New York–based stylist Ellianna Placas is an A-list fashionista who’s dressed celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Brazilian supermodel Camila Alves. Yet when she travels—say, to Milan Fashion Week—she always reserves a few days to scour outlet malls. She’ll even cross the Swiss border to the FoxTown outlet store in Mendrisio. Why? “It’s Prada, Prada, Prada,” she swoons, “and everything else you can think of—at more than half off!”
Placas isn’t alone, of course: the lure of the discount calls all types of shoppers. Outlets exist all over the globe—from Maine to Japan—and the best ones are destinations in and of themselves. For the bargain hunter, unearthing a deal on Gucci, Pucci, or Dolce & Gabbana can be just as adrenaline pumping as visiting the Mona Lisa.
So where and how did they begin? The late Dexter Shoe magnate Harold Alfond is credited with inventing the outlet concept in the 1960s at his factory in Maine—instead of junking imperfect pairs, he’d sell them at a reduced price. Since then, outlets have become a major worldwide business: they’re the ideal way of off-loading (often imperceptibly) imperfect merchandise as well as past-season premium goodies at deep discounts—often with no discernible difference in quality from what’s sold at your local department store (albeit in season).
As outlets took off around the globe, they underwent some adaptations too. Some are brand-specific, like the one for Le Creuset, the high-end cookware company based in the tiny northern French town of Fresnoy-le-Grand. Brits come here by the boatload to snap up cast-iron cooking pots and pans for around 50 percent off.
Other outlets cram tons of designer brands into a one-stop shopping experience. More than 200 stores make up Woodbury Common Premium Outlets, for example, 90 minutes north of New York City. So while the luxe shops of Fifth Avenue are great for window-shopping, head to Woodbury to buy. After all, you’ll find some of the same brands—Burberry, Armani, Coach—as you will in the city, but up to 65 percent off.
Treat malls like these as you would a destination: pick up a map and get to know its geography. “Outlets are set up for optimal shopping efficiency,” says Danica Lo, the editor of Racked.com. “Woodbury Common is shaped like a flower, so start from the middle and go around each petal.”
Then, hit the most important place first. Brands with lots of outlets (like Nike or Banana Republic) don’t have great deals, but designers with just a few stores, like Gucci and Anya Hindmarch, will usually offer steeper slashes.
Also, beware the companies whose outlets stock merchandise produced specifically for them—those aren’t discount deals, just cheap stuff. “It mostly happens with the mass market, but the labels are different from the normal store,” Lo explains. “The colors are often reversed; the Gap has a different label all together.”
Take these tips along on your next outlet excursion. And don’t forget to pack an extra suitcase.