An Actually Practical Guide to Shopping for High-Quality Clothes

The Practical Guide to Shopping for High-Quality Clothes

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I never cared for Louis Vuitton bags. But a few weekends ago I visited the fashion house’s exhibition, which showcased the heritage of the brand and the early iterations of its iconic pieces. I was floored by the impeccable craftsmanship, care and detail put into the bags and trunks from over a century ago.

I left the exhibit feeling inspired, but also sad. Browsing all those creations built to last for decades, the same thought kept popping up in my head:

Things just aren’t made the same anymore.

I’m sure you’ve experienced it yourself. Maybe you have a J. Crew sweater from six years ago that’s still going strong. But the modern-day replacement has somehow sprouted holes in only a month.

In a recent mini podcast, my friend Britt lamented about a pair of beloved boots whose quality went downhill, while the price stayed the same.

And I still remember the first time it happened to me, too.

I’d been wearing Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers since I was in middle school. Right before I went to college, production of the shoes had moved to Asia from the US (hi, globalization). The pair I bought not long after made me wonder if I’d had a brain transplant and bought the wrong shoes. Not only did the shoes feel stiffer and less comfortable, but the core Chuck Taylor feature, the toe cap, was a totally different shape. All the subtle differences added up to an unsettling feeling like I was wearing knock-offs on my feet. These were not the Converse I used to know.

I haven’t bought Chuck Taylors since.

When it comes to clothes, I don’t think anyone can deny that quality is declining. In our global economy, our priorities have changed. In the old days, our belongings were built to last, because we had fewer options for replacements. Now we anticipate new trends every few weeks. We expect clothes to be cheap. In fact, we get annoyed when they’re not. I was on a forum recently, and someone was asking for recommendations for a shirt that’s durable, made in the US, and less than $40. I’m sorry dude, but that stuff costs money.

So it’s not hard to see why quality is such a mystery these days. How exactly do you spot it? And without having to be some kind of fashion expert? Because nobody likes spending money only to feel cheated soon after. And when out shopping, it’s not practical to inspect every single detail without looking like a weirdo. You need the most effective ways to be able to spot quality when you’re out and about, so you can be a more informed shopper.

In this post I’ll walk you through the main features I look for in high-quality clothes and shoes. I’m not an expert, but I’ve shopped long enough and at various price points to be able to discern differences, and I’ve been sewing and drafting my own clothing patterns for years. I also own a mix of both high-quality and lower-quality clothes, and where I can, I’ll try to point out the differences between each.

What Does Quality Mean?

Everyone likes to throw the word ‘quality’ around, but no one ever actually defines what “quality” is.

The first rule of quality is that it’s subjective.

When most people refer to “spending more for quality,” they want their clothes to be more durable than cheaper alternatives. But they can’t explain exactly how those more expensive items will last longer.

To me, quality is all about the fabric and the construction. When nice fabrics meet excellent construction, you get a garment that tends to last longer and age gracefully.

Now that we’ve defined quality, let’s talk about the common myths about quality.

Quality Myth #1: The Higher the Price, the Higher the Quality

Conflating price and quality is the biggest mistake I see. Most people will see a $30 pair of shoes and automatically assume they’re higher quality than a $10 pair of shoes.

But prices can be deceiving.

In general, higher prices do mean higher quality, but there are just as many instances where more expensive items are only expensive because of brand perception and marketing. For example, is this $495 T-shirt really going to last 33 times longer than a regular Hanes T-Shirt? And at a certain level, there comes a point where the more expensive item no longer provides tangible value, but minute details that most people won’t recognize or value. There’s a reason why I didn’t mention quality in my post about why I buy expensive things. Because expensive does not always equal quality.

Quality Myth #2: There are Go-To Brands that Are Always High Quality

Be careful about associating quality with certain brands as a whole. I see it a lot on forums where people recommend brands that are “known for their quality.” But they never mention which types of clothes held up well. The type of garment matters.

For example, with J. Crew, sometimes you get a great quality pair of jeans, but then everyone throws shade at their cashmere sweaters.

Every brand or designer has their strengths and weaknesses. Think about it. Is there anyone you know who’s really awesome at everything?

If you make your purchases based on brand alone, then you’re bound to be disappointed.

