Spots of Time

February 25, 2003

Fashion Foot Forward

London Fashion week just ended and seeing the photos did nothing to inspire me to shop. They rarely do. I’ve never really understood high fashion. To me, the epitome of fashion would be clothing that made my legs look longer, my waist smaller and provided the illusion that Jennifer Lopez and I had the same derriere. I wouldn’t care if the designer was Target.

I’ve never been much of a fashion foot forward female. If my clothes are in fashion it is usually by accident or good timing. If I find something I like, I’ve been known to buy multiples, in various colors, creating a stockpile. I learned this quickly during the height of three-quarter length sleeve shirt popularity also known as “the year Melanie could not find a long sleeve knit shirt to save her life.” Knowing that the fashion winds constantly blow in contradicting directions, my stockpile frequently allows me to wait out the storm until my tried and true comes back into vogue (which it always does, sooner or later).

With this information it might surprise you to know that while in Melbourne I did a three-week stint in women’s retail. I was working for a chain of stores called Table 8 which specialized in stylish somewhat conservative women’s clothing. If you live in the US, think Ann Taylor and you’ll have a pretty good idea of our style and selection. My friend Lindsay was the store manager of one outlet in a huge shopping center that was closing down as they had chosen not to renew the lease. Three weeks before the store closed, one of the girls landed another job and had to quit on the spot. Enter Melanie, Jill-of-all trades and sick to death of waitressing.

Even though I had no retail experience I picked it up pretty quickly. Step one: smile at customers and welcome them to the store. Step two: take merchandise from them and start a fitting room (which also means you get credit for the sale – who knew?). Step three: compliment them on their sense of style. Step four: assure them that their behind does not look huge in those pants. Step five: repeat with remaining 10 pairs of pants they try on. Step six: ring up their order. Step seven: hand them their receipt. Step 8: Repeat with next customer.

Interestingly enough, three weeks in retail was about my limit. Lucky for me, the job opportunity in Sydney came up during my last week with the company, and four days after I finished, the call came saying I got the job. Before leaving I decided to go shopping for a few more appropriate clothes for my new corporate life. I knew most Australians were layed back, even in business, but somehow I didn’t think my Reef flip flops, khaki shorts and Pooh T-shirt were going to cut it in corporate Australia.

While working at Table 8 I’d spend most all my breaks wandering around the shopping center, even though I almost never bought anything. One observation that struck me was the uniformity of fashion in Australia. Store after store contained the same or similar merchandise – identical colors, fabrics and styles. Looking for a tiered white calf length skirt? Turn into nearly any store and you’ll find several options. You’re in luck - the style is on its way out so the skirts are on sale too!

My friend Danni, and Aussie who lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, said she didn’t realize how totally into the minute Australian fashion was until she returned from the US. She determined that even if you hated what was in fashion in San Francisco you could always find something else somewhere. Here, she was having some issues.

When I arrived in Australia the “gypsy girl” look was of the moment. Long tiered skirts in black, brown and white, pastel tank tops in pink and blue, turquoise and antique-styled jewelry, and flowers for your hair dominated the window displays. The recent “sale” signs in stores indicated that the season was changing and with it the “gypsy girl” look was on its way out. Replacing it was brown – the “new” black – mauve, burgundy, Asian inspired prints and styles, embroidery, and velvet.

Brown as the new black was my biggest issue. When traveling with a limited wardrobe, I’d been told it is wise to chose one base color – brown, black, grey or navy – and try to coordinate everything else around it. That way, you can limit shoes and come up with a mix and match wardrobe of coordinating separates. Even though I normally prefer brown I chose black, hedging my bets that it would be easier to find replacement clothes along the way. Bad timing. Everywhere I looked I found browns – from tans to chestnut to khaki to mahogany. The selection of black was much more limited.

I’ve come to no conclusions about my observations other than to think it’s quite handy that I personally like aspects of the “gypsy girl” look considering it’s everywhere and currently on sale. And, though quite a task, I have managed to piece together a decent array of pseudo-corporate clothing (black-based) that I’ll be able to mix and match for the next month or so. With regard to any pearls of wisdom from my time in the world of retail fashion, I can only say this. I'll never say no again when someone offers to start me a dressing room. And, I'll never ask the sales person if my behind looks big in these pants.