Prêt à Courtenay

When I was a wee child with a well-defined sense of style that came from who-knows-where, my grandmother used to sit me down with a map and a sheet of paper, and we would make a list of the garments we wanted to buy and the places where we planned to find them. We made quite the pair: I was fussy about my clothes and my grandmother was a stickler for a bargain, to the point of shouting and pointing in public places. 

She also filled me with new words, words as rich and layered with meaning as a chocolate truffle on the tongue: cloche hat, handkerchief hem, French seam, mother-of-pearl snaps. She traced her fingers along the map, hands long, weathered, and fine. We spelunked for the old and new, with a dog-eared Vogue in hand, at all of the consignment shops. 

On these gorgeous fall afternoons, it’s her hands on the map and the latest prêt á porter magazine that come to mind as I check my list twice before hitting the secondhand shops. Three have evolved into my current particular favorites: Otra Vez, a new shop on Olmos, with a well-edited collection of fine ready-to-wear; Too Good To Be Threw, the local industry standard for designer goods, resort wear, and couture on Blanco and 410; and Clothes Encounters, which exudes a warmth and genuine sensibility for good day clothes and great cocktail wear.   

Consignment stores are a relatively new way for fashion-lovers to get their shopping fix, but the rise in consignment during the latest economic shift was notable enough to devote a story to in the September issue of the fashion bible, W Magazine. Locally, consignment stores are doing a booming business, but they are no longer the best kept secret in the fashion community.  

Too Good To Be Threw opened in 1979, says owner Linda Reams, offering designer goods at moderate prices right from the start. I personally bought my first (and last) pair of Guess jeans there. The TGTBT staff also helped me find a dress for my first grand party (a pearlescent-pink Liz Claiborne number), and these days it’s not unusual for me to walk in and be greeted with a wave and a few fashion suggestions. All of my favorite denim, for instance, comes from TGTBT consigners.

You also might want to consider consigning your own nicely kept ready-to-wear at one of these stores, as a way to fuel your fashion budget, as I’ve done in the not-so-far past with some hand-me-down Susanna Monaco knits that didn’t fit. The shopkeepers’ editing process can be ruthless, especially for non-vintage goods, but the rewards reflect financial savvy. TGTBT offers a 50/50 split, Otra Vez and Clothes Connoisseur 60/40 each, with the higher amount going to the store. 

Gabrielle Wetta, owner of Clothes Encounters says, “we always want people to feel comfortable and have fun. When we consign, we try to get a little something for everybody, because we have new clientele as well as customers who have been coming to us for 25 years.” 

As for the shopping process, I recommend bringing a list of items you’re currently searching for, as my grandmother always taught me. If not, the possibility of getting off track and buying a heavily sequined, silk, sleeveless turtleneck can be too much of a temptation — which happened to me recently. I managed to stop myself right before hitting the register using the Jedi Mind Trick I’ve learned: Repeat to self, “Well-edited wardrobe. Well-edited wardrobe. Well-edited wardrobe.” If I follow up with three deep breaths and a mental image of a Christian Louboutin red-soled heel, I find I can usually restrain from a purchase not on my wish list. Usually.   

Sometimes, however, you have to take the plunge when you come across a garment so new and fresh for you, or so longed for, that you never expected to find it in your lifetime.   

Said the newly married Alexa Thornton-Hartman, owner of Otra Vez, “We had a woman come in recently, who said, ‘I’m sure you’re not going to find this, but I’m looking for a satin, pink, strapless dress for a friend to wear for her wedding.’ And, wouldn’t you know it, the exact dress came in a few days later. We called her right away.” It was a happily-ever-after pink-dress marriage ceremony for the customer’s friend, who had been looking for this garment for the last decade.   

As for me, my happily-ever-after moment is ongoing. My most recent consignment purchases include two organic T-shirts to wear under my softly structured winter sweaters, a pair of chocolate-colored jodhpurs with sailor buttons, and a saucy-looking owl pin with rhinestones. I also buy my 95-year old grandmother comfortably tailored slacks and fine-gauge cotton blouses on consignment.   

“Where did you find such a beautiful thing?” she says to me, fingers tracing the seams. 

“Where do you think?” I respond.

“Ah,” she says. “Did you get the best deal?”

“The best,” I tell her, looking into her brown eyes. And it’s true. 

Where to get it

Otra Vez,
(210) 826-0606,

Too Good To Be Threw
(four locations, one for ready-to-wear, one for high-end designer items, and two for designer furniture), (210) 340-2422,

Clothes Encounters, (210) 822-2902