How to shop for high-quality clothes

How to shop for high-quality clothes

I'm in Florida for ten days to attend a couple of weekend early retirement retreats. At Camp FI, about 50 or 60 people gather for three days of what Mr. Money Mustache calls “crazy rich people talk” — real estate investing, travel hacking, gift card arbitrage, 70% saving rates, and the rewards of frugality and thrift.

One afternoon, the conversation turned to clothing. Given that so many people in the room had a net worth of more than a million dollars, a surprising number of us still bought our clothes at thrift stores.

Cheapskate Millionaires

“I can't bring myself to pay more than ten dollars for a t-shirt,” one guy said. We all nodded in agreement.

“I don't pay anything for t-shirts,” said another fellow. “I travel a lot for work. When I go to conferences, I often come home with three or five or ten t-shirts. There's no point in ever paying for them.” Throughout the weekend, I noticed that a lot of us wore t-shirts we'd picked up for free. (Because we're money nerds, Choose FI t-shirts were prominent.)

“But what about quality clothes?” asked one woman. “I get why we're all so cheap on the everyday stuff. But sometimes, I want clothing that looks good, that I can go out in.”

“I'm a long-time thrift store shopper,” I said, “and it's taken some effort to allow myself to shop in regular stores. For quality stuff, I think it's important to find a store with styles you like where the clothes also fit well.”

“I'll give you an example. In the fall of 2016, I made a trip to New York City. The forecast was for warm weather, so I took warm weather clothes. Turns out, temperatures were much lower than expected. And it rained. I was unprepared. My hotel was next to a J. Crew store, so I stopped in. I had never shopped there before in my life, but I discovered I liked the stuff they had and their clothes fit me well. I didn't like the prices, but I managed to find a few things on sale, so I bought them.”

I paused and looked down at the clothes that I had on. “Ha,” I said. “Right now, I'm wearing the dress shirt and sweater I bought that day in New York.”

Beyond Cheap

“I don't shop at thrift stores,” said the man standing next to me. “I don't like to have a lot of cheap clothes. I like simplicity and minimalism. So, I'm willing to pay more for my clothes because I buy only a handful of items and expect them to last a long time.”

“Can you give some examples?” somebody asked.

“Take this shirt I'm wearing now,” he said. “It's a wool t-shirt from Icebreaker. And this jacket is from the same company. It's more expensive — probably a lot more expensive — but it lasts a long time, looks good, and is very versatile. Merino wool is warm when it's cold and cool when it's warm. Plus, I can wear it for days on end without it stinking. I think that J.D. likes Icebreaker stuff too, right?”

“I do,” I said. “I brought two of their wool t-shirts with me on this trip. And because it's freezing here in Florida right now, I brought an Icebreaker jacket.”

“I try to keep a small wardrobe too,” said another friend. “For me, that means always wearing the same thing. I have like four or five of the same t-shirt. I have two pears of pants, and they're both the same. And all of my socks are the same. I don't even fold them. I just throw them all in the drawer loose since it doesn't matter which ones I pull out.”

Sidenote: I didn't mention it during the conversation, but you can find quality clothes at thrift stores. They're more expensive, sure, but not nearly as expensive as buying them new. The key is patience. Sort through the racks. You might only find one or two items per trip, but that's okay. To increase your odds, find a thrift store in a nice neighborhood. Kim and I, for instance, recently discovered a consignment store near us called Simply Posh. It has lots of nice clothes at great prices.

The Quest for Quality

“You know, I read a great article recently,” I said. “I just shared it with the Get Rich Slowly mailing list. It's all about how to shop for high-quality clothes. One of the points it made is that quality doesn't have to be expensive — and that expensive doesn't always mean quality.”

I gave an example. I'm a h-u-g-e bag nerd. I have far too many backpacks and travel bags. “One of my favorite places to buy bags is a company called Filson,” I said. “Their luggage is outstanding. Because of this, I thought their clothes would be high quality too. They're not. Filson clothes suck. They're still very expensive, but they're all poorly made with awful fit. I've spent a ton of money on Filson clothes, but I'll never spend another penny on a shirt or jacket from them. Not even a belt.”

“How can you tell quality clothes?” somebody asked.

The article I read says that the most important factors are fabric, fit, and construction,” I said. “Clothes that are made well with quality materials will last longer. They'll be more durable. They'll also look better. But like we've already talked about, nothing matters if the clothes don't fit well. It doesn't matter how much something costs if it doesn't look good on you.”

“Yeah,” said one gal, who is a doctor. “That's an important point. And I've found that clothes fit me much better when I am fit. If I've been exercising and I'm in shape, clothes fit like we're supposed to. Plus, being fit gives me confidence, and that can make any outfit look sharp.”

