As the long, hot summer days come to an end, it’s time to start the semi-annual adjusting of your wardrobe – moving your summer clothes into storage (or at least the back of the closet) and pulling out your fall and winter gear. This is actually one of my favorite times of year – I love fall probably more than any other season. The air gets crisp, the leaves start to change and the oppressive heat goes away.
It also helps that I love fall fashion. Give me an awesome jacket to complete an outfit and I’m a happy man. And clearly the fashion houses agree with me, because the beginning of fall marks the debut of the current season’s clothing lines… which makes this an excellent time to upgrade your wardrobe.
Of course, there’s the slight question of just how you pay for all of this. Clothing is one of those areas where cost and quality are often linked; better quality material and construction tends to come with a correspondingly higher price tag. Stylish, name-brand clothes seem to always be priced out of your reach…
… or are they?
In fact, it’s entirely possible to completely upgrade your wardrobe on a reasonable budget. You just have to put in a little research first.
Every Girl’s Crazy ‘Bout a Sharp-Dressed Man
The first step in upgrading your wardrobe is to figure out just what it is you want. Going shopping without a plan is a good way to end up wasting money on clothes that seemed like a good idea at the time but now are just taking up space in the back of your closet, never to see the light of day again.
This is why it’s important to have a sense of style rather than just following the latest trends; fashion is what everybody thinks you should wear, while style is about who you are. Following fashion trends is how we ended up with Affliction tees studded with Swarovski crystals and men’s jeans with embroidered back pockets. It’s why we all have photos of us from ten and twenty years ago that we’d rather burn than let see the light of day.
Just because something is fashionable or popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for you. You want clothes that match your personal brand; how you dress affects how people see you, and you want to make sure that the message they send is the one you want others to receive. Keep your archetype in mind when you’re shopping; monk-strap shoes are pretty cool for example, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it works with the bike-messenger look you’ve cultivated.
Make a list of the clothes you want, especially the type; this is going to be important. If you’re not sure, hit the bookstore and start going through the magazines for looks that match your archetype. You don’t have to recreate the looks you see in them – hell, most of the time you won’t want to – but they’re great for finding inspiration. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to start ripping out pages (er… buy them first. Duh.) for an idea file to browse through later. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to do some research.
Change How You Think About Stores
Traditional clothing stores, whether you’re shopping at department stores like Macy’s or Nordstrom’s, clothing stores like Jos A. Bank, Banana Republic and The Gap or your local boutiques, are a trap when it comes to shopping. We tend to think of them as where we get our clothes… and this is often a mistake. They should be where you get your information; actually buying clothes from them is a secondary concern.
Think of going to the mall not as going shopping but as going on reconnaissance. You’re not out to buy clothes, you’re out to find out what’s out there, who makes it, how it fits and what it costs.
To start with, you want to start identifying designers whose looks match the style you want and the brand you’re presenting. Different designers have different looks; John Varvatos, for example, makes a rock-star inspired clothing line – pricey but stylish and slightly edgy – while Brooks Brothers tends to be conservative, appropriate for someone who has a more corporate or professional brand and style. Calvin Klein is going to be middle-ground, Express tends to be “frat-with-an-edge”, while J. Crew is going to be more preppy. English Laundry is going to have a European flair and Diesel tends to be more fashion-forward.
Don’t worry that the brands you like may be out of your price range; right now you’re just checking them out. This is all going to be important for you to know.
It’s also critical that you know how different designers’ clothes fit you; every designer and clothing line tends to be cut and measured differently. Size is not universal, even when it comes to waist and inseam – a 34 in Levis isn’t necessarily going to fit the same as a 34 in Lucky’s or in Joe’s Jeans for that matter. Just because you usually wear a medium shirt doesn’t mean that you’re always going to be a medium no matter where you go; different designers work better for different body types and what they consider “medium” may be a “small” anywhere else. I may love John Varvatos’ clothes, but they’re decidedly not for people who are as broad-shouldered as I am.
Every time you find a piece of clothing you like, get the critical information: the designer, the style name, the size and the price… because now you’re going bargain hunting.
Know The Sales
The other thing you’re looking for while you’re scoping out the department stores? You’re looking for the sales.
Every store, from Saks to Needless Markup (er, Neiman Marcus) to JC Penny to your locally owned emporium, has at least two sales a year, if only to clear out the summer and winter stock and make room for the new collections. Many have targeted sales as well – jeans or men’s shoes or discounts on skin care products. Those expensive jeans you had your eye on may have been well outside of your budget, but wait for the right sale and that 30% to 50% discount can turn “unaffordable” to a far more reasonable price for the quality.
Even better is that sales tend to be staggered over the year; if you’re willing to put the research in, you can ensure that you almost never pay full retail for your clothing.
As a side-note: the only time to sign up for a store’s credit card is if you don’t have a credit history or desperately need to repair the one you do have. The discounts that they offer will never match the interest you’ll be paying in the long term. If you do get a store card, buy a few reasonably priced items, pay the balance off in full that month, and then forget you have the damned thing.