If you want my picks for quality brands for specific items, here are my favorites.

Quality Myth #3: All Fabrics Are Created Equal

The last mistake I see people make is thinking that all fabric types are created equal. “Cashmere is cashmere, and cotton is cotton.” So if you grab an $130 Everlane cashmere sweater, it’s the same as a $1,175 Loro Piana one, right? I mean, both sweaters say they’re made out of 100% cashmere.

Not so fast.

Just because two items are both made from 100% cashmere, doesn’t mean they’re the same fabric quality. I actually got into an argument about this online! There are different grades of cashmere, and the better cashmere will be made out of longer fibers, which makes it ridiculously soft.

And don’t get tricked into thinking cashmere from the same factory is the same, either. The quality variances for cashmere also exists for other natural materials, like cotton and leather. For example, when I’ve bought leather skins, I usually am offered choices ranging from skins with noticeable imperfections to ones that are nearly flawless. Better materials cost more money.

So if higher prices aren’t a guarantee, and neither are brands, then what’s the best test for identifying quality?

The Easiest Way to Discern Quality

The easiest way to recognize quality is by experiencing it yourself in person. Go to a high-end store, like Nordstrom or Saks, and feel the clothes. Note how heavy and sturdy the fabrics feel, and how they drape. Try some of them on. Then go to less expensive stores and compare similar items, noting the differences. Clothes are super tactile, so by handling higher-quality clothes yourself, you’ll be able to recognize those same qualities in the future.

So not everyone lives close to a high-end store. In that case, go to thrift store and dig around for the real vintage clothes (pre-1970s). For the most part, true vintage items are built like tanks, and the differences between those and lower-quality clothes from today are unmistakable.

But the tactics above won’t work if you’re shopping online. Next, let’s talk about the specific features to watch out for.

The Three Things I Look for in High-Quality Clothes

The three things I look for in high-end clothes are natural fabrics, good construction, and where they’re made. Let’s dive into each.

1. Natural Fabrics

When it comes to fabrics I’m a total purist, and the number one thing I check is whether or not a garment is made out of 100% natural materials. If I see an item made out of synthetic materials like polyester, rayon (except if it’s vintage), nylon, etc. I’ll probably put it back immediately. From my experience, natural fabrics feel better against the skin, wash better, and last longer. Of course, there are exceptions for things like hosiery and exercise clothes, when synthetic materials are used for functional reasons. Still, I’ll only wear cotton and merino wool tops for running. I tried to wear a polyester “exercise shirt” from Old Navy and I hated how it felt.

Sometimes designers use synthetic materials for design reasons, but for the most part, checking for natural fabrics is a solid 80/20 test for quality. If you have crappy, flimsy fabrics, the best designs and construction won’t save it.

Now let’s talk about specific fabrics and how to tell if they’re good or not.

CASHMERE

Barneys New York Grey Cashmere V-Neck Sleeves Close-Up

Cashmere should be super soft, because the nicest ones will be made of longer, thinner fibers. The fabric should also feel thick and densely woven. To test the strength of the fabric, pull on it a little. A higher-quality cashmere will bounce back. Also check the tag to see if it’s two-ply or one-ply, as one ply will be more prone to developing holes. Have you ever been at a fast fashion store and thought you found a deal on cashmere? Well, someone had to cut corners to keep the price down. I’ll bet that the fabric is thinner and the yarns are woven much more loosely. Neither of these features will do much for the garment’s longevity. But on the other side, even expensive cashmere can be a rip-off, developing holes in a matter of months. So again, don’t assume something is higher quality just because it’s more expensive. Because cashmere is such a gamble, I actually won’t buy any cashmere new. Instead, I’ll look for vintage versions on eBay or in thrift stores where I’m more certain the quality will be high. I have a vintage-y one from Barneys that doesn’t seem to ever pill or grow any holes. The best part? It cost $30.

Cashmere checklist:
-Is it 100% cashmere, and not a blend?
-Is it two-ply?
-Is is super soft and not itchy?
-Is it woven tightly?
-If you pull it slightly, does it bounce back?

