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Style steals: How to get the look for less

The dress is fashion's big new star this spring and summer. You can spend as much as $600 to own one. Or you can find a cool look for less than $50.

Credit the democratization of style.

It's easier than ever to look spiffy and up to date on a budget. Sure, it may take some judicious thinking, a few scouting trips and patience, but you can track the latest trends that work for you with almost the aplomb of a fashion magazine editor.

For one thing, looks trickle down very quickly from the runways to the lower price racks. The copies won't be exact. They will be in different, less pricey fabrics and only similar patterns. But you get the idea.

Stores such as Target, Wal-Mart and Swedish retailer H&M bring in special small designer collections for a limited time at the retailers' usual lower prices. Target's upcoming summer star is Patrick Robinson. Kohl's will have a special Vera Wang group in the fall.

London-based mass market retailer Topshop introduced a collection from model Kate Moss last week. At Barneys in New York, where the clothes go on sale today, prices range from $20 to $278.

With fashion still traipsing around the past, vintage and thrift stores offer even more opportunities for great finds. Look for pencil skirts from the `40s and `50s this summer.

Don't forget sales, although you may do better at the end of a season than the beginning.

Finally, check eBay for great vintage designer clothes or cheap chic designs. Be aware that eBay designer prices may be significantly elevated, especially for hot designer collections from the likes of H&M and Target. In Britain, Topshop is limiting consumers to five items to avoid eBay scalping.

"I never buy at full price," says Kate E. Burke, who is part of the production team at Kansas City's Tomboy design studio and in her spare time makes yarn and wooden bead jewelry. "I make a lot of things, and I mix and match."

She says her favorite sources include vintage stores, where she found her beloved cowboy boots. She also likes leggings, which can be cheap, and pumps up her look with oversized jewelry. Her advice is to look at high-style images such as those on style.com or a fashion magazine before you shop.

Marlys Arnold, a Kansas City image consultant, agrees. Visit upscale stores even if they are out of your budget to get a good idea of quality and current silhouettes. Try on a few pieces.

Choose your trends, says Kathryn Finney, blogger and author of "How to Be a Budget Fashionista."

"Decide what you actually need to fill in your wardrobe. Make the trends fit you," she says.

She suggests checking out junior departments and mall stores that cater to teens for trendy items. As for thrift stores, look at those in neighborhoods with an older population. They tend to have better-quality clothes.

And if you are not sure about an item no matter how big a bargain, walk away. "You can always come back."

Nonetheless, some items are worth an investment. Know when to save and when to splurge, Arnold says. Be willing to spend a little more for a classic garment such as a shirtwaist dress or leather handbag that will serve you long and well.

Another strategic note: Spend the most money on clothing that is closest to your face. It will be noticed more. The same goes for accessories. Shoes and great bags will be remembered longer than clothing.

By now you may have your list of spring and summer priorities. But we've also come up with a list of trends to consider:

The dress: It may have a high-waist, baby doll, wrap or shirt silhouette. It may be a mini or reach below your knees. In any event, if you don't already have one in your closet, put it on your list. We found a black-and-white skimmer at Kohl's for $33.60.

Something white: As spring moves into summer, white is in the front ranks. A short white linen jacket would go with everything from jeans to a bubble skirt and costs $44 at Kohl's.

A fancy white blouse: Some have lace insets, ruffles, ruching or fancy buttons. No matter. The pretty blouse is high on should-have lists. They've been all over the runways since last fall's spring shows. We found a beaded tunic blouse from Marshall's for $12.99. But they are available in a wide range of prices and styles.

A bubble skirt: They are not new but are still on the Top 10 roster thanks to the continuing girlish mood of fashion. Gap's $51.50 skirt is in strong geometric graphics, which makes it all the more current.

Flats: A ballerina shoe or a simple print flat. Any one is an easy add-on to spark up your wardrobe. Try several colors.

Tote: Big bags are everywhere. Because straw is good for a few summer months, don't spend very much money. Find a spacious straw good for the beach, errands or travel. The Gap sells them for $30 and $40.

Nautical stripes: The sailing theme was popular on spring fashion runways. It has been interpreted in many ways to fit your budget. Marshall's sells a striped rayon stretch tunic and belt.

Sundress: They are everywhere at many affordable prices.

Skinny pants: They have been around awhile, but they're not going away. You can still find them in jeans and khakis.

Not-so-short shorts: The knee-cropped pant is still around, but mid thigh shorts are getting considerable attention Find them for $40 at Express stores.

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