We’ve all fallen victim to cheap fashion scores that fall apart. I have endured the disappointment of my $10 tops or $20 sweaters unraveling in the wash or looking positively beat after just a few wears. No one wants their clothes to fail and pill and frazzle. Thing is, it’s just hard to know what to look for when shopping for quality. Many of us are willing to pay a bit more for better-made apparel, but we struggle to tell the good from the bad. Here, I’ve compiled five easy tips for spotting garments that are built to last versus those that will expire in a few wears.
1. Check for chintzy fasteners. Cheap fashion companies will often take a very cute and reasonably well-made jacket, shirt or pant and then finish them off with cheap zipper pulls or buttons that give out in a few wears. Or, as I discuss in the next point, they’ll sew them on with a few wimpy threads. Fasteners–these include buttons, zippers, hook and eyes, toggles, snaps, you get the idea–simply have to be sturdy and sewn on properly for a garment to last. After all, clothes are made to come on and off repeatedly and to be stretched and strained. And while you can still wear clothes when the fabric is fading or pilling, a failing fastener is a no-go. Make sure to tug on all fasteners and give them a close look before buying. This could be your sign that the item will fall apart.
2. Eyeball the stitching and fabric in high-stress areas. Think of buying clothes like buying a car. You have to always kick the tires. In the case of clothes, make sure to check to stitching and fabric in areas that will either be stretched a lot while pulling on or off or that will receive a lot of friction when worn. Examples of high-stress areas: Jeans and pants in the crotch and thighs; sweaters and knits around the neckline, sides and in the arms along the seams and cuffs; jackets along the fasteners and the lining along the back and armpits. Fasteners are also high-stress areas.These areas should have additional stitching and ideally the seams will be finished to lock them in tightly. Few of us are master seamstresses, but it’s easy enough to pull on the seams in these areas, check them for more elaborate seam closures, and to make sure they’re secure. Another tip: Whenever you’re in a high-end store or come across a high-end item in a thrift store, take notice of how they finish their garments in high-stress areas. You can use this as a guide.
3. Steer clear of synthetics. The first place to check for quality is on the fabrication label. And if a brand is over-reliant on synthetics, it’s often your first and best sign that price is king and not quality. How could I make such a generalization? Here’s the rub: Most synthetics like polyester, acrylic, PU, PVC and rayon are much cheaper than natural fabrics, so many brands like to use them to cut costs. I personally prefer natural fibers because they often get better with age and wear. I can’t think of a single synthetic fiber of which this is true. On the other hand, synthetics are sometimes added to clothes to provide performance like stretch, moisture wicking or sheen (or in the case of vegan designers to avoid using animal skins and fur).
SO, all that said, how can you tell if the brand is using synthetics to be cheap versus using them to enhance their products? That’s the million dollar question. A good rule of thumb is if you discover mostly polyester and acrylic and synthetic blends across every type of item on offer by a brand (regardless of whether it’s a sweater or a pair of jeans) that often means the company is choosing fabrics based on cost, not on what fabric is ideal for the product in question. And if a brand is being cheap about fabric, it often means they’re cutting corners in other places as well. It’s an excellent indicator that your new clothes just might unravel in a matter of weeks.
In the example above, the Ralph Lauren cardigan is 100% wool, which ages beautifully. It’s not the cheapest fabric option, but it’s the best-suited for the garment. The H&M cardigan, on the other hand, is a blend of polyester, rayon and spandex. This fabric feels soft enough at first but it’s a blend that pills badly, wrinkles and loses its shape. The blend exists to lower price, not to provide better performance to the customer.
4. Look for multiple signs of cost cutting and corner cutting. A quality item will see the design through until the end, paying attention to all the details. Details could include adding interesting buttons (or covering the buttons in the case of the RL cardigan above), a hidden placket, a bust dart or tailored waist instead of an elastic band. In the RL cardigan above, the designer has added the pointed hemline and pockets as design details. A low-quality item will forego details, and lack of details is a sign of cost-cutting overall. It’s a good indicator that your item might not last. Case in point, the H&M cardigan above: There’s just not much to it. It’s designed to hit the $12.99 price point at which it’s marked. It’s not designed with longevity in mind. Another thing: The lack of detail is often what keeps a cheap garment from getting worn. It’s only later, once we have the item in our closet, that we just realize that something isn’t quite right. This is just as bad as having a garment fall apart. We also want to buy things we’re going to wear!
5. Approach quality as a journey. Even those who’ve mastered the art of shopping for quality get it wrong from time-to-time. I’ve bought what I thought was a superbly crafted cashmere sweater only to have it pill up after a few weeks. I’ve bought pants made out of the “wrong” fabric, like a too-crinkly linen, only to have them sit in my closet. I’ve splurged on designer items that let me down. Over time, however, you will learn what brands and designers you can trust with quality. It’ll get easier and eventually become second nature. Let your eye and hand be your guide, and they will lead you to the right purchases far more often than not. In short, being able to spot quality is a journey not a destination.