Thrifting is a great way to expand your wardrobe without straining your wallet. There are benefits to thrifting that go beyond the financial – it’s a great way to upcycle and reduce waste, and it can also be a way to support various charities in your community – which, in my mind, outweigh any negatives. And by “negatives”, I mean primarily the time investment. I grew up wearing hand-me-downs, so the thought that my clothes don’t reach my closet straight from the hands of the retail fairies (’cause, obviously, clothes you buy in regular stores are untouched by human hands) doesn’t bother me; nor am I fussed by what other people might think about my wearing second-hand clothes. So, yeah – the time investment. It can be a pain.
As anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a thrift store knows, thrifting is a very different beast from your regular retail shopping experience. It requires time and patience, and your investment doesn’t necessarily always pay off every time. I decided to write this post to share a few of the “tricks” that have helped me thrift successfully over the years, in the hopes that others – who might otherwise continue to avoid the “hassle” of thrift stores – give it a chance. Keep in mind that I am, by no means, a thrifter extraordinaire. I only go occasionally, and I am pretty selective about where and how I spend my time. I am not one of those people who can turn $5 into an entire wardrobe – a dabbler more than an expert (but you already knew that). [If thrifting was Storage Wars, I would be Barry; sometimes lucking out to find a true gem, yet just as often coming up empty handed – always with a sunny attitude at least.] On the plus side, my tips apply, to some extent, to shopping at consignment stores and even places like Winners, so they’ll give you some extra mileage.
The most important thing is preparation. I am not talking about being mentally prepared for the arduous task of browsing through umpteen racks of random pieces, although that helps too. I recommend educating yourself in two areas primarily: brand awareness and quality recognition. Leafing through magazines like InStyle or LouLou will help with the first; it helps to be aware of brands that are higher-end but do not carry the “mall standard” recognition factor. The quality will often be higher than on pieces that carry more recognizable labels like, say, Zara or Mexx, and which will often be priced higher for that reason alone. Examples of this would be labels like Rachel Paley, Vince, Nanette Lepore, Rebecca Taylor, and a slew of others.
The second part might be a bit tougher, as it involves training yourself to identify high-quality materials, mostly by touch. First, though, get familiar with your fabrics; it helps to zero in on the good stuff when you know what it is you’re looking at and for. This will save you time insofar as you can get to a point where you won’t need to scan each item on a rack by label, in order to find quality pieces, but rather can do so simply by touching them in passing, or even just eyeballing the rack as you go. This will also be a guide in situations where a particular label is unfamiliar to you. This takes quite a bit of practice, so go ahead – (window) shop, (window) shop, (window) shop. [Responsibly, of course.]
The other component of preparation is knowing your ground. Make the rounds of your local thrift stores and figure out their strengths and weaknesses. Some will have better selection than others in certain departments, and not in others. Some thrift stores will be over-priced compared to others. This is information that will later help you decide where to go, depending on what it is you’re (generally) searching for, and how much time (and money) you have to spend. I tend to hit the same one or two stores regularly, because I know my chances of finding something I like are better there than elsewhere based on past experience; however, once a year or so, I check some of the other thrift stores in my city, just to see if anything has changed. For Edmonton gals, my go-to thrift store is the Value Village on 82 Ave, which seems to get a greater proportion and selection of higher end labels than other VVs and Goodwills. [As a bonus, it is across the street from the Cheese Factory, where you can stop in from a bite of yummy poutine or burek. Trust me, you need burek in your life!]
So, you’ve done your homework; now what? Unless you’re the type of shopper who enjoys endless hours of rack-browsing, I suggest going to into a thrift store with a general list of categories in mind. I wouldn’t go in with a list of specific items, though, because the chances are you’ll only end up being frustrated at not finding exactly what you need. In order not to be overwhelmed, pick two or three categories – such as skirts, sleeveless tops, and dresses – and focus your attention on the corresponding racks. The key, really, is speed-scanning; focus either on (a) quality fabrics, as discussed above, or (b) prints or colours that jump out at you. Zero in on those items alone, for further investigation, and don’t allow all the other million of hangers to distract or overwhelm you. This goes hand in hand with another (general) shopping tip: don’t be swayed by labels alone. I have never bought a piece of clothing simply for its designer label, if I didn’t also love the item on its own merits. This is why I don’t feel the urge to check every single item on a thrift store rack; if it doesn’t possess some quality that makes it jump out at me, the fact that it may or may not have a particular label attached doesn’t matter to me. I’ll pass on the deal, if any.
As an aside, don’t rely too much on the size indicators (small, medium, large, etc.) provided in store. Often, pieces will be misplaced, either by accident or because the sizing provided on the label is confusing to the store employees; I find it’s worth spending the extra minute or two scanning the entire rack, up to size XL, just in case. Additionally, different brands’ sizes can vary wildly, especially when you move to the high-end side of the spectrum.
Some of my favourite thrift finds have been in the dress category, but if you’re not a dressy kind of gal, don’t worry. Jeans are, hands down, the best bargain category at thrift stores, at least in Edmonton. It is a little bit tougher to sort through the racks here – you can do it by colour/wash if you want to skip checking every hanger – but the pay-off is worth it. I have seen everything from Rock & Republic, Paige, paperdenimcloth, True Religion and a score of other high end denim brands for well under $20 a pop. They are usually in excellent condition, too; the only drawback is the hem length. Jeans that are too long pose no problem (hello, hemming!), but at 5’7, I tend to have the opposite problem – jeans that have been hemmed for a shorter person. C’est la vie!
A few additional thoughts for successful thrifting. Having access to a good tailor is a huge bonus, because it will allow you more leeway when it comes to what is worth buying; minor alterations and repairs may be a necessity for some thrift pieces, which may otherwise be in perfect condition. It helps to know what alterations are easy (and cheap) to make, in order to know when a piece is worth getting despite its imperfections, and when it’s not. Similarly, I always check the care instructions, and tend to stick with pieces I can easily clean myself, at home. Buying items that require dry cleaning will increase the overall cost, sometimes making them not very thrifty deals.
Have you tried your hand at thrifting? Do you have any success stories? Share your thoughts in the comments!