know it’s somewhere in your closet.

What to wear when you want drop-dead glamour

Any way you cut it, a black gown is a good investment. When you splurge on one in the four-digit league, I had better deliver style and class not just now, but forever. Heidi Weisel’s cashmere and silk faille gown ($2,750) has exactly the right combination of sophistication and ease, and the tiered skirt allows for subtle weight changes. Oscar de la Renta D’Orsay pumps ($475). Yves Saint Laurent satin Muse bag ($1,295).

What to wear for couture quality on a ready-to-wear budget

Here’s why we love consignment shops: If you’re lucky, you can snag a couture original in mint condition, like this Chanel dress, still with its original tags, that we scooped up at La Boutique Resale in New York ($800, marked down from $3,400). Chanel satin evening bag ($325, down from $1,160 at Michael’s Consignment Shop for Women, New York). Chanel sandals ($265, at Bis Designer Resale, New York).

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