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Christene Barberich: How I Shop

The co-founder of 'Refinery29' and author of a book about personal style knows a thing or two about getting dressed.
Christene Barberich in her signature cropped trousers. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

Christene Barberich in her signature cropped trousers. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend, and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in the fashion industry with our column, "How I Shop."

Christene Barberich and I met unexpectedly at London Fashion Week a few years ago, seated side by side at a Roksanda show. Tall, lean and impeccably — but by no means conventionally — stylish, the co-founder and editor in chief of Refinery29 immediately impressed me not only with those traits, but also her approachability and humility — not to be taken for granted in an editor who reaches an audience of more than 25 million every month.

I've met with Barberich on several occasions since, taking the opportunity to study her carefully cultivated style: her center-parted red hair, pulled low in a chignon; her trademark gold-rimmed glasses (vintage Nina Ricci); her revolving assortment of brightly patterned coats, culottes and block heels. Inevitably, our conversations turn to shopping. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how women shop (and shopping for myself), there's something cathartic about talking to someone similarly interested, and Barberich, a self-described "shoe and coat girl," is certainly deserving of the moniker "shopping expert."

We sat down at Refinery29's downtown office to discuss her approach to shopping and personal style (the subject of a book she recently helped compile). Read on — we promise you'll pick up a helpful tip or several along the way.

Christene Barberich in a Karen Walker coat. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

Christene Barberich in a Karen Walker coat. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

"My mom grew up in a lower middle class family, and her mother, who was a dressmaker, routinely took her to thrift stores and tag sales. [My mom] finds incredible things and has a great eye for fabrics. I in turn have found some of my favorite vintage designer things at thrift stores, like a beautiful black satin vintage Donna Karan tuxedo blazer that fits like it was made for me.

Like most people who love fashion, thrifting is an incredible means of getting things that don't cost a ton of money. It's also really eye-opening. I think that magazines and fashion advertisements kind of train you to like a certain thing, or to wear something a certain way, and in thrift stores, it's totally the opposite. You have to use your instincts to identify a great print, or identify the finish of a fabric that stands out in a sea of black blazers. I found this vintage black YSL cape from the Morocco collection sometime in the '70s, still with tassel attached to the hood, at the Salvation Army. My mother and I almost wept.

I have become a bit snobbier about the quality of thrifting. I really do like sourcing very well-curated vintage stores that aren't exorbitantly overpriced, like Madame Pauline Vintage in Milan, and Nomad Vintage and Vintage Thrift Shop in New York — I've found beautiful vintage Dior dresses there. I have a friend, Gigi Guerra from Target, and we'll plan an entire day in Jersey or Long Island and spend 45 minutes in each store and keep going. We'll come out of some places with huge shopping carts of stuff. That's a really nice feeling, to have a pure physical reaction when you see something that isn't intended to make you excited. In stores it's so much about merchandising, being so seductive.

I'm a big Ebayer. I have a list of like 300 designers and brands I follow — Dries Van Noten coats and shoes, Geoffrey Beene, Donald Brooks, Jean Muir, Teal Traina, Norman Norell, Malcolm Starr. I'll search for something like "vintage tapestry," get 8,000 results, and look at all the highest-priced things first, just to get a sense of what good pieces are there, and what other search terms I could use. If I find something I like, I'll look at the seller's page and see what other stuff he's got. That's where the best steals are, the things that don't have a designer name attached to them.

What I really invest in is lingerie. I wouldn't say I overspend — it's just the area that I don't necessarily go cheap in. Because you can really see the difference in how it fits. The older I get, the less I want to be uncomfortable in my bra and don't want underwear that's going to give me a wedgie. I really care what I look like in my underwear before I get dressed, which is a stage a lot of women just want to forget about, they just want to get dressed. But it's an essential stage in outfit planning, it makes you feel like you're taking care of yourself. I like La Perla, Eres, Lonely — which is kind of an ironic name for lingerie.

Christene Barberich. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

Christene Barberich. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

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But otherwise it's all about coats and shoes. I have a lot of vintage coats, only because they're easy and because they make anything look awesome. There's something really effortlessly glamorous about a long maxi coat or an opera coat if it has a great print and is nicely fitted in the shoulders. Throw it on and you're done. My bag game needs some work — I have like three of four bags that I love. I don't think I aspire to Eva Chen status, where she has a magnificent bag every day of her life, but it could use some work.

I buy something I would say twice a week. Sometimes once a week, sometimes more if I'm prepping for fashion week. I want to feel like I have what I need, and things I love. There's nothing worse than like getting dressed in a hurry and hating what you're wearing when you're going to be surrounded by people who are dressed to perfection.

