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FOR shoppers who didn't catch sale fever before the holidays, the bug is even more contagious now. Sheets? Marked down. Winter coats? Marked way down. Anything Christmas-y? How lowww can it go?

One sale-shopper buys clothes suitable for this winter -- and next.

"I always look for sweaters, and I end up buying much of my fall and winter clothing during this time. It may not be the latest fashions, but I look for basic lines, tailored pieces and interesting colors," said Greg Childs, owner and creative director for Directions, a fashion/special events office serving the greater Buffalo area.

"It's wise for men to shop right after Christmas because so much of our clothing is seasonless," he added.

Another bargain-hunter from Hamburg plans for Christmas '91. "I buy Christmas cards on sale, and I always try to find cute little things like candles, picture frames and teacher presents for next year," she said.

But watch it. Finding a great item at a budget price is exhilarating. Buying a markdown that doesn't work for your home or your wardrobe is never a bargain, even at half the price.

Here are some end-of-the-season buys worth scrambling for at the sale racks:

Windfalls for women

This may sound like the advice your mother gave you, but certain items will always make you feel your dollars were well spent.

In "Dressing Smart: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Style" (Doubleday, $19.95), Pamela Redmond Satran lists best buys for women, as well as money-wasters.

Best buys: a pair of black shoes that feel as good as they look; a big plain square black leather tote; an ivory silk blouse; a well-cut black straight knee-length skirt; a terrific coat; a comfortable, good-looking pair of casual pants; a good watch; great underwear.

Money-wasters: a cheap silk blouse that needs to be dry-cleaned; shoes that don't really fit; a wonderful piece that doesn't go with anything else you own; anything too tight; anything you don't really like but it's Ralph Lauren and 50 percent off.

Other stylish items to look for on sale:

Stirrup pants and leggings. These offer streamlined style and plenty of comfort. Pair them with a long jacket, sweater or oversized shirt. Some styles are a cotton/spandex blend so they can be worn practically year 'round.

If you can find a pair in winter white, you can wear them right into spring. Black, of course, always is a good bet. The only leggings that won't work after the holidays are the velvet ones.

Man's-style shirt. The most updated way to wear leggings, capri pants, even short skirts come spring will be with a billowing, oversized shirt (runway models left them unbuttoned at the midriff during the recent fashion previews in New York.)

One possibility to look for now: a silky, big shirt in a tropical color like lime, magenta or tangerine.

The boyfriend jacket. The long, unstructured wool jacket looks terrific paired with skinny pants or short skirts. Pickings may be slim, but a new jacket -- in a great color like ice blue, pale pink, even gold -- will spice up a tired wardrobe come January.

Shorter-length black skirt. Want something short -- but classic? A black skirt -- tagged with a bargain price -- is the way to go.

Why black? The neutral color will complement many of the tops you already have in your wardrobe. You also can wear it with conservative black hosiery for a neat, monochromatic look.

Accessories. Especially bracelets. The well-dressed wrist will wear bunches of bangles this spring.

Big deals for men

Loosen up, fashion experts advise. Gone is the uptight, structured look of the '80s. Even traditional tailored companies eased up clothing in their fall and winter collections.

With so much of this seasonal merchandise on sale, now is a good time to try out relaxed shapes in soft fabrics like wool crepe, chenille, flannel, brushed wool and cotton twill.

A good place to start: a new suit. The soft suit, according to the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers, is expected to continue strong into fall 1991.

"Men who work in an office environment need to have four suits that they can rotate," Chip Tolbert, fashion director of the Men's Fashion Association, told the Associated Press. "They may want to add one or two a year to update their wardrobe as styles change and to pick up new colorations."

The best fabrics to choose are lightweight, year-round worsted wools or wool blends which tailor well and shed wrinkles, he said. Some men may want to add a double-breasted suit to their wardrobes for a change of pace.

Other items to look for on sale:

Snazzy ties. For those who didn't receive a few dozen or so ties for Christmas, consider refurbishing your tie wardrobe.

Ties are changing; they're fun again. Forget about boring striped ties. The big sellers now are the bold ones, with some whimsy thrown in.

Sweaters. This season, men have a lot to choose from in the sweater department. Favored hues include natural vegetable colors such as zucchini, squash and pumpkin. And earth tones -- especially browns and greens -- reflect the public's concern over environmental issues.

While sweaters come in a variety of yarns -- from boucle to chenille -- cottons are a good investment because they can be worn year-round.

Topcoat: New styles include single- and double-breasted swagger coat styles with dropped epaulets, raglan sleeves and natural shoulders.

Note: If you find a car coat you like at a good price, grab it. The versatile, midlength coat is expected to make an even stronger comeback next fall.

Wide-wale cords: For casual times, only the thickest, softest corduroys will do. Look for trousers with fuller proportions, multiple pleats and softer waistbands.

Bargains for the home

Once the holiday decorations come down, will your house need dressing up? All sorts of home furnishings, decorative objects and cooking paraphernalia are on sale after the holidays.

January white sales -- some of which started before Christmas this year -- are a good time to stock up on sheets, blankets and pillows. You may even want to treat yourself to flannel sheets for the cold months ahead.

This also is the time to stack up on green or red linens, which appear in abundance during the holiday season. Green linens, in particular, are not just for Christmas. In April, a green tablecloth -- in shades ranging from apple to evergreen -- makes a lovely springtime setting but is difficult to find.

Others sale items to watch for:

Christmas decorations. From festive linens to ornaments to wrapping paper, holiday items usually are slashed 50 percent -- sometimes more -- after Christmas. If you have the storage space, stock up now for next year.

Accessories. Best bets to look for on sale include picture frames, candlesticks, fabric-covered hatboxes and pitchers. Such accessories made a strong showing at the High Point, N.C., fall furniture show and are nostalgic without being trite.

Bigger still. If you're willing to make a more sizable investment, keep your eyes peeled for the pieces people were talking about at the High Point market:

Decorative chests; tables with antiqued metal bases and glass, faux-painted wood or marble tops; painted and upholstered paneled screens; interesting lamps and lamp shades; and highly unusual reproductions of ornate Victorian pieces, such as a child's rocking horse or an antique bird cage.

Anything English country. Americans love the English country look. While no single color trend abounds, international designer Mario Buatta noted that fabric colors are turning darker with "tea-stained" or yellowed backgrounds.

Several manufacturers of bed and bath linens already have launched the trend. Affordable sheets, of course, also can be used for making draperies, pillows, shams and dust ruffles.

For a real English country look, experiment with mixing florals, stripes, paisleys and geometrics -- which work well in a room as long as the colors are coordinated.

Let the bargains begin. Buy now, and you'll be ahead of the game.

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