I had just gotten back from a preliminary injunction hearing and was finishing my follow up notes to the client when Jordan waltzed into my office. A sense of deja vu overcame me.
“Jordan”, I asked, “didn’t you wear that suit yesterday?”
“Of course! I only have three suits, and the other two are at the dry cleaners. So this was my only option.” He seemed confused why I’d even ask such a silly question.
“You have three suits? You should be wearing a suit only once a week. You’re an attorney, have to wear a suit at least 5 days a week to the office, and you have only three suits?”
“Yeah. Why, how many do you have?” he asked, defensively crossing his arms.
“Well, I have 14 in my wardrobe right now. But that’s just my summer rotation. I’ve been too busy here at the office to switch out to fall rotation.”
I might as well have punched him in the gut. “14 suits? I have three suits and some ties my uncle gave me, and you have 14 suits in just your summer rotation? What a schmuck. Small wonder I hate you so much. You have some magic clothing expense account you failed to tell me about?”
“Well, Jordan, I actually have a secret to tell you about how I get my suits…”
Here’s a secret: Much of my professional clothing is secondhand.
It’s true — I am a schmuck. Also true — as of today, I have 14 suits hanging in my wardrobe, including everything from Brooks Brothers, to Southwick, to Oxxford. I don’t remember exactly how many. How do I afford it? No, I don’t have either a trust fund or offshore accounts.
Answer: I shop smart. Many of my suits are like-new secondhand buys, picked up for pennies on the dollar.
There’s no shame in wearing secondhand clothing
So you’ve just graduated and are looking for that first job while trying to dodge Sallie Mae’s phone calls. Money might be a little tight. Or maybe you’re loaded, but are just not the type to pay $5,000.00 for a handmade bespoke suit. Come on!
Whether you’re a pauper or a miser, you can still afford to buy quality and look like a million bucks — you might just have to look outside the four walls of a traditional brick and mortar menswear store.
I’m a big fan of the theory that one should buy things that are made to last. Who cares whether someone else bought them first? Kind of like a used car, clothing loses a substantial amount of its initial value as soon as it’s off the lot — so you can save a lot when you buy used. But whether you use eBay & Etsy, troll thrift stores, or frequent higher-end consignment stores, you can often pick up some top-quality garments for a fraction of the original price.
Here are a few of my tips to scoring a great deal.
Know what brands are worth buying
Like most things, menswear varies in quality. Brands are an oft-used shortcut to help you gauge quality versus crap. But just because you’re heard of a brand before doesn’t mean they’re any good. If you’re at a thrift store and you see the following brands for a bargain, you’re on a roll:
- Brooks Brothers
- Polo Ralph Lauren
- Alden (shoes)
- Allen Edmonds (shoes)
These are fashion brands and generally not worth your time:
- Kenneth Cole
- Calvin Klein
- Joseph & Feiss
Know Your Measurements
One thing that plagues many men is a real understanding of their size. (Here’s a hint: there’s more to it than just S/M/L/XL).
I’ve seen many guys who seem to subscribe to the idea that larger sizes are more manly, and as a result wear shirts, suits, and shoes that are way too big. (See. e.g., Paul Ryan, though he won’t do what I tell him).
What complicates matters even further is that each brand seems to have its own idea as to how sizing works, so what might be a 44R in one brand might be a 46R in another. You can’t really trust labels.
If you can try clothes on in person, well, problem solved! You know right away whether it fits.
But if you’re buying online, you should know what your measurements are. Take the time to go to a local tailor (not a dry-cleaner), pony up a few bucks, and ask them to measure you properly.
If you’re so much of a cheapskate that you won’t even pay your local tailor a few bucks, here’s a comprehensive article from my pals at Art of Manliness that explains how to do it.
Once you’re all measured, and you find something you think might fit you, compare your actual measurements to any listed measurements online. If you don’t see measurements, ask!
Easy & Cheap Alterations
If the measurements on garment you’re looking at are different than your own, consider whether alterations are
work it. For example, altering pants is generally cheap and easy — whether waist or length — so long as there’s sufficient material to do so. Shortening or lengthening a jacket’s sleeves is pretty easy too.
Tough & Expensive Alterations
Altering the shoulders, chest, or length of a suit jacket is major clothing surgery that will make buying used a useless endeavor if you’re trying to save money. There’s also a big chance that even after the alterations, the jacket won’t look quite right. You’re better off buying something that fits.
Know When to Stay Away
There’s a big allure to snagging a big-name item for cheap. Heck, the brag factor alone sometimes is tempting — “Yeah, I got this $5,000.00 suit for $100.00 off of eBay.” But if it fits for crap and looks like it’s straight out of the 80s, what’s the point?
Stay away if:
- Fabric is damaged. This includes moth holes, stains, tears, repairs, etc. You’re not going to be able to fix it worth a damn.
- Fabric is stained. I feel like this should go without saying, but sometimes it helps to state the obvious. Leave those shirts with mustard stains or ring around the collar on the hanger. Shout doesn’t always do it.
- Fit isn’t right. It doesn’t matter if you picked up a top of the line suit made of rainbows and unicorn hair for only 10 bucks. If it’s too big or small, that’s all anyone will see. Fit is paramount.
- You see the clothing item is polyester. Suits, shirts, ties — polyester is almost universally a bad idea.
- It’s obviously dated. This rules out leisure-suits, 4×1 double-breasted suits, polyester anything.
- It’s worn out. Shoes can be resoled. A loose seam can be repaired. Ties can be recrafted. But sometimes, even the highest quality items have seen betters days and are beyond feasible repair. Remember, the whole point of buying secondhand is to save money. If you buy a nice tie for $1.00, but have to spend another $40.00 cleaning and re-crafting it, it is worth it? Oe if you pick up shoes for $10, but have to resole them for $80.00, are you maybe better off just buying new?
Keep it Simple and Sedate
The rule I’ve been invoking throughout this entire series? Yeah, it still applies here. Leave that wacky-patterned suit on the shelf. Though if you find yourself a nice navy, charcoal, or sedate pinstripe suit, go for it.
Ties are often readily available at most thrift stores, often for as cheap as $0.50. Look for regimental stripes, solids, pin-dots, and other classic designs. Stick to better known brands. I’ve picked up Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Paul Stuart, and other quality makers’ ties — which look brand new and would have cost $50-100 each in a retail store — at my local thrift outlet for a pittance.
I know I’m not the only one who’s picked up a great second-hand deal. What’s the best thing you’ve found secondhand?
(photo: A photo of a gag one million dollar bill from Shutterstock)