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How to buy quality clothes without spending a fortune

Fashion clothes on a rack in a light background
Fashion clothes on a rack in a light background

Clothing pricing can be baffling, and it’s not always clear if a price tag correlates to a garment’s quality. And what is “quality” anyway?

To some extent, shopping for quality means defining what that means to you. There’s the question of durability (will it fall apart quickly?); material (is it breathable, and does it feel nice to the touch?); fit (do you feel both comfortable and confident?) and practicality (does it require special care?). And there are values-based considerations, such as sustainability or labor practices.

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Taking all of this into account, we spoke with fashion experts about how to find quality clothes on a budget.

Understand what goes into pricing

By the time a clothing item hits the rack, it has usually gone through a long and complex supply chain, beginning in a factory overseas - only around 2 percent of clothing sold in the United States is made here. The companies who do the actual manufacturing often operate on razor-thin margins, even while paying very low wages, says Margaret Bishop, a professor at several of New York City’s leading fashion universities.

Fabric is the biggest driver of cost; luxury fibers such as silk, cashmere and organic cotton all come at a premium. Then add labor, shipping, import duties and distribution costs, all of which contribute to overhead for manufacturers, who tend to have the least negotiating power in the supply chain.

Clothing brands and retailers, on the other hand, can make much higher margins by significantly marking up prices.

The high-end fashion industry has normalized the idea that certain labels are worth astronomical sums through smart marketing and brand positioning. “One misconception is that if you pay more money for something, you’ll get a better quality,” Bishop says. “That’s not necessarily true. You could pay $1,500 for a blouse that’s really poor-quality fabric and poor-quality construction. It just happens to have a brand or a look that people will pay crazy amounts of money for.”

It’s certainly possible to find good pieces without a huge price tag, but there are limits: A retailer can only lower costs so much without lowering standards.

“If you’re paying $9 or $15 for a dress, and that’s the regular price that’s not been marked down multiple times, there’s no way that you can afford to have good quality fabric and construction,” Bishop says.

Though there’s no magic formula for determining whether an item is worth its price tag, she advises choosing brands that “have a reputation to protect, that aren't so much about selling as much as they can, as fast as they can, as cheap as they can, but who care about their reputation, care about the workers, care about their environment.”

Be smart about fabric

Natural fibers come with many benefits - cotton holds up well, wool is cozy yet breathable, linen is light and airy, and silk is, well, silky - and are often priced accordingly. However, there is significant variation within fabrics, and simply seeing natural fibers on a care tag is not a slam dunk.

With cotton, for instance, the type of fiber matters. “If you use a lower grade of cotton, the fiber is shorter, so you can’t spin as fine and as strong of a yarn, and the fabric is not going to be as durable,” says Bishop, which may be why one cotton T-shirt is $10 while another is $50. Organic fibers typically cost more, as do varieties such as Supima cotton, which is grown in the United States and is used by brands such as American Giant, which prides itself on durability (and, incidentally, sells a $50 T-shirt).

The same principle applies to wool. To manage costs, a company might blend some less expensive wool with Merino wool, or just use a lower quality wool with a shorter fiber, Bishop says. It’s also not uncommon for cashmere items to include other fibers. The higher percentage of cheaper wool, the lower the raw material costs will probably be, while the product still carries the cachet of cashmere.

Blends aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they should carry a lower price. Read tags and product descriptions, but know that they may not tell a full story - a tag may say “100 percent wool” even if it’s a wool blend. It’s best if you can feel garments yourself to gauge weight and softness.

Your appetite for maintenance matters, too. “Any sort of silk with a sheen to it is a goner because the first time you spill on it, it’s done for,” says Lani Inlander, a personal stylist in D.C. She favors more matte fabrics or washable silk for that reason.

Don’t discount (all) synthetics

Polyester sometimes gets a bad reputation, but that’s not necessarily warranted. “A lot of our clients prefer polyester blouses over silk ones because they don’t want to have to worry about ruining their blouse all the time,” Inlander says. “I think a lot of people are afraid of tech fabrics, and they’re all about natural fabrics. However, I think that something 100 percent polyester can also last a long time. A lot of it has to do with the weight of the fabric.”

She points to a crepe blouse from NYDJ, which comes in a variety of colors and patterns, and a ruffle sleeve blouse from Vince Camuto, both of which are under $100 and a “good price for the quality.”

One fabric that multiple experts avoid: rayon. “It’s not a very durable fiber, and it often has to be dry-cleaned,” Bishop says.

She adds that rayon made from bamboo may seem more sustainable, but it’s not because of “all the chemical processing we have to do to make it a nice, soft, pliable fiber.”

Examine garments in person

Shopping may have largely moved online, but there’s no replacement for feeling clothes in person. When examining garments, look for the following factors:

Fabric

Hold and gently stretch the fabric. “If it distorts easily, then that’s generally a poor-quality fabric,” says Bishop.

Very thin and flimsy fabrics generally don’t hold up as well as those that have more weight to them. Loose knits or embroidered fabrics are also risky; even well-made ones can easily tear or get caught on surfaces such as clothes hooks or Velcro.

Seams

The seams should be sewn tightly. You can even count stitches to gauge quality. “Eight to ten stitches per inch will make a better quality, more durable seam than a lower number such as six stitches per inch,” Bishop says.

Hem

“If the hem looks a bit twisted, that’s something called roping,” Bishop says. “Also, if you see a hem that is uneven, that’s a sign of poor quality.”

Hardware

Is there a smooth metal zipper, or a plastic one that’s already sticking? Are buttons sewn on tightly? Inlander says it’s not uncommon for buttons to be loose, even on otherwise well-made items. She doesn’t think loose buttons are a reason to rule out a purchase, necessarily, but she does sometimes have buttons of a blouse reinforced by a tailor before wearing it.

Buy less, buy better

It’s become clichéd advice because it’s true. “My students sometimes say, “I can’t afford to buy better,” Bishop says. “I’ll say you can, even on a student’s budget. Buy a couple of pieces that are timeless, that are good quality, that fit you well, that you love.” With good care, quality items can last for years and ultimately cost fewer dollars per wear than cheaper items that fail sooner.

To stretch a budget further, Bishop recommends considering a color story when building a wardrobe, to allow pieces to more easily mix. Her own wardrobe is built on black.

Some expert-recommended brands

-Quince. “We had to convince a client who normally shops higher-end that we weren’t sending her cheap clothes,” Inlander says. “She loved it, and it completely worked.” You can find washable silk blouses and dresses for under $100 on the brand’s site.

-Everlane.

-Uniqlo.

-COS.

-H&M (sometimes). Inlander says she has found good pieces at H&M, particularly those made of cotton and linen. “We always joke in my office that if you buy the expensive pieces at H&M, they’ll last 10 years,” Inlander says, “and that’s not fast fashion.”

-Universal Standard. Part of quality is fit, and Inlander likes that Universal Standard offers sizes 00-40 and shows photos that reflect this range. Their Iconic Geneva Dress, for instance, is shown on 11 differently sized models.

-Zuri. The womenswear brand prioritizes ethical labor conditions for workers in Kenya and is known for its signature, bold-printed dresses.

-Land’s End.

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