WOOL

Vintage Grey Wool V-Neck Sweater
Technically, cashmere is a wool because it comes from an animal, but I’ll refer to wool as any non-cashmere material used for sweaters and coats. I’d take wool over cashmere any day of the week. Wool as a material is less delicate than cashmere, so already it’s primed to last longer. Wools can come from a bunch of different animals, and there’s a lot more variety in terms of texture. The highest-end wool will be merino wool, which will feel really fine. The finer the wool, the higher quality it is. That’s why you’ll see names ranging from ‘Fine Merino Wool’ to ‘Ultrafine Merino Wool’ (the highest). But for any wool sweater, there are general tests you can do to assess the quality. Again, check the label. The fabric should be made out of 100% natural materials (a blend with cashmere, etc. is OK). The wool should be thick and should bounce back when pulled slightly, and the weave should be dense and tight.

Wool checklist:
-Is the fabric substantial?
-Is it woven tightly?
-If you pull it slightly, does it bounce back?

SILK

Equipment Slim Signature Black Silk Button-Down Shirt
Ah, my favorite luxury fabric. Silk quality is determined by momme weight. So, if a shirt’s momme weight is 16, that means 160 yards of the silk weighs 16 pounds. The heavier the momme, the sturdier the fabric, thus the higher the quality. But most brands won’t give up their momme weight, so you can learn to judge silk by feel.

I have a 100% silk shirt from Equipment and a 100% silk dress from Boy by Band of Outsiders. I bought a silk button-down from Everlane, but returned it because I didn’t like the quality or fit. And once I bought a silk dress from Zara. Here are the differences I’ve noticed between the silks I own and the Zara one: The shirt and dress feel luxurious, thick and heavy. This is most likely due to the sandwashed finish, which makes the fabric extra soft, and almost suede-like. The fabric is super fluid, so if I draped it over my hand, you’d see the outline of my fingers underneath. To contrast, the Zara dress was also 100% silk, but felt much thinner, less densely woven, and didn’t really drape much at all.

Silk checklist:
-Does it feel super soft and drapey against the skin?
-Is the fabric thick and substantial?
-If you hold it up to the light, is it fairly opaque?

COTTON

Rag & Bone Classic T-Shirt Thread Close-Up
Cotton is one of my favorite everyday fabrics, because not only is it so much easier to care for than the other natural materials, it’s also the most affordable.

Cotton should feel soft, not scratchy. The longer the fibers of the cotton, the softer they’ll feel. That’s why sometimes you try on a pair of jeans and they feel scratchy. The cotton is probably made of shorter fibers that are poking your skin. Lots of people will also tell you to avoid thin fabrics because they tear easily, but high-quality fabrics can still be thin, as long as they’re densely spun. When you hold it up to the light, you shouldn’t see much light coming through the holes. Since cotton is used for a wide variety of garments, I’ll go through how I assess quality for each:

For denim, I’m super picky about the fabrics. I’ll only wear 100% cotton or jeans with a slight stretch, composed of 98% cotton and 2% elastane. I’ve found that jeans with more stretch than that will tend to be thinner. I like denim to feel like denim, not like spandex. I also like a heavier weight cotton, since jeans are my workhorses. However, this is my personal preference.

Woven button-down shirts can be thick or thin and still be high-quality, although I’ve noticed that my higher-quality shirts tend to be made out of noticeably thicker fabrics.

For T-shirts, I look for 100% cotton–no blends with polyester or spandex. I’ve had good luck with T-shirts made out of cotton from Peru.

Cotton checklist:
-Is the fabric thick and substantial?
-Is it soft against the skin?
-Stretch it slightly with you hands. Is it densely woven?

LEATHER

Leather quality is determined by the type of grain. The best leather is full-grain leather, which retains the imperfections (like bug bites) of the hide without any sanding or corrections. It’s basically like the top layer of your skin, so it will be flexible and durable. The next best is top grain leather, which is when the full grain leather is sanded away to remove the imperfections. Top grain leather is thinner than full grain, and less durable. Most of the products (handbags, shoes, etc.) we see in stores will be made out of top grain leather. Both types are durable, but full grain leather will age beautifully, developing a nice shine, or patina, and top grain leather will feel plastic-y over time. The last type of leather is bonded leather, which is basically leather scraps all mashed up to create a new sheet of leather. Avoid bonded leather at all costs!

