An ABC department store saleswoman eyed a customer skeptically as she sifted greedily through a row of sale racks touting 60 percent off $500 jackets. She walked over and whispered, her mouth restraining a smirk: “You should go to Burj Hammoud, it would be much cheaper there.”
Beirut’s pronounced economic disparities ensure a range of shopping, from the gut-wrenching prices at luxury stores in Beirut Souks to the mass-produced tacky duds ever for sale in Burj Hammoud and Furn al-Shubbak.
The savviest shopper, the experts say, will keep both options in their style arsenal.
The wardrobe of a smart, classy shopper combines high-quality staple items that will withstand wear and tear and the coming and going of trends with inexpensive jewelry and basics.
“It’s not a question of money, if you look at the people who can afford anything, they are still shopping at Topshop and H&M,” said Nadine Zeni, a Beirut-based fashion designer.
Zeni, who leads a readywear line and made-to-order atelier with her namesake, says there are a handful of absolute staples that should come from the higher-end, higher-quality shops.
A dark, tailored jacket was first on Zeni’s list. A blazer or lightweight jacket, coupled with anything from shorts to a cocktail dress, moves seamlessly from day to night.
A fitted jacket with subtle detail to suit its wearer – maybe with shoulder pads, or Zeni’s spring-summer rendition with gold studs – gives any outfit a higher level of sophistication, she said.
“And it’s timeless, so it’s a good investment,” she said.
Timelessness is key, said Zeni and Lebanese-American stylist Ayah Ajam, who works between Beirut and Los Angeles.
The pair agreed that high-end, quality leather bags are non-negotiable staples because they’re used daily and age very well.
Zeni prescribes to the regimen of one designer bag splurge per year. Zeni herself offers snakeskin and python-skin bags in every dye from natural colors to hot pink.
She warned not to fall victim to the “fad bag,” the high-end design that everyone has to have and other brands knock off.
A recent example is the canvas Longchamp tote.
The design’s intense popularity one season will look strikingly outdated as soon as the trend fades, rendering the expensive bag a bit of a waste.
“That same designer will have many timeless designs, but stay away from that specific design,” Zeni said.
Other items worth the investment include fabrics that would clearly look and feel fake if bought cheaply, for instance a leather jacket or cashmere sweater.
To the list, Ajam added a designer watch and diamond studs: more staples that bring a level of sophistication to any jeans-and-T-shirt combination.
Expensive intimates are also important, Ajam said. Luxury underwear has an empowering effect, as its wearer knows she’s dressed to the nines from the first layer to the last.
At the other end of the spectrum, the experts recommended sticking to the inexpensiveshops with great deals for items like jewelry, tops and denim.
“Anything that’s casual, like denims, they are nicer if you buy from the high street because they are hip,” Zeni said.
Ubiquitous brands like Vera Moda, Zara and H&M offer quality basic denims – a denim jacket is Ajam’s style du jour, she said – without the designer prices.
The two agreed that these days, readywear shops offer on-point designer imitations and often their graphic T-shirts and tops are cheap and trendy.
Such shops often offer more styles of basic shirts and tops, as well as accessories and dresses, than at designer stores.
“It’s not like pre-2000, where a low price store meant you had to sacrifice on the design and tailoring,” Ajam said.
“These days you can find amazing pieces that you probably shouldn’t expect to find anywhere else.”
Ajam recommended Stradivarius in Beirut Souks as a treasure trove of inexpensive, fun trendy items.
“I bought a pair of harem-style jeans and casual ankle boots from there once that everyone keeps asking about. I get asked by celebrities and stylists in L.A. on top of that,” Ajam said.
Both also vehemently urged shoppers to buy inexpensive costume jewelry because designer costume jewelry uses the same cheap metals and materials.
“The only reason you pay more is because of the brand,” Zeni said.
Costume jewelry, like hair bands, chunky rings, bracelets and statement necklaces, go out of style quickly or become boring after many wears. For these reasons, both designers said it’s better to get lots of cheap things often, then to splurge on something that will go out of style.
Shoppers are better off buying cheap sunglasses as well, Ajam said.
A number of items can be bought inexpensively but require an investment of time.
For instance, a pair of nude heels, a little black dress and a winter jacket: None need to be overly expensive, but they require lots of trying on and lip biting before settling on perfection.
Cheap shoes fall apart fast and end up looking cheap before their owners tire of them. So search for shoes with a modern shape and good sturdy materials, Ajam said.
And for heels, comfort is king.
“High heels can look good, but whether you splurge or save, the No. 1 priority should be that they are comfortable. Otherwise they won’t be a joy to wear,” Ajam said.
Same goes for outerwear, which never needs to be bought at top dollar. Sturdy winter coats abound at inexpensive shops but you could also go to high-end stores that slash the prices of basic, timeless winter coats each spring and summer.
Zeni said scouring sales at designer stores for things like jackets, cashmeres as well as other winter textiles, and purses can really pay off when you purchase timeless pieces on sale during the off-season.
She also cautioned against buying 100-percent silk or wool, which will add up in dry-cleaning bills and are a pain to take care of.
Eveningwear also goes out of style relatively quickly and isn’t worn enough to spend on – the little black dress being the only exception.
“The high street has become very, very smart about their designs. They get inspired by big-name designers,” Zeni said. “Look for a couple of items that are spot on the trend of the season – this season it’s peplum – get one or two of these key trends and you’ll look very contemporary, but you didn’t pay anything.”