Am I a shopping addict? I think the word 'addict' evokes really negative perceptions. I love to shop. Because I don't think it's the act of shopping, it's about finding the one. I think people who love fashion are in constant pursuit of finding the things that make them feel like it's made for them, that have eluded them their whole lives, like a great pair of jeans or a bathing suit that feels transformative. It's a hobby and I don't think there's any shame in that. I don't think it's gender-related, either. I know lots of men who shop more than I do. I think there's something about the thrill of the hunt. That's why I love Ebay so much. I've only bought two things on Ebay that cost more than $1,000: a vintage Hermes sterling silver necklace that I treasure, and a Proenza Schouler dress from a few seasons ago that was sold out in my size [in store].

I don't have a budget. I just instinctually know when I'm headed over the edge, some grotesque place where I start feeling physically bad or guilty. I just bought two pairs of Rachel Comey shoes. I probably only need one, not both, and I did feel badly after that. I must have 50 pairs of Rachel Comey shoes, they're so practical and timeless.

I try to take shopping breaks sometimes. I have to have blinders on; I can't look through magazines or any stories. That's the only way I can not buy things. It's a sport to some degree for me, I need that — it's the same way you feel after running, there's a certain sense of relief that comes from buying something you really, really love. And I feel so sorry for people that don't understand that because it's an awesome feeling. There are times when I am falling asleep and I find it really relaxing just to think about what I'll wear the next day, or think about something I discovered that day I am mulling over in my brain.

I buy mostly online. I made the switch when stores started getting good apps and work got busier. I don't have time to go up to Barneys and scour the store anymore. And on the weekends, when I do have time, the last thing I want to do is fight crowds in Soho or Nolita. I much prefer to hide out in Brooklyn and shop online. Or go to an empty thrift store everyone else thinks is gross. I don't plan ahead; everything I buy is in the moment.

My personal style is a work in progress. I'm constantly adding and subtracting and editing, and discovering things in my closet just by virtue of wearing it in a different way, or feeling a different kind of confidence about myself. I think there's just a clarity that I've gotten as I've grown older, where I really have a sharp instinct about what is right for me and what isn't. I also have more of a sense of humor about getting dressed. Having co-started this company with our other partners, I feel like there is a certain culture that we've created that really fosters self-expression, and I'm proud that Refinery is an environment where people feel like they can express themselves and wear what they want; it's given me a lot of freedom to wear what I want to wear. I also feel fortunate that there's just so many opportunities to wear different, cool, strange things in my life.

Christene Barberich. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

Christene Barberich. Photo: Kristiina Wilson

I have a few [default outfits]. I have like 15 pairs of cropped wide-leg pants, mostly Rachel Comey, because they fit and they're comfortable. The pitfall is that I look the same all the time. I tend to wear them with sheer oversized shirts to try to create dimension. I'm small on top and bigger on the bottom, and have gotten pretty good at accommodating my shape in a way that just makes me feel confident and comfortable. I generally wear high heels — pumps or platforms and high-heeled booties. I used to be really self-conscious about wearing heels, because I'm so tall — I'm 5'9". I just don't [care] anymore. Over the past three years I've mastered walking in heels, and become an expert at brands that make really comfortable heels for walking in — I like Rachel Comey, Dries van Noten, Prada, Miu Miu, Giulietta. You can't wear heels just for standing around at parties, not when they cost $750 or more.

I have a normal-sized regular closet and an off-season closet. I also keep the more obscure vintage stuff on a rolling rack at my mom's house in Long Island. I have this huge raffia ball skirt there, it's completely see through and I'm not sure it's intended for actual wear, but at some point in my life I'll wear it.

It's really important to fully wear your closet. When you're just wearing this little section, it's a real disservice to you and your space. If I pull something out I haven't worn in a couple of years, and feel uncomfortable that day, I will get rid of it. Your closet really should be a sanctuary, reflecting back at you and making you feel beautiful, showing yourself there, not somebody else. A lot of people are seduced by wanting to look like somebody else.

I plan my fashion week outfits to a degree. It's important you have outfits that you can count on, that feel elevated and cool but also are comfortable and you can run around in and don't feel like you're wearing a costume. I know the statement pieces that I want to work with, and a couple of pretty sort of planned outfits will come out of that, but it's never set in stone. For a couple of seasons I borrowed a lot of things, but didn't feel comfortable. I'm still happy to borrow things from designers I have great relationships with and I know personally, but this season I wore a lot of my own stuff, and I wore a ton of Antonio Marras, his stuff is really dreamy in every sense of the word, just the embroidery and his tailoring and he has such an artfulness to how he designs for women, I think he's a real master at sophisticated whimsy.

I get almost everything tailored and it makes a huge difference. I go to my local dry cleaner for the pretty standard stuff, like getting a waist taken in. Anything more complicated, I go to Ghost Tailor. She does work for Marc Jacobs, and used to work for Louis Vuitton when Marc Jacobs was there. You have to make an appointment, and she's expensive, but she'll make [a garment] look as good on as you as possible."