Credit where credit's due
New York is a city full of discount stores, designer outlets, sample sales, thrift shops, swap meets, street stalls and guys appearing on the corner with hot merchandise - even the occasional dumpster if you are really that desperate.
New Yorkers take it as their civic duty never to pay full price. Even if they can't get it wholesale, they can have the satisfaction of getting it for less than wholesale at some well-known outlets.
Most visitors are clued in to the Century 21 department stores and know not to confuse them with the real estate agency of the same name. Way back in century 20, I discovered this downtown discount fashion store, which in those days was cluttered, dingy and unfriendly. You had to try on clothes surreptitiously behind the racks because trying on was discouraged (there were no fitting rooms). But it was worth it.
Century 21 sells designer items from manufacturers that have been overproduced from the season before. Because it stocks mostly high-end and avant-garde fashion, only the most demanding fashion maven would find the clothing "old hat".
Prices are regularly about half to one-third of the original retail price and the Century 21 registers kindly print your actual savings in bold numbers on the receipt.
Better still, if you hit Century 21 at sales time the savings are even more impressive. And at the very dregs of the season there are always unbelievable bargains - even if you have to repair the odd hole or straggly hem.
These days Century 21 has two Manhattan outlets, one in Brooklyn and four more around the state. (See c21stores.com for locations.)
Many travellers have embraced Century 21, including Europeans taking advantage of the weak US dollar. The European clothes are cheaper here than they are in Europe - way cheaper, judging by the trolleys full of clothing the French and Italians were carting around when I last visited.
It's fabulous for bed linen, sunglasses, bags, lingerie and menswear, as well as women's designer brands. The women's shoe department has been extended and now it's a huge labyrinth.
I think the store has lost a little of its charm now that it caters so much to tourists, but it's a nicer shopping experience (lots of fitting rooms) and it's always my first stop when I arrive in town.
A couple of words of advice from a veteran: The store takes up a whole block and there are four entrances. Enter on Broadway if you want to visit the shoe department, otherwise it's a nightmare. And because the stock is changed, or moved around constantly, it's wise to visit often. One morning there might be a whole rack of Missoni that wasn't there the day before, or the perfect size has materialised from the fitting room or from the wrong rack.
The best tip is to go early and avoid weekends. The store opens at 7.30am most weekdays. I'm often at the doors then. I have a friend who spends so much time in Century 21 she has moved to an apartment at Wall Street so she can get there early.
Less well-known to visiting bargain hunters are the consignment shops that are scattered through most New York neighbourhoods.
Because New York is a garment industry town and the major fashion publications are based there, these boutiques are stocked with the barely worn freebies and samples the city's fashion editors are sent on a regular basis. The editors make a little pocket money by selling them on to less fortunate consumers.
You do find the occasional vintage here but mostly the consignment stores stock fashions that are current, anything from a season to a few years old.
Most of the boutiques won't accept anything that's mass market and the fashion editors pass on some exceptionally good clothing and accessories. So prices can seem a bit shocking at first for second-hand.
But canny shoppers know that in reality these items are good value, especially for couture or timeless labels like Chanel. More obscure designers are marked less, so if you've got an eye you can do well.
I like the Ina consignment boutiques in Soho and Noho at 101 Thompson Street and 21 Prince Street. (For other Ina stores see inanyc.com.)
Ina seems to have the most current fashions and the best quality, perhaps because the fashion set mostly live downtown.
Garments that have been on the racks too long get marked down, so there's always the chance of getting a real bargain. You can shop online too.
Consignment stores tend to cluster and there's a group of them on the Upper East Side on Madison and Lexington avenues. Most of the clothes and accessories here have been donated by the wealthy residents of this part of town and tend to be a little more conservative than what you find downtown at Ina. And, even though they're sold at prices way below what they would fetch if new, it's not Target.
You have to wade through a lot of clothing suitable for Park Avenue matrons and sometimes it means walking up narrow steps into airless rooms. But if you're after a Birkin bag, for instance, recently I spotted one at A Second Chance (1109 Lexington) for $13,000, along with a $6000 Goyard case and a $15,000 vintage Vuitton trunk.
At Michael's (1041 Madison Avenue) I was sorely tempted by an immaculate Yves Saint Laurent "smoking" tuxedo for $550. Other boutiques in this cluster include Second Time Around (1040 Lexington Avenue) and a more fashion-forward store called Margoth at 218 East 81st Street, where you might be able to snaffle some discount Dries van Noten or Jil Sander.
Considerably cheaper still are New York's many thrift shops run by charities. Housing Works, a charity that cares for the homeless and those living with AIDS, runs several really wonderful thrift shops throughout the city, selling furniture, books, clothing, shoes and household goods donated by New Yorkers.
The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 126 Crosby Street in Soho is an amazing treasure trove of second-hand books with a popular cafe in the back. A couple of doors up, at 130 Crosby Street, you can find one of its many thrift stores (visit housingworks.org for more locations.) On my last visit I nabbed a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes in great condition for $20.
But the real secret is a group of thrift stores in the quiet Yorkville neighbourhood, which tourists rarely visit. The downtown vintage and thrift shops can be a little pricey but, conversely, on the ritzy Upper East Side the charity shops offer phenomenal bargains.
Donated clothing, household goods, jewellery, accessories and paintings reflect the neighbourhood's wealthy patronage, but the prices are absurdly low in many cases. I don't care for furs, but if you want a floor-length stranded mink coat for $1500, then head there.
There are several of these charity stores all in walking distance from the 77th Street subway stop on the Lexington line. The gem of the lot is The Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Centre Thrift Shop at 1440 Third Avenue, a genteel boutique staffed by chatty volunteers, with a designer room in the back where the donated Chanels are kept and a caged area where used minks are locked in case they escape!
In the designer room you might find an Armani wool suit for $200, a black silk Givenchy tuxedo for $175 and a magnificent red ruffled silk evening skirt by Valentino for $185.
The downside is New York's Social X-Rays have donated here (including the legendary Nan Kempner, who bequeathed her whole wardrobe to the charity) so many of the sizes are Nancy Reagan-ish.
Apart from furs at a fraction of their retail price, real pearls and smart handbags, the shop also sells lots of Ferragamo shoes, clearly the shoe of choice for the ladies who lunch.
In the nearby Cancer Care Thrift Shop at 1480 Third Avenue I spotted another Valentino, this time a red silk chiffon gown for $250 and a beautiful shearling coat for $200.
The Arthritis Foundation Thrift Shop at 1383 Third Avenue is one of my favourites.
While you're in the area you might also want to drop into the Spence-Chapin school's thrift shop at 1850 Second Avenue.
Finally, if second-hand is not your thing, there are regular designer sample sales held almost daily throughout the city. To find out when, check Time Out's shopping pages when there.
The writer travelled as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines.