2006_06_kathrynfinneylg.jpgKathryn Finney knows how to shop better than anyone I know. During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I watched her scour a department store for the lowest-priced camisole they had, making her way through every rack until she hit upon just the right one. When I admired her jeans, she told me they were a Tommy Hilfiger pair she’d gotten for $8 at Filene’s Basement (what she calls “divine shopping intervention”). She regularly wears entire outfits that have cost her less than $20. How does she do it? Practice, practice, practice! The scientist turned professional shopaholic has parlayed her talent for bargain hunting into a successful website, The Budget Fashionista, and now a book, How To Be a Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous for Less.

After putting her master's degree in epidemiology from Yale to good use, Minnesota native Finney decided to focus on her first love, fashion, with the launch of Thebudgetfashionista.com in 2003, and hasn’t looked back. She keeps track of trends, dishes advice, and counsels those tempted to overspend on a top they’ll only wear once. She’s provided clothing commentary for numerous TV programs and publications, and serves as one of “America’s Smartest Shoppers” for The Style Network. On her blog, she offers coupons, sales news, interviews, and advice, which the book expands upon with sections such as “How to Pull Off the High-Low Look,” “Developing Your Signature Piece,” and knowing when it’s “The End of a Trend.”

On her website, one can find tips on cleaning a white leather handbag, interviews with the likes of Village Voice fashion writer Lynn Yaeger, and answers to common swimwear questions. Finney also offers shopping guides to major cities across the country, as well as advice on waxing your legs, maternity fashions, and a multi-part “Ultimate Guide to Underpants.”

From the right lip gloss to garage sale haggling to making sense of a disorganized store, she knows where to find the latest and greatest items (hint: you might have to do a little digging) at the lowest cost possible. A major fan of Target, Finney has also shopped around the world and offers tips for travelers as well as bargain hunters at home. It’s not about shopping more frequently, but shopping smarter, becoming an “active” rather than “passive” consumer. Finney recently gave Gothamist the scoop on when to be label-obsessed, her style icon grandmother, and where to shop for less in New York City and beyond.

You chronicle some of your childhood fashion addictions in the book, but can you tell me how exactly you became a budget fashionista? What were your favorite clothing items growing up?
I was always around fashion. My grandmother was a seamstress and had all these great magazines like Vogue and Mirabella. I remember reading about Diane Vreeland in an old dusty copy of Vogue and using old Bazaars as inspiration for a dress design for my Barbies. However, growing up in Minnesota, I also had a healthy dose of frugalness, which I promptly forgot as soon as I landed at Newark International Airport.

My favorite item growing up was my pair of Guess? jeans with the zipper at the ankle. I had to go into deep negotiations with my parents for that pair of jeans, which I treasured like they were diamonds. I also love this rabbit fur coat because it looked like a coat worn by Diana Ross (whom I loved). It was a white, cropped little number, that I rocked so much that my mother had to pry it off my body. Damn I wish I had that coat now.

2006_06_kathrynfinneybk.jpgBefore we get to the site, tell me about what you were doing before you started it.
Talk about a transition . . . I've always had a love of fashion and style, but where I'm from, smart girls don't do fashion. You become a lawyer or a doctor or something “noble.” So, I spent about $80,000 on a very expensive Ivy League graduate degree in epidemiology (the study of diseases and their effect on populations—not the study of skin) and worked for about 4 years in academia (which was boring) and for nonprofits (which was tiring).

Believe it or not, some of the tools I used when working in epidemiology, I use now in fashion. For example, trend curves resemble epidemic curves.

How did the site get started, and how has it grown since then? Do you write all of the posts yourself?
The Budget Fashionista was started in the spring of 2003 as an outlet for my shopping and fashion addiction. I was living in Philly, newly married, with no friends or family nearby, so the only person I could talk about my shopping experiences and tips with was my husband, who really could care less about the fact that Tom Ford left Gucci. He set up the blog for me using Movable Type and I started to write every day, sometimes several times a day.

