When consignment shops started cropping up all over town a few seasons back, most fashion-savvy shoppers dismissed them as glorified thrift shops. But now many more of the people whose clothes you want -- models, boutique salesgirls, and a surprising portion of the younger best-dressed-list -- are learning to turn castoffs into cab fare. At these stores, you can snap up what they wore last season at bargain prices or trade in your own to supplement a spring shopping budget.
For the trendiest pickings from American and European runways -- mixed in with rather chic no-name clothes -- visit INA (two locations) and Transfer International. Both buy mostly from fashion insiders, so you'll sometimes find things here even before they're in retail stores. Such is the turnover of trendy European labels that Transfer will actually pay up front for anything by Prada or Gucci (most shops send you a check when the item sells). There are Housing Works Thrift Shops right nearby for the stuff these stores won't take.
You'll find the occasional Yohji Yamamoto at any consignment shop, but a few do specialize in Japanese designers. The best-presented selection is at Yu, where the stock is a whopping 70 percent Japanese (and about 65 percent off retail). But if you're after a real bargain and up for some digging, hit either branch of Tokyo Joe. Go through the armloads of dusty Urban Outfitters sweaters and you'll find Comme des Garçons treasures for about 80 percent off.
Madison Avenue, where the first consignment stores opened in the fifties, is still tops for Chanel suits, Yves Saint Laurent blouses, unworn Manolo Blahniks, and other uptown staples. Best are old favorites Encore and Michael's, where most things are under a year old and at least one third off original prices (cheaper, older things turn up, too). Leyla's, a relative newcomer, has a similar (albeit smaller) selection at slightly lower prices. All are picky about what they'll accept: Jackie O. famously dispatched her castoffs to Encore, but most of our old clothes don't have quite that pedigree.
INA, 101 Thompson St. (212-941-4757) and 21 Prince St. (212-334-9048); Transfer International, 594 Broadway, near Houston St. (212-941-5472); Yu, 151 Ludlow St. (212-979-9370); Tokyo Joe, 334 E. 11th St. (212-473-0724) and 240 E. 28th St. (212-532-3605); Encore, 1132 Madison Ave., near 84th St., second floor (212-879-2850); Michael's Consignment Shop for Women and Brides, 1041 Madison Ave., near 79th Street, second floor (212-737-7273); Leyla's, 227 E. 50th St. (212-421-8138).
Picks of the Week
Stella Pace, creator of that ubiquitous Powerbead jewelry, is taking 60 percent off overstock -- just in time for Valentine's Day. Bracelets are $10-$20, chokers are $20, bags are $65-$100. 330 W. 38th St., Suite 911 (212-947-3121); cash only; Wed.-Fri. 10-6; 2/9-2/11.
Anna Sui's SoHo boutique is clearing leftovers from her splashy boho fall-winter line (pictured, right) at 70 percent off. A fleece turtleneck is $35; a splatter-print dress is $60; a toggle coat is $135. 113 Greene St. (212-941-8406); A.E., M.C., V.; Mon.-Sat. 11:30-7, Sun. noon-6; 2/12- 2/28.
Pumpkin Maternity is taking up to 75 percent off trendy, flattering clothes for moms-to-be. Shorts, bootcut pants, and pencil skirts are $30; leatherette pants are $50; diaper bags are $60. 225 Lafayette St., Suite 509 (212-674-7476); cash only; Fri.-Sat. 10-6; 2/11-2/12.
Alpana Bawa's colorful, Indian-made winter styles for men and women are 30 to 70 percent off, from $100 for embroidered shirts to $900 for brocade gowns. 41 Grand St. (212-965-0559); A.E., M.C., V.; Mon.-Fri. 11-7, Sat. noon-7, Sun. noon-6; 2/11-2/14.