Carolyn Asome: looking stylish on a budget

Carolyn Asome: looking stylish on a budget

'How much?,’ I shrieked like a fishwife into the phone. ‘No more than £35,’ came Hannah’s cool reply.

Instyle’s fashion features editor had just set me a challenge to see if I could source five new-season, on-trend items from the high street or charity shops for the princely sum of £35 each. I was also allowed to alter any existing clothes I own and, as I’m 5ft, permitted to buy kids’ clothes. Easy for some perhaps, but here’s a confession: rarely do I shop on the high street. No, I don’t own three holiday homes, but it’s a decision that is largely informed by the way I like to dress. I don’t crave new items every week like some friends do. Come to think of it, I don’t even enjoy shopping much. Instead I tend to splurge on four or five carefully chosen items a season, usually quite expensive and more often than not designer, which I will happily wear to death. It doesn’t bother me if I wear the same outfit every day for a fortnight if it’s something I really love (obviously I wash in between).

Since going freelance and working from home, I’m no longer required to dress for a corporate, newspaper office which gives me even more freedom to wear what I want to. I have, by anyone’s standard, let alone a fashion editor’s, a monastic wardrobe. I like to stay on trend but I’m wise enough (and old enough) to know what suits my petite frame. My style is quite classic, a mix of mannish tailoring and shirts, worn with a feminine element and sometimes a bonkers pair of shoes. I rarely – if ever – wear jewellery.

Of course you can look stylish and on-trend on a small budget but if I’m honest, I’m sceptical of very cheap clothes. I don’t want to pay £35 for a dress that I’m going to wear every day for six months. Not only because of its ethical provenance, but also beacause I’m doubtful as to whether it will survive eight washes. That said, Instyle’s challenge forced me to look at labels I don’t usually buy and, yes, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. 

The Cross-Body Bag

While a lot of stores sell this season’s must-have cross-body bags, none has anything to rival the quality of this navy version at Next. Compact but roomy, it reminds me of  Chloé’s “Marcie”. Its thick, decorative stitching makes it look much more expensive than it is – surely the bargain of the year. 

Bag, £30, Next (

The Red Roll-Neck

I like roll-necks – mostly on other people. Spied on the catwalks of Osman, Jonathan Saunders and Emilia Wickstead, this wasn’t the easiest item to track down. Everything felt very synthetic and I was beginning to despair when I found one on Vestiaire Collective, the website where you can buy and sell pre-owned designer clothing. This Vanessa Bruno version in wool is soft enough to feel like cashmere, but it has only confirmed my hunch that roll-necks don’t suit me. This is a trend I will definitely be sitting out. 

Sweater, £35 (

The Pussy-Bow Blouse

Most of the blouses I found were so flimsy they looked as if they would fall apart after one wear. But then I came across a pastel number from Benetton. It is a beautifully flattering shade of pale pink that works almost as a neutral, in a non-static fabric with sleeves that sit nicely on the shoulders, and a cut that drapes just so. Inspired by Alessandro Michele’s styling at Gucci, I’ve teamed it with a pair of tomato-red culottes from Self-Portrait and like the way it looks. 

Blouse,  £34.90, United Colors of Benetton (

The Velvet Sandals

I’m a complete snob when it comes to cheap shoes; I just can’t do it. I like to be really kind to my feet and know that a lot of thought has gone into the shoes’ construction. But I was really surprised by M&S’ burgundy sandals, which reminded me a lot of the velvet shoes I’d seen at the Pucci and Dolce & Gabbana shows. I love that they’re not too high, so they don’t look ridiculous worn during the day with socks or tights.

Sandals, in store in October, £35, Marks & Spencer (

The Cropped Trousers

I was originally asked to look for flares but had to cheat – at 5ft, I was never going to fit into a pair of standard-length flares. Instead, since cropped trousers continue to be a “thing”, seen on many catwalks including Dior and Victoria Beckham, I cut off a pair of wide trousers I already owned from Raey,’ s in-house label. Although they need more thought shoe-wise, I like to think that with a pair of cropped trousers you’ll be warm, you’ll be comfortable and you will still be “working” a look. 

Trousers, £15, for alteration

Photography by Benjamin Mallek