Nowadays, seemingly everyone thrifts -- and for good reason! The typical image of ugly, worn and ill-fitting used clothes hardly applies to the vast range of secondhand clothes available now. As high-fashion designers have been sparking new consumer interest by resurrecting decades-old fashions, vintage and thrifting has been given new life. Here’s a short list of a few tips I’ve collected from experience:
Know your thrift! There are huge differences between the methods and styles sold at different secondhand locations.
The first category would be charity or consignment shops, like Goodwill, The Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, etc. These items are donated for free or for a tax reduction by everyday people, and the items are usually not sorted for particular quality, style or trendiness. There's a huge range of items available -- the majority of items are from within the last decade or two, with some recent items and vintage mixed in.
Many charity thrift shops roughly gauge an items' sale price by its quality. Other shops -- Goodwill, for instance -- offer flat rates depending on the type of item, regardless of quality. This can be a blessing if you find a fantastic item, or a curse if you want something simple. Regardless, prices are pretty fair.
The second category would be what I think of as specialty consignment shops, including some of my favorites in San Francisco, like Buffalo Exchange Co., Crossroads Exchange Co., Wasteland, and others. These places buy clothing from everyday people for a small percentage of its value. Most of these shops focus on current trends and consumers wants, so they're very selective in choosing what merchandise to sell. As a result, the pickings are great, including very current, trendy items -- but the costs are usually somewhat higher.
Included in this category is vintage consignment, which is hugely popular here in San Francisco. These shops sell only vintage clothes. Many specialty vintage shops do not buy from everyday customers, instead picking over charity shops or garage/estate sales for rare vintage pieces. These clothes are usually more costly, but if you like vintage and are willing to shell out the cash, these places are totally worth it.
The third category would be estate and garage sales. The majority of my wardrobe comes from garage or estate sales. In my experience, they have the best value for cheap prices for high quantity. The variety of clothes is largely unpredictable, but if you’re a vintage snob -- like myself -- piles and piles of the stuff are nearly always included, especially at estate sales.
Estate sales mean that typically the entire contents of a home or “estate” is being sold, including furniture, clothes, antiques, etc., and a garage sale is simply when unwanted items are being sold. If you’ve never been to a garage or estate sale, there are several easy ways you can start! In suburban areas, garage sales can be found simply by driving around and looking for signs on the weekends. Both in cities and the suburbs, craigslist.com is a great place for tracking down estate and garage sales in your area. Checking the classified section of a local newspaper can help you discover upcoming events in your city, as most newspapers include a special section just for weekly sales. There are also many mailing lists for estate sales that you can sign up for, guaranteeing a degree of exclusivity and better items.
A tip within a tip for estate and garage sales -- many of them start on a weekday or in the middle of the week to weed out customers, and the earlier you get there, the better the selection will be. On the other hand though, the later you get to one in the week, it’s more likely that the deals will be better, as they want to get rid of stuff at that point.
The fourth category would be antique fairs and flea markets. These are totally unpredictable -- there are always clothes to be found, but the variability in type is huge. Antique fairs can have absolutely fantastic selections and some really fantastic deals, especially in vintage. However, I would highly recommend "haggling" at antique fairs, flea markets, estate and garage sales. You might feel a bit awkward, but trust me, you’ll feel amazing after naming your price on a great item. In my experience, vendors can always be "talked down", even if an item is inexpensive to start with.
1. If a designer label is too good to be true, it just might be. Always check for glued-on or loosely stitched-on labels, which may indicate a switched tag label intended to fool the buyer. It helps to know the minor idiosyncrasies of your favorite designer labels -- like what the labels look like and say, what color they are, what the quality of the items are, what materials they are typically made of, etc. E-bay.com has some great user-written guides to discern the differences between a fake and real designer items.
2. Always double-check a garment for stains or wear and tear. Overlooked places include the insides of collars, under-armholes, cuffs, and loose or missing buttons. Some minor makeup and sweat stains can be washed with a little scrubbing, but stains like paint, oil or blood are much more difficult, if impossible, to remove. Also, check items (especially vintage) for discreet moth holes. Too often I’ve taken a piece home only to find a small section irrevocably tattered with those tiny and un-repairable holes.
In addition, check shoes for missing, heavily worn or loose insoles and heels. Sometimes the insole is so thrashed that it peels out easily, or is uncomfortable to wear. I’ve paid the price of replacing used shoes with new insoles. Most of the time, it’s not worth it! Sometimes the heel of a shoe will be missing on one, and intact on the other, or completely worn down. These small details can totally ruin a purchase, so look over shoes very carefully.
3. Knowing how to sew a little helps a whole lot. A torn hem or seam can be repaired pretty easily most of the time. If a garment is a little big, remember that it can always be taken to a tailor (or sewn at home) but be aware that tailor costs can rack up very quickly.
4. Try on clothes, if possible. If it won’t be, wear something easy to slip a pair of pants or a dress over -- like shorts and a tank top, or leggings and flats. A too-tight waist or slightly too-small armhole can make you regret your purchase once you try it on at home.