How to Discern Quality

Later, when I got back to my room, I re-read the article about how to shop for high-quality clothes. According to the author, there are three things to look for when shopping for high-end clothes:

  • Natural fabrics. “From my experience, natural fabrics feel better against the skin, wash better, and last longer…If you have crappy, flimsy fabrics, the best designs and construction won't save it.” The article offers tons of tips on how to shop for cashmere, wool, cotton, and leather clothing.
  • Construction. “The quality of construction depends on how well fabric pieces are stitched together. An initial test could be holding the garment up to the light and stretching one of the seams to see how much light comes through. If the thread is really tight and even, this is a good sign.” In the article, the author shows photos to demonstrate good construction versus poor construction.
  • Where it's made. “Good manufacturing can happen in any country, but I'll use the country to determine how much I’m willing to pay. For example, I know labor costs in the US is expensive, so I’m willing to pay more for an item made here.”

Although I've already read this article four times in the past month, I've bookmarked it to refer to in the future. In the past, I was always a poor dresser. I wouldn't say my fashion sense is sharp yet, but it's improving. (It helps that Kim has been gently prodding me for the past six years!)

Footnote: While writing this article, I stumbled upon the concept of the capsule wardrobe, which is a small (30-40 item) wardrobe deliberately built with high-quality, timeless pieces that all co-ordinate with each other. This contrasts with how most of us build wardrobes: randomly and in piecemeal fashion. More here.

We've talked about shopping for clothes several times in the past here at Get Rich Slowly. Here are two of the most popular posts: How do you build a wardrobe on a budget? and How much do you spend on clothes?

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Sandy
Sandy
2 years ago

I buy a mix. High quality thrift clothes are my go to. There is a store here in Salem that has a pretty good selection. However, I have a Nordstrom Visa and their reward system provides you with Nordstrom notes that you collect through your purchases. Since I use my card for everything I collect notes pretty quickly. (They also have triple point days, 10x point days, you get the idea.) Nordstroms has high quality clothes and shoes that last forever. If you use the Notes on their half yearly sales, jackpot! Also there is Nordstrom Rack which is discounted… Read more »

Emily
Emily
2 years ago

Ha! 30-40 items is small?!

I love the points made, but I think my entire wardrobe is something like fifteen pieces. At one point it was down to about 6 if you exclude undergarments! I wish I could say because they were quality but it was just because I didn’t want to spend a single penny and I wore everything until it wore out.

Accidental FIRE
Accidental FIRE
2 years ago

I have a few Icebreaker Merino wool pieces, as well as Ibex since they both make outdoor-oriented stuff and I’m an outdoor sports junkie. Their clothes are great (except the underwear), but the problem I have is that holes start popping up in them unless you keep them wrapped in plastic when stored. I’ve never seen a moth in my house, but I think some other bugs get in and chew holes in the wool. Overall, one of my go-to hacks over the years for cheap clothes have been what I call the frugal three – Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, and… Read more »

dh
dh
2 years ago

“The more you know, the less you need.” — Australian Aboriginal saying Being a guy, I wear a simple uniform of a Canadian tuxedo (Levi’s 501’s and Levi’s denim trucker jacket) with either a black, blue, or grey t-shirt or blue chambray work shirt. I don’t own anything that’s white, as white can get dirty/dingy looking easily, plus why have to do two separate loads of laundry!?!? Like your minimalist friend, JD, I can buy my t-shirts and Chambray button-ups from pricier places like J.Crew and LL Bean and not feel too badly about it since I hardly own any… Read more »

dh
dh
2 years ago
Reply to  dh

I do highly recommend Patagonia. I used to think they were kind of a bullshit yuppie brand, but their quality (and repair program) is top-notch, plus their products have a great warmth-to-weight ratio, meaning you don’t have to look like a walking bed comforter or marshmallow in the winter to stay warm. The high-tech materials really do give their products an edge. Their Nano Puff coat, for instance, retains like 98% of its warmth even when soaking wet.

RV
RV
2 years ago

I usually look for clothes on sale at places like Kohls, often starting at the clearance rack. I no longer shop at thrift stores. I can afford clothing. Some people have no choice but to shop at thrift stores because that’s all they can afford. I feel that if I’m shopping there just to prove how frugal I am, I’m taking away their only option.

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

Clothing is not important to me at all.Luckily, I’m a retired Stay at home dad and I can wear what ever I want. I need to get some nicer clothes for FinCon, though.

mike
mike
2 years ago

I prefer cotton. It’s not something I normally ever give thought, but exploiting animals to wear “quality” clothes is not necessary.

I still wear cotton shorts and tshirts that I’ve bought well over 10 years ago at Goodwill. I’m kinda in the boycott mood after Goodwill raised their tshirt prices to $3.

