How to Build a Quality Wardrobe on a Budget

Wondering how to build a wardrobe on a budget? Follow these 5 simple steps.
You know that point in adult life when you realize your wardrobe is still stuck in freshman year of college? Suddenly your trusty old Target blazer isn’t quite up to par for that big job interview as it hangs dejectedly in your closet with threads poking out and shoulders stretched. Frustrated with your lack of options, you think to yourself, “But how can I afford a new wardrobe of high-quality items?”

Thankfully, building your dream wardrobe doesn’t mean marching off to J.Crew or Brooks Brothers to drain your bank account. The key to building a wardrobe full of high-quality items at affordable prices is all about developing a shopping strategy and knowing that you have options beyond what’s available at the mall. The truth is, you can look like a million bucks while saving money. Here’s how.

  1. Learn what quality looks like
  2. First off, you need to know what you’re looking for. Quality is all about the fabric and garment construction. When top-grade fabrics meet excellent construction, you get a garment that will last longer and age well.

    How can you tell? Begin by checking the garment construction which will depend on how well fabric pieces are stitched together. For example, when holding up and stretching the garment, light shouldn’t come through the seams. The threading on the seams should be tight and even. Also, if seams on the inside are exposed and messy, that’s a sign of low quality. If they’re hidden away and sturdy, it’s a sign of high quality.

    Speaking of finished insides, check for linings. Business-professional and outerwear items like dress, skirts, pants, blazers, and coats should have linings. Believe it or not, stores like Zara charge up to $200 on winter coats that don’t even have linings. Not only do linings show that time and care was put into an item, but it keeps you warmer and protects the inside of your garment so it lasts longer.

    Next, look for high-quality fabrics. Linen, 100% cotton, silk, velvet, wool, cashmere, leather, and flannel are fabrics that will last. Cheap fabrics are composed of synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon (post-1950s), and nylon.

    But even before you read the tag’s materials, you can begin training your hand and eye to note quality or lack thereof. Is the fabric rough and thinning or substantial and smooth? Is there excess fuzz and pilling on a sweater? When gently stretching the fabric, does it bounce back or remain misshapen?

    The more you encounter high-quality items, the easier it becomes to spot low-quality ones.

  3. Avoid Fast Fashion
  4. If you have a closet full of H&M, Zara, Target, Topman, and Forever21 but you’re still begging the question, “What should I wear?” it’s time to recognize that fast fashion is probably what’s holding you back from the wardrobe of your dreams.

    Fast fashion stores are guilty of producing garments composed of all the cheap fabrics listed above, filling our wardrobes with items that don’t last (causing us to shop even more and waste money.) These items are also made quickly and cheaply, resulting in poorly-constructed garments that are ill-fitting and fall apart after a few wears.

    Not to mention, fast fashion clothing is typically trend-based, which tends to be inappropriate for a professional setting. To create a “grown up” wardrobe, it’s important to learn how to identify what’s trendy and what’s versatile. Stores like Zara, Topman, and H&M can confuse us when it comes to discerning the difference between trendiness and being stylish.

  5. Do a closet inventory and create a purchasing calendar
  6. Now that you know what to look for and what to avoid, consider creating a calendar with purchasing goals for the items you actually need. By eliminating random impulse purchases here and there throughout the year, you’ll end up saving a ton of money.

    Take the time to do an inventory of your wardrobe and note the gaps in your wardrobe. When attempting to get dressed for an event, what items do you constantly wish you had to complete a look? Is it a simple pair of black jeans that would go with every top you own? Or perhaps an easy trench coat you could wear over every outfit for a polished appeal? A pair of brown oxfords that you can wear with both jeans and dresses?

    Start making a list of the items that you could wear with everything else in your wardrobe and to numerous events. Jot them down in order of priority — which items do you need pronto? Focus on the kind of clothes you know you’ll be able to wear over and over again and more than once a week.

    Once you have a list of the versatile items that are ideal for repeat wears and suit your lifestyle, create a shopping calendar for when you’ll buy those items over the course of the year.
    If you know you’ll want a new winter coat from J.Crew that’s around $200 or a $60 sweater from Everlane, start saving now and aim to purchase by the beginning of November.

    Creating a wardrobe of high-quality items will certainly take time, but once you start making those investments you might find that you will never need to shop for them ever again.

  7. Shop secondhand
  8. It may surprise you to discover that the easiest and best places to find quality and affordable items are at thrift stores, consignment shops, and vintage boutiques! Now, don’t let the stigma of secondhand shopping deter you from saving hundreds on designer items that will look brand new!

    Ironically enough, these pre-loved goods will last you much longer than brand-new fast fashion items. It will take some extra effort, but it’s so worth it.

    Because you took an inventory of your wardrobe needs, you’ll have an idea of what you’re looking for before you even get to the thrift store. Secondhand shopping can be overwhelming if you’re not sure what you want, so bringing your list will keep you on the right track.

    If you’re building the foundation of your wardrobe, forgo over-the-top retro items and keep in mind timeless styles that withstand the changing tides of trends. The thrift store will have plenty of kooky retro looks to sift through, but it is possible to find classic items made decades ago that are still in style now.

    Think trench coats, blazers, denim jackets, button-down shirts, pencil dresses, slacks, plain tee shirts, midi-skirts, peacoats, and woven sweaters. Be on the lookout for neutral or versatile colors like black, navy, cream, white, red, and tan. Stick to classic prints like stripes, gingham, plaid, houndstooth, and subtle florals. Keep an eye out for high-quality brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger that are very common in thrift stores.

  9. Shop online
  10. If you’re really not into scouring through racks of used clothes at your local Salvation Army, consider online shopping. Etsy is a leading online platform for self-starting artisans, designers, and vintage curators who eagerly invite their customers to interact with them over their handmade and curated goods.

    Etsy is a mini-heaven of amazing vintage finds at very affordable prices. Do a quick search into Etsy for things like “navy blazer,” “white long sleeved button down,” “trench coat,” “510 levi’s” — just be sure to specify “vintage” in the filter. The best part is you can filter your price range so you can easily narrow down your options.

    You’ll be amazed at the wardrobe staples you can find for less than $30. Shops like RawsonChicago have versatile wardrobe staples for both women and men. Etsy is also great for handmade items created by up-and-coming designers. Shops like Diario de una Couturier, LinenFox, Métaformose provide beautiful, high-quality garments that are worth investing in.

    But not all high-quality items must be bought secondhand or through expensive retail stores. Stores like Grana and Everlane provide top-notch wardrobe building basics at affordable prices. Their fabrics are sourced responsibly and their talented seamstresses are paid fairly, producing garments that will solve your wardrobe woes.

Grotto infographic of 5 steps for how to build a wardrobe on a budget: 1. learn what quality looks like; 2. avoid fast fashion; 3. do a closet inventory and create a purchase calendar; 4. shop secondhand; 5. shop online.

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