WalletPop's bargain eye for the laid-off guy: Get a GQ look for under $50

Ever since the Chicago Tribune gave me the heave-ho in April, I've been thinking a lot about my image and the way I dress. An awful lot.

Ready to hit the job market in mind, body, spirit and attitude -- but not in wardrobe -- I sought the advice of a true master, and a man after my own Italian roots. Marco Liotta, who owns two Amarcord Vintage Fashion stores in New York City, agreed to take me on as my fashion mechanic ... and just to make things interesting, we at WalletPop finessed Marco into the equivalent of one fashion-savvy arm tied behind his back. That is: Could he make me over at a Goodwill store, and on less than $50?

You see, I've only seriously interviewed for a job one time in 16 years, when Microsoft offered me a chance to jump ship. Jeans and rumpled dress shirts were just fine for that round of talks, but things have changed a lot since the go-go '90s. And something tells me that the striped rugby pullovers I love as casual wear won't cut it when a job opp opens up.

That said, I'm not big on suits and ties: They make me come across like a stiff corporate wonk spouting phony platitudes about creating shareholder value as we grow and all that rot.

The challenge set, I jetted from the Windy City to the Big Apple, and met Marco up at the Chelsea Goodwill, just steps from the Fashion District. The result? Marco not only made me over, he made me wiser, too. Here are ten things I learned about how clothes can make the man without breaking the bank.

1) BE OPEN TO BIG CHANGE, FOR SMALL CHANGE. This first step must precede all others. Just as getting laid off from a beloved job means you can't go back, moving ahead requires a willingness to accept new truths about what looks best on you. Marco taught me that there's a fine distinction between feeling comfortable and looking classy yet casual. To get there, I had to be willing to change some cherished notions about dressing the part-including, for starters, that you can't find wonderful dress clothes at a Goodwill.

2) BRING A FASHION MAVEN WITH YOU. Not everyone can have the fabulous council of a Marco Liotta. But all of us have friends who know their fashion Ps and GQs, if you will. Just as you wouldn't buy a suit without looking in the mirror, you need a "personal mirror" to help you see yourself in the best possible light. Marco helped me to think of myself in flattering positives-energetic, passionate, full of zest and enthusiasm-and then sought a look to amplify and focus these traits.

3) PLAY OFF THE ACCENTS. The very first thing Marco noticed about me was not the spinach pizza remnants in my teeth, but my Ermenegildo Zegna eyewear. These thick frames sport a translucent coffee tone streaked with azure blue, and Marco thought enough of them that he wanted to build an outfit to play off the frames as a capstone. This eliminated a lot of shirts in shades such as peach, purple or green that wouldn't work off the glasses.

4) ACCENTUATE YOUR BEST ATTRIBUTES. Certain patterns help a guy like me with a slight paunch-vertical stripes, for example. I never knew this pre-Marco, nor did I know that the horizontal stripes on my rugby shirts have an opposite effect, making me look chubbier. The two dress shirts we bought-each only $6-allowed me to use vertical stripes to my advantage. The J. Crew with tan-and-blue vertical stripes had the added bonus of playing off my eyeglass tones to a T.

5) NO TIE? NO PROBLEM. For someone like me, a writer, the trick is to look dignified without appearing stuffy. Marco taught me that wearing a shirt unbuttoned at the top suggests a sort of bold confidence-so long as the shirt and pants look just dressy enough. Did I add that ties with huge fluorescent marlins and flying toasters are not a good idea?

6) THE THRILL OF VICTORY, THE AGONY OF THE PLEATS. Like a lot of guys my age, a slight belly bulge poses problems. Since I'm way behind on my "Abs of Steel" workouts, Marco suggested avoiding pants with front pleats, which will spotlight any not-so-svelte stomach. We went for a $20 navy blue pair of pants that boasted a nice lining and lacked those telltale pleats. When I put them on, I looked and felt as if I had lost a few pounds, a great excuse to grab a cheeseburger afterwards.

lou carlozo7) BEWARE TELLTALE STAINS, RIPS, ETC. You've got to examine thrift store clothing carefully. Marco and I pulled out at least a dozen shirts that looked promising, yet upon closer inspection flunked for armpit stains, collar grime, rips in the fabric or other irreparable imperfections. If you're in doubt about a stain you see on a piece of clothing, assume you can't get it out. I took Marco's advice and kept combing the racks until we found shirts and pants that looked department store new.

8) EARN YOUR BLACK BELT FOR FINISHING TOUCHES. Marco loves black belts, and sure enough, a black leather belt provided another welcome accent to play off the Italian-made black shoes we found for just $15. A nice belt adds crisp definition and delineation to any look, and when I added the belt from home to my ensemble, it lifted up my new outfit by a notch.

9) MIX AND MATCH SHIRTS AND PANTS TO SEE WHAT COMBINATIONS WORK BEST. The true potential of a shirt may not reveal itself until it meets the right pair of pants, and pants that look good on the rack may not mesh well with any of the shirts you pick. Don't buy by looking at clothes on a mannequin: Try them on! Mix things up. Model for your fashionista friend, and literally see what works best on you.

10) FOR A FORMAL-YET-CAREFREE TWIST, VEST IS BEST. I've never worn vests in my life, ever. They remind me of something you'd see on a folk singer from 1962. But Marco convinced me to try a thin, powder blue sweater vest in lieu of a tie to pull my look together. And guess what? I loved how it looked on me.

Final tally for a dress shirt, a pair of dress pants, shoes and a vest: just under $40. And to test the look, I wore it on a jaunt through the WalletPop offices, not telling anyone at first that I'd just been thrift shopping. The looks from the office hotties? Priceless.
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