Q: After years working from home, the economy has forced me into a desk job at a very conservative office. I need some clothes, quick, but I don’t have much cash to spend. I have no problem buying secondhand clothes, but most of the stores near me are filled with clothes for teens. Where are the deals?
A: Some folks are squeamish about wearing pre-owned clothes, but I consider it a sensible way to maintain a petite, yet stylish, carbon footprint. Here’s my tried-and-true strategy for finding pre-used business gear, but it can be tweaked for shoppers in search of baby clothing, furniture or other necessities.
Step 1: Time for an audit
If you don’t have the basic fashion staples in your closet, it’s time to stock up with the goal of building two weeks of solid options. Office attire for the ladies should include a black sheath dress, black pants, blue pants, black pumps, a white-button down blouse and black flats. Jackets, accessories such as scarves, belts, pins and fashion hosiery help transform go-to pieces into a go-to wardrobe.
Men can get away with three pairs of pants: brown or khaki, grey and a blue or black. Guys also need a week’s worth of dress shirts, three ties and a suit or blazer. If you have some of these items, you are in better shape than you think. Make a trek to your nearest dry cleaner, preferably a green one, to get necessary alterations and spruce up your gear.
If you don’t have these items and money is tight, ask your friends and family for some emergency hand-me-downs. It’s worth the call if you gain a few pieces that fit well. You also should consider subscribing to Freecycle; scan the listings for business clothing in your size. But remember, sloppy seconds just won’t do. Proper fit is the key to looking like a polished professional, whether the threads are brand new or several decades old.
Step 2: Location, location, location
I love to spend weekends strolling through aisles of secondhand stores. But in this case, it pays to shop with focus — and location is key. Fortunately for you, The Salvation Army stores are overflowing with clothes donated by do-gooders hoping to reap tax benefits. You have a better chance of recovering a CEO’s discarded power suit if you look for Salvation Army stores located near upscale neighborhoods in your hometown. Scout out the hoity-toity ZIP codes and plug them in with a vengeance.
My sister used this approach to land a pristine, cream-colored sofa sectional from a Salvation Army in the upscale suburbs of Portland, Ore. She returned it to the same location when it was time to move — gotta pay it forward!
Step 3: Shop with purpose
Resale stores like the one you mentioned carry used clothing from the current or previous season. Many stores also buy items directly from their customers in exchange for a store credit, making this a popular option among trendy teens. Take the resale route for women’s scarves, pins and skirts, and shop when you have time to browse. I scored a nearly new Banana Republic suit for $20 on a clearance rack one Saturday. Guys may have luck finding dress pants and blazers in resale shops. To save time, call around and find out which stores have a good selection of professional gear. Also, find out when they restock the sales floor with new items. If you have a few items that you don’t plan to wear anymore, it may be worthwhile to make a swap.
Step 4: Consider consignment and vintage stores
Consignment stores sell their customers’ merchandise and keep a percentage of the profit. For that reason, these stores are more selective about merchandise and frequently carry deeply discounted designer brands. Vintage stores carry a selection of used merchandise that is typically more than a decade old.
While these options are a bit more expensive, the quality is often much better than mass-produced clothing available in most discount stores. That means you get a better item without spending a lot of carbon or a lot of cash. This is a great option for unique dresses and jackets that will pop when paired with that basic black dress or those pants. A few great jackets worn with plenty of accessories can make a big fashion statement.
Step 5: Care for your gear
My best friend loves to say that “cheap costs money in the end.” I’m reminded of that whenever I pull a pair of faded pants out of the washing machine.
Once you get a working collection of fashion staples, take care of them so they last. Read the labels, and turn black pants inside out to avoid them rubbing against other fabric in the wash. If only I had stumbled upon that handy tip from Real Simple a bit earlier. Wash similar colors together, and embrace the cold cycle to preserve energy and brightly colored fabric. I also reserve my business attire for the office and make a quick change into pet-friendly yoga pants and T-shirts the minute I get home so my work clothes last a bit longer. It gives me a new appreciation for the previous owners of my gently used gear.