In January of 2004, the Associated Press featured an interview with me in an article about sample sales and the site started to really boom from there. It led to a brief stint as a fashion editor at the now defunct REAL magazine. Not long after that, I was contacted by my literary agent, Nicholas Lewis, who asked if I had ever considered writing a book with some tips and homespun shopping advice.

I write 99.9% of the posts myself. The only time the posts are written by someone else is when I take the very rare vacation. We also have a newsletter and I do work with other people in writing that. But everything on the site is written by yours truly.

What's the most popular part of the site? Is there a typical TBF reader?
The two most popular parts of the site, besides the general blog, are my listings of the top sample sales in New York, LA, and online and our online coupon section with discounts to online stores like Target, Zappos, and Figleaves.

We don't have an average reader. I get emails from teens and grandmothers, working women and stay at home moms. What has surprised me is the number of guys who read the site. It’s led to a whole section on fashion advice for men.

Can you define a bargain for us? Because some of the things you talk about in the book, like $6,000 bags marked down to $2,000, are clearly still not affordable for most of us. Are bargains subjective depending on how much you want to/can spend?
I define a bargain as an item at least 30% off retail price that you would consider purchasing at full price if you had unlimited resources. Shoppers often make the mistake of confusing an item that is low quality but cheap with a bargain. Look, if you spend $5 on an item that you'll never wear just because it's on sale, then you just wasted $5. That's not a bargain.

You live in the New York metropolitan area, where so much of fashion is centered. Was it a challenge to write a book that addressed readers across the country? Are fashions universal or specific to one's local area?
Although I've lived on the east coast for 12 years, I'm still a Midwestern girl at heart so it wasn't difficult to write a book to appeal to everyone. I think there are some basic fashion rules that aren't geographically specific: few people look good in low-low rise pants, and horizontal stripes make you look wider unless worn under a suit jacket.

However, there are some modifications you should make depending on your geographical location. For example, if you live in New York City, you can wear more fashion forward pieces without incurring stares, whereas if you live in Montana, wearing ultra trendy items might turn a few heads. Or if you live in a cold climate like North Dakota, you might want to throw on the pantyhose regardless of whether or not they're in style.

You talk about labels in the book a lot, and when to splurge and when it's okay to go for a knockoff. What is it about certain labels that give them an instant cache, regardless of the actual item? When is it most important to be label-obsessed?
Certain labels convey instant status and say to onlookers that you are of a certain income level. For example, a real Hermes Kelly bag—which is both expensive and hard to score—says that you have enough disposable income to spend $10,000 on a bag and connections to get the bag before others on the two year+ long waiting list.

However, I don't think it's ever important to be label-obsessed. Having a label doesn't always mean the item is quality. In How to Be a Budget Fashionista, I also discuss the importance of focusing on how an item looks on you before checking out the label. Because purses and shoes can be used to "fake" income level, I suggest that readers outline themselves with expensive designer accessories and "color in" with significantly lower priced garments like pants, tops, etc.

You make a huge point about wearing "good undergarments" and have written several underwear guides on your site. What's the main underwear problem women face and what should they do about it? How does this affect the rest of their shopping endeavors?
The main problem is ill-fitting bras and the solution is to get measured by someone who knows what they’re doing at your local department store. When you do go to get measured, ask if the person has been certified or has received any formal training in bra fitting.

You also offer tips on the blog, such as a recent one about cleaning espadrilles. Do you always know the answers to the queries you get, and if not, where do you find them?
Some questions, I know the answers to because it seems like everyone pretty much has the same questions/thoughts. However, for those questions I don't have the answers to, I use my research background to find the answers.

If you make millions off the site and the book, will you still be a bargain-hunting budget fashionista or will you forsake it all and pay retail?
I'm inherently cheap, so I will still continue to bargain shop. Sometimes bargain shopping isn't about the price, but the hunt.

