Money isn’t everything, as the rich kids of Instagram unwittingly prove: you can put together a perfectly creditable closet without maxing out your credit card, or indeed your daddy’s.
This is the refreshingly easy-to-follow FashionBeans instruction manual for how to build a wardrobe on a budget. And no, we don’t mean IKEA.
Buy Better, Not Best
Articles like this are fond of telling you to ‘buy the best that you can afford’, which is a little trite, not to mention simplistic. What you can ‘afford’ requires more consideration than whether you have the right amount of cash in your current account, as we’ll explain.
Then there’s that word ‘best’. Quality and cost are not on a linear graph. Of course there are things worth shelling out for, but beyond a certain point, you’re often paying for a, yeah, nice but unnecessarily fancy fabric, or an ultimately meaningless designer label. The trick is to find the point at which paying extra makes a material difference to the item’s look or longevity, and go no further.
For example, if you’re able to it’s definitely worth stumping up for a suit with a floating canvas. This is basically an extra layer of material (if you pinch the fabric apart by the top button, you should feel it). A canvassed jacket moulds to your body over time and holds its shape, as opposed to a ‘fused’ (read: glued) jacket, which can be passable but will never look as good – especially if it gets wet and bobbles. It costs more, but it’s worth more – see the logic?
Similarly, if you can spring for full-grain leather shoes, they’ll look more polished and crease less. Plus, if they’re Goodyear-welted, they can be re-soled over and over again, saving you money in the long run (or walk).
On a more casual tip, save up for selvedge jeans that were actually made in Japan and not just made with Japanese denim. It seems like a small distinction, but there’ll be a big difference in the sewing quality and stitch count (typically 20 per cent more).
In a financial pinch, buying the best that you can afford only really need apply to certain items: typically, tailoring and footwear, for the reasons outlined above. There’s an old saying that you should spend money on your shoes and your bed, because if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.
While that applies to proper shoes, you can save on trainers. Sure, a pair of Converse All Stars or Adidas Stan Smiths might not earn you as many style points as the Comme des Garçons or Raf Simons versions, but they won’t lose you many either.
Other items on which you can often scrimp include shirts and T-shirts, particularly if you mainly wear them under stuff. How often you will need to wear and wash them is also a factor, as you’ll need more of them, and they’ll get trashed more quickly – more on that later. Cheap jeans are a giveaway; chinos, less so.
Personally, this correspondent has never been able to understand the wisdom of spending more than the bare minimum on socks and jersey sportswear. Just how good can a hoodie or pair of joggers be?
Buy Cheap & Twice
Wear and tear complicates matters of affording. If you blow your budget on one suit of the finest wool available to man and rock it every day, you’ll wear it to a very premature death and be forced to spend even more on a new one. In this scenario, you’d be literally and metaphorically better off buying two inexpensive suits from the high street (and getting them tailored). Alternating them will vastly increase their lifespan, and give you time to save up for another, better suit. Or something else your wardrobe needs.
Ideally, look for retailers that sell their suits as separates and buy two pairs of the trousers so you can alternate those as well: they’re much cheaper than the jackets and almost always what go first. Fine fabrics might look and feel nice, but they’re thinner and thus will wear through quicker: something more substantial in the 11-13oz range will serve you much better.
Textured, matte fabrics like flannel also lend themselves more to being worn as separates if you want to break up the suit. Plus, shiny hard finishes hold up less well to stains: unsexy, yes, but important when you’re hammering a garment for all it’s worth.
Again with shoes, having two – or better still, three – pairs in rotation will give you much more mileage from each. As will having enough shirts to last at least two working weeks, which in turn will affect how much you can spend on them. Machine-washing puts them through the wringer, so always unbutton them first to reduce stress on the holes and threads.
Maintain And Gain
Your budget might be tighter than 99 per cent Lycra spray-ons, but you can at least afford to spend the time and effort that will ensure maximum return on your investment. Besides, to build a wardrobe, you need to be adding items faster than you’re throwing them out – not the other way around.
Between wears, remove any surface dust, dirt and stains from your suits using a garment brush and allow them to air for a good few hours before returning them to the wardrobe on wide, wooden hangers. Don’t dry-clean a suit more than once a year either, unless absolutely necessary: harsh chemicals and careless pressing will hasten their demise.
On that note, sidestep purchases that require special care, no matter how much they seem like a bargain: they’re a hidden money pit. Whether it’s tailoring or knitwear, wool can generally go for longer between washes as the fabric is naturally resistant to stain and odour, and isn’t usually in direct contact with your skin.
Stick cedar shoe trees in your, well, shoes to soak up sweat and help maintain their structural integrity, while looking after them with leather cream to prevent cracking. Spray your sneakers with Crep Protect or a similar stain and water-repellent treatment while they’re still box-fresh to keep them that way.
Get Yourself In Shape
Taking something to a tailor isn’t just for those who have a valet to do it for them. We’re talking about an alterations tailor, not a Savile Row house. For the sake of a fiver here and a tenner there, you can make relatively inexpensive items look a million bucks: suits, shirts, even T-shirts.
In the same vein, even the spendiest of threads will look like a sack of cut-price shit if they don’t fit you properly.
Don’t Break From The Normcore
If you want to lay solid wardrobe foundations, then avert your gaze from look-at-me colours and patterns. Yes, it’s a little bit basic, but the simple fact is that plain pieces in neutral tones are much more versatile. Plus, people are much less likely to notice quite how often you’re wearing them.
If you have to wear tailoring and your workplace will tolerate the slight informality of separates, then you might want to buy blazers and trousers instead of full suits, at least to begin with, as you’ll have more combinations.
It goes without saying that timeless style classics are the smartest buys, but we’ll say it anyway. There’s no escaping the latest trends, so if you do find yourself itching for a contemporary fix, restrict yourself to a designer, ahem, tribute from a high street retailer.
It’s a little down and dirty, but least you’ll minimise the hit when the fashion changes in six months.
Hunt An eBay Bargain
It’s possible to save money on eBay, but it’s equally if not more possible to get carried away in the heat of a quickly escalating bidding war. Plus, you can’t try before you buy or always return, so you can end up with an expensive alteration or an unwearable lemon.
Set yourself a strict limit of what you’re prepared to pay, and use software such as Auction Sniper to automatically place bids on your behalf seconds before the item ends. That way, you can still gazump other bidders without being tempted to overshoot.
Discount Yourself Out
With a few exceptions, such as seasonal items (winter coats, knitwear, swim shorts), the periodic 20-30 per cent off everything and the incredibly rare unicorn, sales and discount websites are not always as good value as they appear. The staples that you want to be buying often won’t get reduced and if you wouldn’t consider something at full price, you probably shouldn’t on sale either.
Outlet stores are an even falser economy, as they’re stocked with items that people didn’t want to buy at full or sale price (for good reason) and lower-quality products that brands produce specifically for them. If you go, you’ll often feel obligated to buy something that you’re not wild about. And if you’re impulse-shopping online, try and leave items in your basket for 24 hours before pulling the trigger.
If nothing else, you’ll normally get an e-mail offering you an additional 10 per cent off.