Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Some people think the Financial District's Century 21 is a temple of designer discounts. Others believe it's the level of hell that Dante left out. As for veteran fashion writer Mark Ellwood, he sees it as a place to buy an entire wardrobe on the cheap without investing over an hour and a half of your time. Ellwood is currently working on a book about luxury bargains called Discount Nation. This morning, he took a break from research to teach us his Century 21 secrets, which we've laid out below in seven steps.
1) Get there early. Says Ellwood, "Don't come at lunchtime, don't come after work, come before work." The Cortlandt Street location opens at 7:45am on weekdays. At 8am today, it felt like a library.
2) Only visit the store twice a year: Once in early February and once in early August, because that's when the showrooms empty out their samples. Ellwood explains that Century 21 doesn't cherrypick merchandise like other discount stores, and they're known for paying instantly. That makes showrooms want to do business with them, which is why they get the good stuff. (Fair warning: The clothing will be new to Century 21, but isn't always from last season.)
3) Show up three times a week for two weeks. You're not going to get everything you want on your first trip. This sounds insane, but keep in mind that you're only stopping in for 15 minutes. These are targeted missions, people.
4) About that targeting: Don't browse. "Come armed with a list of the designers you know you like and you know fit you," says Ellwood. (For him, that's Marc Jacobs, John Varvatos, and Nicole Farhi.)
5) Don't bother with the denim or the cheap stuff. Ellwood explains, "You're better off going to H&M or Topshop—it's the same quality and they'll have your size." Also, by skipping everything but the designer merch, you're cutting out half the floor.
6) Never try anything on in-store. See something you like? Buy it in your usual size, one size up, and one size down. This will obviously get expensive, but it's a short-term expense. Give yourself a budget just to be safe.
7) At the end of the three-week shopping period, try on every single piece in your haul. Decide what you want to keep, then take the rest of it back. Ellwood says Century 21 has a laid-back returns policy, as long as they don't think you're trying to scam them. "Tell them, 'I couldn't be bothered to try it on,'" he says. "They won't bat an eyelash." The return process will take more than 15 minutes, but if you go at 8am, it shouldn't last much longer than half an hour, after which you can head into the office knowing that you've successfully gamed the discount-shopping system before most people have even had their morning coffee.
· Century 21 [Official Site]
· @markjellwood [Twitter]