Haute Couture Minus Haute Prices

A $1,100 quilted Chanel leather handbag for $650; Versace suits for half price; Jaeger wool coats at one-10th suggested retail price: It's enough to make a chic woman swoon.

Swank, secondhand clothing stores are popping up across the country, and bargain hunters are stocking their closets with haute couture designers.

Consider Nanette Perez, an administrative assistant in Chicago who earns $25,000 to $30,000 per year. She shops fashionable secondhand shops such as Bella Moda, an airy boutique off the city's posh Oak Street shopping district, and saves some $2,000 a year.

Ms. Perez estimates that half her wardrobe once belonged to someone else. She is especially proud of finding a black Claude Montana wool-crepe dress and jacket at a charity resale shop for $125, saving more than $400.

"When I told [my friends], they were like 'get outta here,' " she says. "They were amazed."

Women like Perez, whose sense of income might not match their sense of fashion, are making resale one of the fastest growing segments among retailers.

With less than 1 percent of the total retail market, sales of used merchandise outstripped the overall retail market, says Greg Key, an economist with the Bureau of Economic Analysis in Washington. Resale grew 23 percent from 1994 to 1997, he says, compared with 15 percent for total retail.

The numbers come as no surprise to Brenda Theus, owner of Bella Moda, where only top designers labels grace the racks.

Prices that are just peachy

Classical music wafts around the peach-hued store. Ankle-length ranch-mink coats line one side of the shop, opposite rows of Chanel and Armani suits.

Prices run $2,500 for the mink, $550 for a brown Armani viscose pantsuit, and $150 for a cashmere vest. The average price comes in at $350, Ms. Theus says, adding that shopping resale has lost its stigma.

"It really has nothing to do with one's socioeconomic background," she says.

Theus says her revenues grow at least 10 percent annually.

The trend may seem to contradict the powerful US economy, but consumers place increasing value on saving money, says John Challenger, who observes workplace trends for the Chicago-based outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

"In this era of you losing your job often and people living much more at the edge of their means, it's just a smart, right way to live,'' he says.

Supply is also on the upswing, says Candace Corlett, a retail analyst with WSL Strategic Retail in New York. This is an era of the impulsive purchase, and many women simply don't have enough time to wear their wardrobes.

"There are only seven days in a week, and you can only wear so many clothes," she says.

If they buy something new, they have to find closet space.

The clothes come from people like Carol May, who recently asked Theus to sell a lightweight celery-colored Chanel suit with vibrant blue, green, red, and yellow trim. Ms. May says she probably paid up to $5,500 but wore it once - tops.

"I never did like this on me," she says. "I never really wore it. I tried it on and took it off several times.''

Still, it's tough getting many would-be consumers to wear used clothing.

"So many people, when they think 'resale,' they think 'thrift,' " says Bonnie Barone, owner of Designer Resale of Chicago.

May, for example - Chanel purse over her shoulder, rhinestone-collared gray poodle in tow - says that while she would sell clothes on consignment, she likely wouldn't buy them.

"Generally speaking, I have enough out-of-date things in my closet. I don't need more."

You need it when?

It's also not the best way to outfit yourself for a party two nights away, Ms. Corlett says.

"The big difference is time. It's hit or miss in a consignment shop," she says. "It's OK if you go in and take a look for an interesting piece but not something you need right away."

But "need" is not always the motivator in a shopping trip.

The clothes can be compelling, the prices irresistible.

Ms. Barone's shop, for example, draws customers with its racks of sequined evening gowns ($295, once $600), rows of linen trousers ($28, once $85), and $6 cotton knit shorts with elastic waistbands (once $18).

Irresistible even for May: "I'm not opposed to a bargain," she says, fingering a Jil Sander jacket.

HINTS FOR SHOPPING ...

* Know the retail price, so you don't pay too much.

* Check for defects, because most sales are final.

* Try on all clothes. Sizes and styles vary.

* Scout out a variety of resale shops, so you know which carry your styles.

* Sign up for a store's mailing list for sales and special discounts.

* Ask about frequent-buyer programs.

* Ask the store to call you if a particular item arrives.

... AND SELLING RESALE

* Clothes must be in style, freshly cleaned, and free of stains and blemishes.

* Learn which shops sell what kind of merchandise.

* Know the shop's terms. Who sets the price? What's the consignment split? Does the shop charge a fee?

* Will you be paid in cash or a store credit?

* Will the store notify you when items sell, or will you have to make the call?

* Will the store keep your articles until they sell?

HOW TO FIND THE GOOD STUFF, CHEAP

The Internet Resale Directory to Secondhand, Surplus and Salvage (707-939-9124) lists 3,000 shops across the country, state-by-state.

Its Internet site (www.secondhand.com) also locates shops in many communities.

Check the Yellow Pages for:

* Consignment

* Resale

* Thrift

* Clothing bought and sold

The National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (800-544-0751) also provides a state-by-state list on its Web page: www.narts.org

For $3, NARTS also will mail consumers a list of member shops in their area. Send a check and a long, self-addressed stamped envelope to:

NARTS

P.O. Box 80707

St. Clair Shores, MI 48080

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