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Style on a budget ; There are plenty of ways to look great and beef up your wardrobe without breaking the bank

Today's economy is motivating fashionistas everywhere to be savvy with their spending on clothes.

Recently I needed something for a special occasion. It had me in a quandary.

I wanted something brand new and really fancy. But given a shaky economy and tighter household budget, it did not seem right to spend lots of money on a brand new outfit. After all, in the past I've only gotten limited use out of "one-occasion" clothes because they are either too formal for work or not exactly casual wear for evenings and weekends.

So instead of spending a lot of money on a new outfit, I improvised.

Picture this: a knee-length, sleeveless black dress with a V-neckline in the front and back. Beaded detail and a floral design embroidered around the bottom half. Mandarin-style, fabric-covered buttons -- not plastic, see-through ones -- down the spine of the dress.

The dress was accessorized with a choker necklace of big, white faux pearls that came with a matching bracelet and pierced earrings, which also had gold detail. Ivory-colored stockings and matching strappy heeled sandals completed the outfit, and to top it off: A little black purse, square in shape with short straps and a hint of gold detail.

The total cost to me for the whole outfit: less than $13.

It was all about expanding my closet, and you can do it, too. Here's how:

*Try an "online fashion community." Clothingvault.com calls itself a virtual closet for young women who are feeling the economic crunch. Users can trade, borrow or buy clothes, discuss fashion and catch up on the latest trends.

For the woman who has couture tastes on a not-so-champagne budget, Internet sites like renttherunway.com and weartodaygonetomorrow.com may be good choices.

Rent a dress for all kinds of occasions and bypass feeling guilty every time you see it in your closet, forcing you to wonder "where will I ever wear that again?" Consider renting a designer outfit for a fraction of the cost, then when you're done, send it back.

"It's a little test drive," said Lara Crystal, spokeswoman for renttherunway.com, which was created in 2009.

Search for a dress by designer, by occasion -- black tie or casual -- by price point or by color. The garment will be sent to you in two sizes. Also, an accessories line was launched in the beginning of April, and there are stylists available to chat online or on the telephone to help you match up everything.

What's the point of paying full price for a dress you will wear twice, at most, is what motivated Madeline Pasarelli to create weartodaygonetomorrow.com a little more than a year ago. She worked for years in the fashion industry. In one of her last positions in fashion publishing, she noticed many editors -- along with celebrities -- got certain perks on the job: borrowing designer clothes.

"Celebrities got more perks than we did," Pasarelli said. "But if we needed to borrow a dress from a designer, they were available."

It works out for designers who get their fashions in the public.

"That's how the Red Carpet was created," she said.

She applied the concept to the high school girl looking for a prom or homecoming dress, a college woman in her 20s just starting out in a career and women 30 and up looking for a dress for a one-time occasion.

For a free standard membership, you can rent a dress for 10 percent of the retail price.

"So if a dress costs $400, you would get it for $40," Pasarelli explained.

All levels of membership are free.

To spend a lot of money on something you're going to wear only one time "really doesn't make any sense," she said.

Choose dresses, tops and jackets from designers like Stella McCartney, Nicole Miller, Betsey Johnson, Badgley Mischka, Calvin Klein and Vera Wang. Many women never would be able to afford such items otherwise, Pasarelli said.

"I want to give women who have great style just another option," she said.

*Rent or trade clothes with friends. Imagine this. You need a formal evening gown for an event, but you don't want to pay a lot for it because you know you won't get a lot of wear out of it. Well, maybe a girlfriend or cousin has a nice once-worn bridesmaid's dress that would work. Rent it from her for a price you feel is fair and that you both agree on. (Or buy her lunch!) You get to wear a new dress and your friend has a couple of extra dollars or a treat.

Or, let's say you have a really important job interview coming up and would love to step in wearing a Chanel suit or kicking it in a nice pair of Manolos. Sometimes it's the labels -- or a new hairstyle, or a great new pair of shoes or a great bargain -- that make a woman feel really good. But in this case, your bank account doesn't agree with your tastes.

Try swapping with friends. Maybe one of them has been eyeing a Louis Vuitton or Coach handbag of yours. In trading with her you get a fabulous interview outfit and she gets to sport a designer handbag.

Of course, before trying this, it is a good idea to set some ground rules, in case items get lost, stolen or damaged. Require a monetary deposit or some other collateral. Using a little common sense would help, too. My college roommates used a lot of that with me. They would only lend me dark garments -- never whites -- because I can be a sloppy eater and am not very graceful. And any cleaning bills were on me.

And also, don't loan anything you really, really care about.

For stylistas who like to have a wider choice of items in the closet for all occasions, shop online, at outlet malls and in the off-season at your favorite stores.

*Clearance time. Many stores move clothes to their clearance sections to make way for fashions for the upcoming season. Discounts as low as 75 percent have been spotted by one frugal fashionista -- me.

So when the urge is feverish, instead of bolting for those "new arrivals," try going to the clearance rack to stock up on shorts, sandals and cute dresses.

*What's more fun than a day trip to the outlet mall? The great thing is, it is no longer necessary to wait for the big Labor Day Sale or Presidents Day Sale or the Biggest Sale of the Year -- that always seem to happen every other month -- to save. What's more, outlet malls are no longer warehouses for designers' damaged or irregular goods, or out-of-season merchandise, the stuff they can't get rid of in high-end stores and boutiques.

The outlet mall industry has created its own line of clothes from fashion designers, said representatives of Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls. Designers like Michael Kors, Anne Taylor and Coach all have divisions that create outlet merchandise at great bargains.

And sometimes, it just takes a little looking around at what you already have. Here's how I put together my $13 special-occasion outfit:

*Hand-me-downs can be a step up. Don't turn your nose up at hand-me-downs. As it turns out, my little black dress was brand new and cost $140. The price tags were still on it, but I didn't pay a dime for it. A (generous) aunt had bought it, thinking she would lose enough weight to fit into it, but she never did.

Last summer she sent me several boxes of discarded clothes, and in one box was that dress never worn, fitting me perfectly and perfect for church, evening or formal wear -- all for FREE. How great is that!

And it cost only a few dollars less than a gorgeous silk or satin two-piece bridesmaid's ensemble I have to buy for a wedding later this year.

*Thrift stores are great places -- to find gaudy, simple or over-the-top costume jewelry that is just right for a specific ensemble, or to get a bright, colorful scarf to give an outfit a little pop. And the prices at second-hand shops are fabulous. Sure, you could go to an expensive boutique or specialty store, but you don't always have to. Chances are you may not get a lot of use out of special-occasion clothes, so why spend a lot of money on the accessories to jazz them up?

Fun, eclectic accessories are at the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Amvets and other second-hand shops like Hearts for the Homeless Thrift Shop at Ontario and Tonawanda streets.

The cute little black square purse with gold detail came from Amvets on Elmwood Avenue, and the necklace, bracelet and earring set came from Salvation Army on Military Road in Kenmore. Beware, if you have sensitive ears, like mine, it's probably a good idea to avoid the pierced earrings. All other accessories, I sanitized with hydrogen peroxide, bleach or alcohol.

*And don't forget to look way back in your own closet. You may be surprised with what you find. The ivory-colored, strappy sandals were packed away neatly in the attic with the rest of my Wedding Day garb. The shoes were in great condition, because I only wore them once. And they are still in style. I forgot all about them until I started looking in closets and in the attic (where we store seasonal clothes) for something to wear.

I can't wear them with everything, but it was nice to get some more use of out them. It was like a little wedding gift back to myself!

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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