Reporting from Vancouver, Canada—During a lull on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, it hit me. A group of Canadian backpackers was chatting with the Belgian conductor, and inevitably the subject of Canada's southern neighbor arose.
The predictable sighs about American foreign policy were balanced by compliments about Americans' general good-heartedness -- until one of the Canadians offered a scalding criticism of American tourists' wardrobes.
Then I looked down. He was right: my outfit was baggy (jeans), backward (hat) and blousy (shirt). I was a sartorial simp.
A few years later, lesson learned, I packed carefully for my trip to Vancouver last autumn: my smartest New York-bought parka, layers of excellent textures, skinny cords, comfy walking shoes of real leather, and sneakers for the gym only.
Puffed with pride, I strode the chilly city until, on a corner in the Kitsilano neighborhood, the zipper on my parka broke and I faced an Angeleno's dilemma: spending a fortune on a replacement I might wear a few times a year versus getting something blah and forsaking my fashion-plate look.
The solution was just down the block at a consignment shop called In Again (1962 W. 4th Ave.,  738-2782). I walked in with a dead parka and walked out with a gently used but still très chic Hugo Boss blue suede shearling for a fraction of its original price.
Thus began my foray into one of Vancouver's shopping treasures: secondhand clothing.
Sarah Bancroft, editor in chief of Vitamindaily.com, which calls itself the Daily Candy of Canada, describes Vancouver's style as eclectic. "You don't have style tribes like you have in New York, where each new season everyone gets on the same bandwagon," she said.
Secondhand, vintage and consignment clothing are a big part of the scene, some 150 shops with merchandise sourced by picky shopkeepers for savvy locals.
Rebecca Tay, western editor for the Canadian magazine Fashion, notes that secondhand clothing prices in Vancouver are reasonable compared with those in Los Angeles and New York. "People don't necessarily value vintage fashion, so you find these gems, which you don't realize they are, for like $20."
Commercial Drive and Kitsilano's Broadway and 4th Avenue are two key neighborhoods for browsing secondhand shops (Gastown and Main Street are others); Mintage Vintage has locations in both ( www.mintagevintage.com, 1946 W. 4th Ave.,  646-8243 and 1714 Commercial Drive,  871-0022). Entering Mintage's uncluttered, modernist space, you might not even realize that it's a vintage store. Besides clothing and accessories, Mintage creates its own reworked vintage clothing, such as transforming men's flannel shirts into women's tunics or elastic-waist skirts, and sells minimalist contemporary clothing.
In Gastown, Deluxe Junk (310 W. Cordova St.,  685-4871) has been in business since 1973. "I do the best of the class and the trash," owner Rod Hubic says, with mens and womenswear dating as far back as the Elizabethan era; you might find a beaver pelt hat or choose from a selection of 1950s classics. Hubic emphasizes the "deluxe" over the "junk" when sourcing his consigned merchandise. "We pretend that we're the people buying the clothes."
Tay also speaks highly of Kitsilano's Immersion Clothing Co. (2846 W. Broadway,  739-7633), which sells pieces by designers such as Dries van Noten, Marni and Miu Miu, much of it not even a season old, alongside contemporary trendy street wear from Japan.
Most people associate Robson Street in downtown Vancouver with mainstream department stores such as Hudson Bay Co. and chains, including Armani Exchange and Banana Republic. Yet in a nearby basement, the cavernous True Value Vintage Clothing (710 Robson St.,  685-5403) sells carefully selected mens and womenswear: 1940s and '50s denim, leather jackets, swing dresses, and vintage boots and shoes. Unfortunately, the 1950s and '60s lighting fixtures aren't for sale.
Around the corner and up a flight of zebra-striped stairs is Used (831 Granville St.,  694-0322), which Bancroft calls a great place to pick up "boyfriend jeans," including the hard-to-find Levi's Big E line. Tay praises Used's fur selection, if that's your thing.
Perhaps all of these bargains are working for Americans. As for our dress habits in Vancouver, Rebecca Tay says, "I think we have a lot of other things to say about Americans before we talk about fashion."