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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