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

Thank you for the post, JD. When I have time I’ll probably get sucked into the rabbit hole of some of those links. This kind of stuff has always been a struggle for us because we’re odd sized. I’m six feet and my husband is 6’8″, both of us have about a 36″ inseam. At that point the thrift store really isn’t really helpful (though I always envision some tall but poor woman finding my donations on the rack and crying with joy). The best we can do is a) Targeted brands (eg. Long Tall Sally), b) Large brands who… Read more »

JoeHx
JoeHx
2 years ago

Most of my clothes come from thrift stores, mostly Goodwill, and the rest I normally buy on clearance from retails stores such as Kohl’s. If I’m buying new clothes, normally I want the price to be at least 75% off or a max of ten dollars.

I have no fashion sense (I only recently learned what it means to clash) and also know very little about clothes.

Lynne
Lynne
2 years ago

If you travel to large cities, like Washington DC, there are good consignment stores that have high-quality gently used clothing. May not be the $3 tee shirt from Goodwill but better than paying full retail.

Sequentialkady
Sequentialkady
2 years ago

I buy most of my clothes off the clearance racks and I refuse to buy anything that’s less than 60% natural fabric or a “natural” synthetic. (I’ve become frustrated with getting a decent pair of jeans — so many women’s jeans are made with very thin fabric that’s got a lot of synthetic fiber; they’re not really denim.) In addition to buying quality clothes, how you wash and dry your garments matters when it comes to extending their life. Turn your clothes inside out and wash as much as you can in cold water (Tide Coldwater gets out ground in… Read more »

FoxTesla
FoxTesla
2 years ago

I’m very curious – of those that have commented (or even those in attendance at Camp FI from the article), how many work in a “standard” 40 hr workweek business office environment? I personally have not purchased (or seen for that matter) clothing that would qualify for my work environment. In fact, the individuals from work who DO shop at thrift stores are quite often wearing items they should not, as they have non-hidden tears/holes/washouts/etc.

TL;DR – Correlation does not imply causation, but my experience is to not see appropriate business casual work wear from thrift stores.

John
John
2 years ago
Reply to  FoxTesla

Portland area thrift stores are top-notch. Professional pickers are often working the higher volume stores.

There are vast regional differences in thrift store quality of goods.

Office Worker
Office Worker
2 years ago

Tailoring is an expense that is worthwhile because it pays off in custom fit. If you’re petite / tall / plus size, finding clothes that actually fit can be a challenge at an price point, so tailoring is just necessary. Sure, you can learn to hem pants or a skirt yourself, but the more complicated alterations required for a structured jacket or dress require a professional tailor. Invest in classic, quality garments, get them tailored to fit, & you’ll have a wardrobe you can wear for years with a few minor upgrades in accessories to look au courrant.

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago
Reply to  Office Worker

Absolutely. What I like about this post is the info on finding the items worth investing IN to get tailored. Though my tailor tries to consult on that since she is the one to know she also tries to not tell people they were stupid for buying something, lol.

Ron Cameron
Ron Cameron
2 years ago

I do almost all my clothes shopping at Costco and LL Bean. And LL Bean generally at their outlet which ends up being half off. I typically pay $8-12 for a shirt and $10-20 for a pair of pants. I find Costco stuff to be very high quality, the only challenge is often they’ll have it one day and the next day it’s gone. It’s taken me a long time to understand quality, but I think I finally figured it out. I think the key is making minimal purchases – if you really love it then buy it. Otherwise, let… Read more »

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
2 years ago

I’ve had good luck over the years at Van Heusen outlet stores. As a SAH mom, my uniform is usually tee shirts/sweaters (depending on the season) and jeans. I have the hardest time finding dress shoes, as I have a strange toe on both feet and I wear a size 5 1/2 wide. I just can’t bring myself to pay several hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I’ll wear once or twice a month, but I’m getting desperate! At least I can afford the shoes if I can find them.

William McCarey
William McCarey
2 years ago

May I insert some counterculture here? Said with a smile. Everyone’s clothing choices appear to be driven by one of two things: your job dictates certain clothes or peer pressure (“Sharp dressed man”). Another advantage of being retired (sooner the better) is the clothing selection moves from dictated to comfortable real fast. I am typing this comment in tattered Wrangler jeans, sweatshirt, khaki suspenders, and soft moccasins. None has been purchased more recently than a decade ago. I am sure my wife’s frugal shopping back then has been more than amortized in cost. Bottom line: go for comfort and something… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
2 years ago

I only shop during major sale days…online of course. And sometimes I’ll shop at Ross, but only for brands I know to be quality. I am willing to spend a lot of money on fewer clothes, bc I recycle them for different uses, so they have to be sturdy enough to stand the test of time,!even when they don’t look the best. I’ve taken on a casual “outdoor chic” style as my everyday wear so that I can use the clothing (and shoes sometimes) as 2nd hand and 3rd hand for other activities I frequently do. For example, I have… Read more »

Liz
Liz
2 years ago

I live in Chicago, so good winter gear is essential. My Icebreaker items only lasted a few years before wearing thin. The LL Bean wool items are still going strong and were cheaper.

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