These are tough times for retailers -- by now, everyone has heard. But you know, the going is just as rough if you're broke, unemployed and have any taste in women's fashion whatsoever.

How to sustain the usual diet of fancy footwear and party dresses, even in light of negative home equity and evaporated consumer confidence? I was curious to know. So I scrimped what was left of the unemployment insurance and gathered the annual bounty of $10 gift cards. I then headed for the most comforting place a fashion-obsessed pauper can possibly go: the post-Christmas closeouts at Mall of America.

Most chichi cheapskates on such a mission will head directly for Nordstrom. While the department store had a dearth of dirt-cheap designer goods on the Monday morning of my visit, I found more covetables per clearance rack than at any other store: midnight blue pumps by Chloé (marked at $196 from $495), an orange nylon and patent leather bowling bag by Gusto ($212 from $550). But I didn't crack the wallet until I visited eBar, the department store's coffeehouse: 50 percent off all peppermint bark ($2.95 from $5.95) and chocolate-covered Santa cookies ($2.25 from $4.50).

After a lap around the mall, I nosed the sour economic theme: Signs offered an additional 25 percent off redline merchandise at Martin + Osa, 30 percent at Nine West, 40 percent at White House Black Market and so on.

But my favorite of these offers was at Benetton, a reasonably nice chain, where everything was 60 percent off. I picked out a berry-colored pencil dress with subtle caplike sleeves ($51.60 from $129), added control-top pantyhose ($4 at Marshall's) and considered the outfit complete.

In hot pursuit of my next steal, I made for the mall's most esteemed discount stop: Nordstrom Rack.

Sorting through overstuffed racks, I found shirt after cheap, fussy shirt riddled with scallops, ruffles and other overly optimistic embellishments. But I also uncovered a lovely spring jacket by St. John ($219.60 from $1,395), less impressed after the third, fourth, fifth and sixth sighting of 75-percent-off clothes by this designer.

Speaking of ubiquitous labels -- if a shopper seeks classy deals, then she'd better get cozy with DKNY and Juicy Couture. The clearance racks at both Nordstrom outposts are packed with these brands, as is the tucked-away discount room at DSW. I even found a brown velour bikini by Juicy ($29.99 from $89 a piece) at Everything But Water, the mall's swimwear specialty store.

After a sweater dress? You're in luck! In a never-ending sea of closeout sweater dresses, I spotted a spectacular price on a beautiful cable-knit babydoll at Ann Taylor ($39.99 from $99) and a magenta cashmere potato sack at Banana Republic ($59.49 from $175).

Should a glamour girl want to keep the appearance of prerecession frivolity, she could do worse than the half-off cocktail numbers at Bebe: Try the skin-tight knit bandage dress in gold and black ($49 from $98) or the skimpy satin balloon dress ($44.50 from $89). Should you care for a disguise to go with those dangerously discounted clothes, then I suggest the two-tone tortoise shell and clear plastic sunglasses by Stella McCartney ($119 from $295 at Solstice).

For the snob who's only a titch of a pennypinch, there's no need to wander off the well-trodden first floor, where several tasteful shops are concentrated. At Lacoste, I pined for a super-soft white fleece hoodie replete with the adorable crocodile insignia ($72.99 from $155). At Burberry, sale prices put purchases in spitting distance of my credit card limit: I admired a gauzy gray top with cuffed sleeves ($179 from $350) and a scrunchy bronze patent clutch ($359 from $659).

Then again, a nearby kiosk tempted me with an impressive knockoff of a Burberry handbag ($50 from $99). I paused to inspect it, running a discerning finger across the coarse nylon. But I shook off the temptation and, just then -- while blocking foot traffic -- mentally prepare my New Year's resolution: Come hell, high water or market meltdown, I shall continue my quest to afford the real thing.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis writer.