How to Thrift... While Looking Like You Don't

Let's talk about thrift, baby. Let's talk about you and me. Let's talk about how hard it is to flip through our favorite brands' latest lookbooks and long for the life we see therein, knowing that we can never afford it. But lookbooks are beautiful, and inspiring, and — as I recently realized — the perfect tool to take with you to the thrift store.

Let me back up and set the scene. Me: flipping through Free People's latest fall lookbook, titled "City Rebel" and described as “seventies-inspired decadence takes on a modern meaning with lush flowers and show-stopping velvet worthy of the season’s downtown attitude.” I wanted approximately everything and could afford approximately nothing, so I slouched off to the thrift store to drown my sorrows in cheap polyester.

But the lookbook stayed with me. The colors, the cuts, the way things were styled — all of that bubbled in the foreground of my mind as I wander through aisles of capris and sweater vests. Soon enough, there was a little voice in my head whispering things like, "That sweater would fit right in to Free People's fall catalog." And so I kept the lookbook in mind as I shopped, picking out pieces that mimicked its vibe — however vaguely — and walked out of there with $100 worth of great fall clothes, all inspired by Free People.

This technique would work with any brand, at any thrift store. It's an exercise in distilling a brand's style down to its most important elements. Whatever they're doing, I guarantee you can pull your own version of their look together — for a lot cheaper — at the thrift store. Here are some ways to help you plan your attack.

(Note: Every item pictured here is from a Chicago thrift store.)

1. Decide on your color palette before you hit the store.

I adore color, and typically at thrift stores I'm drawn to whatever looks weird and punchy — the canary yellow coat with the fur color, for example, or the hot pink whatever. But when you're shopping for a specific look, you've got to pick a palette. Right now, Free People is showcasing a lot of cream + brown, along with fall-ish colors like gold, dark red, and tan. If you piled all the items I bought into a single pile, the palette would be pretty distinct (which means that creating outfits out of that pile is, subsequently, a snap).

This look inspired by beanies paired with turtlenecks, and aaalllll the suede found on right now.

2. Break it down into a couple of key categories.

What are the items that really stick out when you look through your favorite collection? Unless you’ve got a personal shopper and his last name is Trump, you probably don’t have the time or money to copy look exactly. Instead, compile a list of the big attention-grabbers. My list went something like this: statement coats, cross-body bags, fall-hued button-downs, high-waisted pants, and chunky knits. Already, we've got the makings of a fall capsule wardrobe.

In practice, looking for items on my list led to this look. Free People is loving high waistlines + super-unbuttoned button-downs + interesting necklaces this autumn, and the combination is striking and easy to find secondhand. (Check out that strange turquoise/gold non-necklace thing that I got — only at a thrift store, right?)

This look inspired by: this look. Exactly.

3. Pay attention to how they style their accessories.

Accessories can make or break an outfit — BET YOU NEVER HEARD THAT BEFORE, HUH? Not only were there a lot of skinny scarves like this one all over, but there were skinny black scarves paired with white tops — ding! — and hats aplenty. I never said this was rocket science, you guys. It just looks cool.

This look inspired by:this white shirt + black scarf and THIS white shirt + black scarf and this skinny scarf + hat.

4. Stalk the fabrics your favorite brand is loving.

Velvet and suede, baby! Velvet and suede. Both of these fabrics fit our established criteria of "seventies-inspired decadence" and I'll let you in on a big secret here: thrift stores are crawling with suede. (And some of the suede is crawling. But that's why we have washing machines... and courage!) Velvet is a little bit harder to find, in my experience, but it's there. And if you're telling me that the above velvet jacket that is possibly from a 1994 Sears catalog is not a decent knock-off of this $200 velvet coat from Free People, well, ya cray.

This look inspired by a velvet coat and a long suede vest.

5. Don’t get hung up on the specifics (aka squint your eyes and don't complain).

Here's a deep, dark confession for you: I really loved this photo of a weird fur coat + crossbody bag, and I immediately threw out all my rules and tried to REPLICATE THE PHOTO EXACTLY. Clearly that's a recipe for failure. I was slogging through the wilds of a thrift store, hunting for a yellow cross-body bag, for the sake of all that is polyester! It's a wonder I didn't have a mental breakdown!

Finally, I realized that the color of the bag or the specifics of the coat weren't the point. The point was that the outfit I loved combined a seventies-inspired, so-ugly-it's-fashionable coat with a cross-body bag that caught the eye. End scene. When I stopped being so literal, I was able to mimic the look within a quick lap around the thrift store.

This outfit inspired by: this outfit, my personal Moby Dick .

6. Pair what they’re pairing.

Right now, over on free people dot com, I'm spotting a lot of turtleneck dresses paired with bare legs. Sure, most people pair turtleneck/sweater dresses with tights and boots, but this tiny tweak to the look just feels fresh. Other pairings I see popping up again and again on their website: suede + white, faux fur + florals, turtlenecks + beanies, straight-legged jeans + straight heels. These little equations might sound boring to someone who's not into fashion, but sometimes it's the tiny things that can really kickstart your inspiration. And best of all? All of those pairings can be yours for $3.99 apiece (more or less) at your filthy, beloved, local thrift store.

This look inspired by turtleneck dresses and bare legs! Turtleneck dresses and bare legs!

Photos: Tori Telfer; Model: Grace Beifuss