Knock-offs, Outlets And Overages
If you’re determined to do some shopping and don’t necessarily want to wait for the sales, you have other options for budget-minded clothes shopping. The first is to shop for “close-enough”; many stores will have clothes similar to – but cheaper than – the high-end designers, for much more reasonable prices. If you can find it at Saks, you’ll probably be able to find something very similar to it at J.C. Penny’s.
Other stores like H&M specialize in selling budget-versions of the latest fashions. If you’ve seen it at, say, Nordstrom, H&M will have something remarkably close for a far more reasonable price than you might find at other department stores. It’s worth noting however, that this tends to come at a price; in my experience, H&M’s clothes tend to only last a year before they start to fall apart. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but it’s worth keeping this in mind.
The next option are “off-price” chains like TJ Maxx and Marshalls, which specialize in offering product overruns, post-seasonal clothes and close-outs from manufacturers. As a result, you can get name brands for upwards of 60% off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The clothes may not be the bleeding edge of fashion, but they are legitimate designer label products.
The last option of course are the outlets. Like Marshalls and TJ Maxx, outlets purport to sell post season and product close-outs, at similar discounts. You can find outlet shops for department stores and for specific brands – Under Armor, Sony, Calvin Klein, Converse, Hugo Boss, Coach and Anthony and Johnson are all staples of most outlet malls. However, shopping at outlets tends to be a matter of “buyer beware”; many stores and designers have product lines that they create specifically for outlets that never actually make it to the stores. These products often are of far lesser quality than the close-outs or manufacturer’s overruns; you’re essentially buying authorized knock-offs of the designer’s own products.
If you’re going to go outlet shopping, make sure you’re familiar with the brand’s labels; the outlet-only products will have different tags and labels from the ones you’ll find in department stores.
The Internet is the New Thrift Shop
Here’s the thing about brick and mortar clothing stores: you’re paying for a significant mark up to cover the cost of rent, electricity, etc. on top of sales taxes. Online retailers will almost always be cheaper than going to shop in person – not only do online retailers not have the same operational costs that brick and mortar stores have, but they buy at a volume that allows them far more leeway with their products. As an added bonus, you don’t pay sales tax in most states (although this could change soon if the online sales tax bill makes it through Congress…) and many retailers offer free shipping as well.
The biggest advantage that local stores have over online retailers is that you can try on clothes and see how they fit; while many retailers offer free returns and exchanges, the hassle is often more than most people want to deal with. But this is why you want to use stores as your showroom; find the clothes you want at the stores, then search the web for a better bargain. Collecting all of the relevant information for the clothes makes it easier to find those products via Google. It’s one thing if you’re looking for “blue, western style long sleeve shirt”. It’s another to search for “Size L About Town 7 Diamond button-down”.
There are more online clothes retailers than I can conveniently count, from high-end suppliers like J.Ransom to brand-conscious warehouses like eModa, but the biggest, baddest and ultimately cheapest online clothing store is one you might not expect…
Believe it or not, Amazon has one of the most impressive collections of clothes and brands; if you want it, they probably have it, and for less than you’d pay at retail. They also have sales almost constantly, and the Amazon Marketplace means that clothes you like may well be available from private sellers for even cheaper than Amazon is offering.
Zappos – now part of the Amazon empire – also is an excellent resource for clothes and shoes on the cheap. They won’t have the absolute latest products, but they have damn near everything else… and almost always cheaper than you’d find in stores. And even more importantly, they offer free same-day shipping for returns and exchanges and their customer service is legendary.
Another benefit that online shopping has over retail: you can game the system. Sites like RetailMeNot collect every sales offer and discount code available – more often than not you can score an additional 20% or more off the price. Another key trick: sign in, put the products you want in your shopping cart, but don’t buy them. Close the browser tab and wait a day or two; you’ll be amazed at how quickly many stores will send coupons for those very products to your email. Others, like Amazon, won’t give you a discount, but they will send you an email when the price has been lowered. The automated system understands: making the sale at a lower price is still better than not making the sale at all.
Membership Has Its Privileges
One final option for getting clothes at a discount are various online members-only discount retailers such as Gilt, MyHabit and JackThreads. The appeal of these retailers is that they have daily curated sales from high-end designer labels at steep discounts, upwards of 60%. Each day they send out an email of what will be on offer starting at 9 AM Pacific time; the sales last anywhere from 3 to 5 days and range from products by a specific clothing designer to a themed collection such as skincare, accessories, jeans, vintage watches, even furniture and housewares. Gilt’s offerings tend to be the most expensive and high-end; even at a discount, many of the products run from $90 to thousands of dollars. MyHabit runs the gamut from the low twenties to a little over a hundred dollars. JackThreads’ collections are often more affordable, but pitched at a younger audience – the 18-25 crowd.
The catch is that there are only a limited number of items on hand; you have to be willing to make a snap decision or risk having someone snatch the clothes out from under you as you’re trying to make up your mind.
This is where having the information about size and fit comes in handy; if there is a specific designer or clothing line you like, knowing how they fit in advance makes it much easier to grab the bargains when they come around. And fortunately, shipping and returns are free. You have to be willing to wait to see if the clothes you want are going to come around, but the membership sites are a good way to find some major bargains on clothes you never thought you could afford and will keep you looking sharp.