Aside from grain types, like wool, there are so many different types leather to choose from–calf, lambskin, deer, etc. Some are naturally thick and hearty, and others are thinner and more fragile. It all depends on what you’re using the leather for (garments will use thinner leather), so it can be hard to generalize quality for leather. One consistent thing I look for in nice leather is a natural high sheen (as in the picture below). I own leather shoes, so here’s a side-by-side comparison to show the differences in quality. The sneaker on the left retails for $410, and the one on the right cost $80. Both have wrinkles, but you can see the shoe on the right has aged worse than the one on the left.

Common Projects vs Spring Court Side-by-Side Comparison

Oh, and if you want the full lowdown on leather jackets, read this post by The Essential Man.

Leather checklist:
-Is it soft and supple?
-Does it smell like leather?
-Scratch your nail against it. Does it create a mark or disappear?

2. Construction

The quality of construction depends on how well fabric pieces are stitched together. An initial test could be holding the garment up to the light and stretching one of the seams to see how much light comes through. If the thread is really tight and even, this is a good sign.

FINISHING TECHNIQUES

Have you ever turned a garment inside out and checked out what the inside looks like? There are actually different techniques for finishing the raw edges of the seams, and some are considered to be more high-end than others. First, let’s look at the technique that you’ll probably find in most of your clothes: the serged edge.

To create a serged edge, there’s no real manual work involved, besides feeding the fabric through a machine called a serger. It sews the seam, finishes the edge, AND cuts off the excess fabric for you.

Check the vertical seam on this shirt. The serged edge is the loopy-looking stitch along the edge. The stitching on this shirt is CRAZY. It looks wobbly and overall plain messy.

Red Plaid Shirt

All of my high-end shirts use more complicated methods. For example, the flat felled seam in the example, which you’ll recognize as the common seam finish on the inside of your jeans. It not only looks nice and clean, but it’s a more durable finish than a serged edge. The raw edges are totally enclosed, and the seam is pressed and sewn down so it’s flat. This type of finishing technique requires more steps than a serged edge, taking longer to complete.

Nili Lotan Gingham Shirt

TOPSTITCHING THREAD

If the thread is visible on the outside (called topstitching), that will give you a clue to the level of quality, as well. Look for thick thread with a hint of shine to it. The thread should be smooth without a ton of fibers starting to fray.

K. Jacques Ponyhair Sandals

STITCHED SOLES VERSUS GLUE

When it comes to shoes, look at how the upper is attached to the sole. Have you ever had a sole just come right off on you? That’s probably because the sole was just glued on. Quality goods will be stitched together, which will provide a much stronger bond.

In the $80 example below, you can’t see any stitch marks, so the leather and the rubber are joined together by glue.

Black Spring Court MId-Top Leather Sneakers

In contrast, look at that nice stitching on the $410 shoe.

Common Projects Achilles Stitching

3. Where It’s Made

I’ll always look at the tag to see where the item was made. Good manufacturing can happen in any country, but I’ll use the country to determine how much I’m willing to pay. For example, I know labor costs in the US is expensive, so I’m willing to pay more for an item made here. But if I know an item is made in a more cost-effective country and the price is still high, then I’ll think twice about that purchase.

Tip: If you see a product page online, and the country of origin is NOT listed, or it says ‘Imported’ it means it’s not made in a “well-regarded” manufacturing country like the US, UK, Italy, Spain or France.

What to Watch Out For

Here’s a list of quick watch-outs for when you’re shopping. Retailers are masters at manipulating copy so you’re in the dark about what you’re actually buying.

Fabric blends. For example, if you see the fabric listed as ‘cashmere blend,’ don’t get tricked into thinking that’s full-on cashmere. It could mean it’s 1% cashmere and 99% garbage.

When there’s no fabric composition at all. Lots of online retailers will leave out information like the fabric percentages. Instead, you’ll see ‘polyester/elasthane’ so you won’t have a real sense of the actual proportions of the fabrics. For example, there’s a big difference in how an item feels if it’s made out of 99% elasthane versus 10%.

‘Genuine Leather’ labels. Real quality leather goods don’t have to declare themselves as genuine leather. Only cheap leathers will have this label.

