By Judith Martin
Shopping at secondhand or thrift stores has come a long way in the past few years. It used to be that when I walked in, there were only tatty sweaters, cheap polyester “grandma” shirts and tired-looking denim from some obscure manufacturer I’d never heard of. Now, more often than not I see quality-label clothing that look close to brand new, and sometimes brand new with the tags still attached. I’ve found GAP jeans with the store tags still on, nearly new J. Crew matchstick jeans, a new ASOS wrap dress, and a cache of tops and sweaters from Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Talbots and Woolrich, to list a few labels. I once saw a nearly new Lilly Pulitzer dress for less than $12.00; had it fit, that baby would have come home with me.
Obviously thrift shopping is hit and miss, but that’s half the fun. It’s easy to walk into a mall store and blow $40.00 on a piece of clothing. I don’t know about you but I get a rush finding mint condition clothing for a fraction of what I’d pay retail. I estimate what I would have spent paying full retail, and save the difference for something I feel is worth the splurge (hello Rebecca Minkoff Cupid bag!). Shopping at secondhand stores, however, does takes patience, a bit of time, and a discerning eye. If you want to try “thrifting” below are some pointers to help you separate the gems from items that should have been thrown out, not donated.
First, let me list the things I never buy from secondhand stores:
· Shoes – no amount of fumigating, spraying, or scrubbing can get me past the idea of walking in someone else’s foot sweat – and I only buy leather footwear
· Underwear and socks – ewww. The caveat being camisoles; those you can soak in a vinegar solution and wash in a delicate cycle
· Handbags – I have a weakness for good quality leather purses, and I have yet to see a mint-condition Kate Spade. We gals cling to good handbags like baby baboons to mother baboons mid-flight between trees.
So those are the big three I avoid. So what do I buy and what do I look for?
Do a cursory glance and check for tears, make sure the zipper works, tug on the belt loops and ensure they’re all intact. Next, inspect the seat/bum of the denim. If it’s worn and thinner than the rest of the pants, you won’t get much life out of them. Then check the inside manufacturer’s label; if it’s crisp and looks fairly new, chances are the jeans haven’t gone through the wash a bunch of times. I don’t buy clothing that’s had the labels cut out but with jeans, check the button above the zipper. The better brands often stamp them with their logo. Depending on the brand, if the jeans cost more than $15 I don’t buy them secondhand, because I’ve seen brand new jeans on sales in stores for close to that price point. But I have yet to see a pair of J. Crew or Lucky Brand jeans in their stores for fifteen dollars, so if I luck across a pair that fit and pass my secondhand shop test, of course I’ll snap them up.
Tops and Blouses
Again, do a quick glance and look for rips or snags and missing buttons. Next do the sweat test: look for stains in the armpits and on the collars. If you see any discoloration, put the item back. If not, check the seams of the item. If there’s a rip in the seam and you’re handy with a sewing machine it might not be a deal breaker. If you must spend ten dollars to have a tailor repair it, you may want to rethink the item.
The big thing for me is pilling - you know, those annoying little balls of fluff - which is why I avoid sweaters made out of synthetics like acrylic or polyester. All natural fibers, however, such as wool or cashmere can be refreshed with a pumice sweater stone. I once bought a 100% wool Fair Isle GAP vest at the Salvation Army and ran my sweater stone over it. After I washed it, it was good as new, very hipster, and priced much cheaper than one from a consignment store. For knits, you also want to hold the fabric to the light and look for holes or dropped stitches. Stretch the wrist and waist bands and the arm and side seams to look for holes. Also, as with jeans, check the manufacturers’ labels. Crumpled labels with faded ink means the item is well-worn.
Use the same checks as for tops and sweaters. And use your imagination. You might see a mint condition dress than you can update by swapping the buttons or adding a chic belt.
Tailored Blazers, Pants, Skirts
The same checks as for the clothing above apply, but if the item is lined, make sure the lining doesn’t have any snags or tears.
Scarves and Other Accessories
Check for snags and holes, but you can often find cute scarves for less than $5.00. Tons of costume jewelry can be bought for a song. A few times I’ve bought brand new or nearly new leather wallets. Watches are tricky, but I took a chance once on a mint condition Fossil watch with a leather band. I put in a new battery and cleaned it up, and it runs like a charm.
A bit of patience and thorough scrutiny can net you some fun pieces of clothing and accessories for dirt cheap. Throw on well-tailored shoes and a killer leather bag, and no one will be guessing. They’ll be too busy admiring your style.