You've said that your grandmother, who's in her eighties, is the most fashionable person you know and a huge influence on you. Can you describe her sense of style and what you've retained from her look?
My grandmother has the inate ability to always know what looks good on her at all points of her life and that is something that has heavily influenced my own personal style. What I wore when I was 20 isn't the same look I wear now at 30, because, thank god, I'm not the same person. Your style needs to grow with you, without suffocating you in boredom. My grandmother understands this and applies [this philosophy] to her shopping. We'll both shop at Forever 21, but what she buys (mostly accessories) and how she wears it is very different than what I buy (leggings, t-shirts) and how I wear them.

You said that you have a lot of male readers. Do you have any specific posts or advice for men? Is it harder for men to shop on a budget than women? What kinds of tips are they looking for when it comes to clothing?
I get a lot of questions from male readers and have created a special category for men's fashion advice. It is harder for men to budget shop than men, womostly because their are many more budget friendly stores for women than men and men's clothing tends to be more expensive to make than women's clothing. For example, those broom peasant skirts or a pair of black leggings are significantly cheaper to make than a pair of men's wool slacks which require a high quality fabric and more detailed construction. Men are looking for tips on how to stay stylish without looking like Carson Kressley from Queer Eye from the Straight Guy. Women tend to want more detailed tips, like how to dress for certain body types, whereas men tend want more generic information on where to shop and what to buy once they're there.

You have a great fondness for Target and its designer budget lines, especially Mossimo. What's so great about the store, and how often do you visit?
Target made great design affordable. Designers like Isaac Mizrahi, Luella Bartley, and Michael Graves, designers who normal people with very normal budgets could only afford in our dreams, were as close to us as our nearest Target store and the products they designed for the store weren't subpar or a piece of crap. Target wasn't the first to do the whole high-end designer line at a budget store (in fact, Halston did a line at JC Penney's in the 70’s), but they've done it better than anyone else. I shop at Target at least once a week and I also do quite a bit of shopping online as well as at their Red Hot Shop.

You recently found a Zac Posen cashmere blend coat marked down from $2,900 to $108.50 (and said it made you cry). Do you just have magic eyes or can anyone find such fabulous bargains?
I don't have magic eyes—but I do know when to shop, where to look, etc. For example, most stores put out new merchandise on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The best time to shop for great deals is during the change of seasons (January/February for fall merchandise, August/September for spring/summer merchandise). Stores usually place the best deals in the interior of the store, rather than along the aisles, which is where they place the stuff they’re trying to push.

At the end of the book, you say that you want to inspire readers to be active consumers, not passive ones. What's the distinction?
Active consumers understand why they are buying an item—how it fits into their closets, personal style, lives, etc., whereas passive consumers buy whatever the latest "It" girl is wearing, regardless whether it looks good on them (i.e., low rise pants). Active consumers focus less on trends and more on what makes them look and feel good.

Where are your favorite places to shop?
Gabays - Best kept secret in NYC. Great for designer bags and shoes.

Housing Works Thrift Shop - Sort of like a consignment shop/high end thrift shop.

Salvation Army in Jersey City - Many of the top consignment shops come here to buy clothes to resell in their shops for significantly higher prices. I found two vintage Norma Kamali dresses for $2.99 a piece and a pair of Marc Jacob black slacks for $4.99.

H&M on 33rd and 7th - Because they tend to have stock longer than the overshopped 50th and 5th Avenue location.

Strawberrys - I love this store! Lots of stylists shop at this store.

And of course - Century 21.

What's next for you?
After all of the book stuff (this summer I'm spreading the gospel of budget shopping through an 11 city book/media tour), I'm starting to work on my next book and just continuing to dish budget shopping and fashion tips on my blog. And of course . . . I'll be shopping.

Visit www.thebudgetfashionista.com for more information. How To Be a Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous for Less is on sale now.