Every girl has felt it: It's that sense of total overload walking into a really big Forever 21. The clothing might be "organized," but at these megastores it's the shopper's job to discern not just what's stylish, but also what's actually a legitimate article of clothing. Forever 21 definitely has some pieces — due almost certainly to their enormous volume of styles — that should never be worn, by anyone. So, how do some girls walk out of the low-price retail store with pieces that look like they fell off the runway? By following a handful of clever ground rules. Here are some tips for how I shop for things that look expensive, but aren't at all.
Study the runways. At least a little. You don't have to be an expert on everything, just the stuff you like. Why? Because places like Forever 21 have a team of designers who concentrate specifically on ripping off other brands' styles. So if you know what you're looking for, you'll find it's a lot easier to scope out the things that work for you than to get lost in all...those...racks. That way, too, you'll be more apt to discern between a trend that's in its truest form, and a garment that's just been haphazardly stamped with it; remember my post on tribal print?
Touch the clothes first. Seriously, I shop primarily for textile. If it feels good, then I'll look at the shape. But cheap jersey looks cheap. There are high-quality jersey materials — the kind you see at Nanette Lepore that fall elegantly off the body — but you're not going to find them at Forever 21. The stuff you will find will pill in the wash, cling to the shape of your bra or underwear, and fade unpleasantly. Other cheap textiles include that starchy material with 4-way stretch that you find cut into oxford shirts and formal-ish trousers. It looks a bit like 400-thread-count sheets infused with spandex. Again, totally unforgiving. The synthetic material will rumple and crease when you sit down and will shrink relentlessly in the wash. If you find a must-have garment in these materials, or anything with excessive stretch, understand you'll probably only get a couple of wearings out of it. My best advice would be not to waste your money.
Concentrate on fit. Even a t-shirt isn't just a t-shirt. Fit matters. Forever 21 loves to cut things for a person who doesn't exist. An extra-small in one style might be a medium in another. They can't be relied upon as a constant — hello, that's why the prices are so low. So give them a break and just make sure the things you're buying fit you like an expensive garment. Ignore the size tag and just go with what looks good.
Don't be afraid to make it your own. The clothes are so inexpensive, there's no shame in buying something knowing you're going to take it home and personalize it. For example, I bought a pink, patterned maxi dress that was incredible, except that someone had decided it needed these sort of off-the-shoulder straps for some extra flair or something. The dress was gorgeous on its own, so I decided I'd buy the dress (it was about $24) and just snip the unnecessary straps off at home. Now I wear it all the time. The sleek cut of the dress looks like a much higher-end piece because I took the time to take out the over-trendiness of it, and I accessorize it properly. At Forever 21 you really have to just question everything: "Do I like this matching belt that comes with it? I could probably get a better one and make this a really unique outfit." I always think of a Forever 21 garment as a jumping-off point. Their pieces rarely stand alone well.
Don't be afraid to leave empty-handed. Sometimes it's just picked-over. And the allure of low prices can make you want to just leave with something new. In this case, check the accessories section if you're just looking for a cheap thrill, but if it doesn't flatter you and you know you won't wear it, save yourself the time and money and leave it behind.
I pride myself on my ability to go into a place like Forever 21 and find the handful of pieces that look like they're high-end. Truth be told, I hate super-nice boutiques because I usually say, "I can find most of this stuff for way less." You know, unless it's Stella McCartney or diamonds or something. So splurge on the occasional shoe or handbag that you know will go with a lot of things and you'll get a lot of wear out of, and fill in the gaps with things no one will ever guess you practically stole off the racks at Forever 21. [The entire look in the second photo is from Forever 21, via Tricia G. on Lookbook.nu]