Outlets and TJ Maxx. I know lots of people find designer deals at these stores, but remember that some items are made specifically for these stores, using lower-quality materials. If I find a good deal, I usually do a quick Google search to see if the designer or brand actually sold the item on their own website.

Where to Shop for Quality

By now, you know to look for thicker fabrics that are tightly woven, not scratchy, and with well-constructed seams.

Now the million-dollar question is: where do you buy this stuff?

The reality is, with declining quality, the smartest thing to do is to never pay full price for your clothes.

And if you’re on this blog, you’re probably money conscious and wondering how to get the most value out of what you buy. My favorite way to get higher quality for less is to buy designer brands secondhand. Here’s where I’d recommend shopping and the best things to buy at each:

  • The Real Real – Secondhand designer clothes and shoes. It’s an online consignment site with a huge selection and excellent prices–there’s always a 20% off promo code at the top of the website. You also get $25 off your first order (no code required).
  • Fashionphile – Secondhand handbags and watches. They offer free shipping and free returns, so buying high-priced items online becomes a lot less risky. I just bought a watch here.
  • eBay – Vintage sweaters, silks, handbags. Specific branded items you want. I got my wedding outfits from eBay!
  • Thrifting – Anything vintage, trends you want to test out.

My Favorite Go-To Brands

So wait–I said before that there aren’t any go-to brands. That’s true, but I’ve had consistent experiences with brands for specific types of garments. Since people ask me about this type of stuff, I’m adding my opinions here.

Vintage
My personal pick for cashmere sweaters. Cashmere is so expensive and delicate I wouldn’t buy it at brand-new prices. Look for ones made in Europe on eBay.

Equipment
The only silk button downs I buy. They are thick, feel like velvet, and you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg if you buy them secondhand.

Rachel Comey
Especially the stacked heeled booties. The leather soles she uses are thick and flexible, and she usually adds on rubber caps and half-soles, so the shoes will last longer.

Common Projects
Love these super soft nappa leather sneakers. I haven’t seen any other that are as sleek and nice as these.

Falke
I consistently have good luck with their socks and hosiery. I’ve had a pair of wool tights that have lasted for years and years, and I haven’t had any of their socks start to sag on me yet.

Lotuff
These vegetable-tanned leather bags are thick and sturdy and feels like it will last for decades. Sure the smooth, thin lambskin of a Celine bag is nice, but sometimes you want a bag you don’t have to baby as much.

Should You Buy Higher Quality Clothes?

Fun facts:

I own plenty of clothes that are made in China.

Ones with the run-of-the-mill serged seams on the inside.

And shoes made out of so-so leather.

So do you really need higher quality clothes?

Not necessarily. (Edit: I wrote a whole guide for when to save or splurge.)

I wanted to write this post, because sometimes I feel like when people say they want to buy higher quality, they don’t know exactly what they are in for.

They are the people who think the only reason to buy more expensive things is because of quality. If that’s you, then stick with the cheaper stuff.

Because buying based on quality is just part of the equation. If quality was the end-all, be-all, then we’d all be shopping at LL Bean because they have a lifetime guarantee on all their products. In theory, that stuff could last forever. Or we’d have people buying the highest quality parka known to man, even though they might live on a tropical island.

Buying based on quality alone is not rooted in reality. There are lifestyle questions to ask yourself, like: Are you somebody who’s detail-oriented about everything you do? And: are you ready to care for your clothes?

Lastly, emotional reasons can’t be ignored.

We buy clothes because they make us feel a certain way.

We buy clothes because we want to control how others perceive us.

We buy clothes because they’re exactly what we dreamed up in our heads.

So if you’re someone who appreciates finer details, and you have the lifestyle for it, then higher-quality clothes could make sense for you. But if you don’t value high quality, then don’t sweat it, because there’s nothing wrong with that.

Earlier in the post, I said quality is subjective. Quality means something different depending on who you are. And at the end of the day, the very best quality is the kind that suits exactly what YOU need.

What about you? What’s your threshold for quality? How do you spot quality when you’re out and about or ordering something online? Anyone in the fashion industry–chime in with your insights, please!

Image: cyndicantrell.net

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