I shop some hard-core resale stores. Goodwill Super Centers are my favorite. Vast warehouses of discarded human impulse - they are stocked several times a day with society's cast-offs. Nothing is ever sorted. Employees throw vast quantities (we are talking several tons) of apparel into bins, and the customers do the sorting. It's exhausting, but also adrenaline-inducing. The bargain potential is huge. Everything is sold by the pound, so a vintage Dior Suit might cost about 99 cents. Once, last year, I found two new Paul Stuart cashmere sport coats. The price tags were still on them - each jacket had retailed for over $1000. I paid just under $2.50. It felt like a crime. Delicious.
So why doesn't everyone get their clothes at Goodwill? Easy answer: it takes a lot of time. Those Paul Stuart jackets took 3 hours to fish from a sea of cheap board shorts and whiskered jeans.
Sometimes, I don't get lucky. Several hours of digging into mountains of wrinkled clothes can turn depressing. My back starts to hurt. My dust allergies kick in. That's when I wonder, "Who the heck bought all this crap in the first place? Why did they waste their money this way?"
A lot of "used" clothing items still have the price tags attached. At least sixty percent of resale clothing is in like-new condition. That doesn't mean that anyone will want it. Not everyone at Goodwill is a resale addict running a barely profitable online business. Many people shop at Goodwill because they can't afford new clothes. I'm here to bear witness: even the most desperate person alive does not want your old t-shirt from the Chase Corporate Challenge. Poor people are just like everyone else: they want to look good.
Clothes move quickly through the Goodwill system. The SuperCenter is the last stop before clothing is recycled, shipped to the third world or dumped in a landfill. SuperCenter employees put out new bins of merchandise 7 or 8 times a day. The bins are gigantic - the size of ping pong tables. Every time they put out 10 new bins, they remove 10 bins. Only about 20-30% of the clothes are rescued by customers. One Goodwill SuperCenter outlet probably discards two to three truckloads of clothing a day.
All over the country, other resale stores are doing the same thing. The US is choking on used clothes.
Many people discard clothes because of a life-change like a pregnancy or a new job. Other people discard clothes that no longer fit. However, most clothing at Goodwill should never have been created or purchased in the first place. No matter how good its condition, it is headed for the landfill. Below is an incomplete list of doomed stuff that you should never buy new:
- Boring Stuff. Black poly-blend pants from Ann Taylor. Striped T-shirts from Old Navy. Pleated khakis. If you are at the Gap and think to yourself, "I probably should buy this, because everyone else has it," then you are part of the problem. Did you know that navy cardigans can cause depression? Repeated exposure to beige polo shirts reduces sperm count. If an item of clothing doesn't give you a buzz, you will subconsciously avoid it. Don't fight nature.
- Weird Stuff. Experimentation is wonderful, but if you are in any danger of buying a unitard, you should not shop alone. Get a buddy. I'm not talking about fun colors or trends - I'm talking about stuff that defies logic. Can't tell if the garment is a skirt or a top? Is there any possibility that it could be a hat? Don't buy it!
- Uncomfy Stuff. Clothing shouldn't just look good - it should feel good. If that sweater is tight at the armpits, you are never going to wear it. Ditto a beaded skirt that leaves a starburst pattern on your butt.
- Anything you can't handle. Certain luxury fabrics are not for everyone. If you can't be bothered with hand-washing, you should not buy cashmere. If you don't know where your iron is, then no linen for you. Be realistic about your future behavior, check the care tags before you buy, and never buy angora. OMG, angora should be banned! The hairs stick to everything - clothes, furniture, boyfriends, other subway riders!
- Vacation clothes. I see a lot of Hawaiian shirts at Goodwill. Also: t-shirts that mention "Island Time". I totally get it: You were in a good mood. The weather was great. You felt like a different person - sexier, more adventurous. You wanted to take that amazing feeling home.... but... you took home a wrap maxi skirt instead. Forgive yourself, but don't do it again. It's fine to buy clothes on vacation - but make sure they work with your real life. Ask yourself: "Would I ever wear a kimono back home in Minneapolis?' Also: see the warning about linen in item 4.
- Corporate Crap. This one isn't your fault. You volunteered to help out a good cause, and then the sponsors made you wear this appalling shirt. The neck is too tight and the fabric makes you sweat. The font is unspeakable. I don't know how to help you. The non-profit world needs to step away from the terrible printed apparel. At the very least, the t-shirts should be compostable.
- Gifts. Don't choose clothes for anyone else over the age of 3. Almost all humans - even tiny humans - like to pick their own clothes, and will actively resent anything they didn't get to choose. If you really want to dress someone, why? Isn't dressing yourself enough fun?
Most of these issues can be bypassed by shopping resale. Resale stores won't hypnotise you with atmosphere or marketing. A salesperson will not follow you around a resale shop. No one will pump perfume into the air. In fact, most resale shops smell a little funky. If you find something you like in a resale store, you will know that you really want it.
Not all resale outlets are as intimidating or labor-intensive as a Goodwill SuperCenter. There are beginner resale options out there - church thrift shops, The Real Real. These options are slightly more expensive, but much more user-friendly. One easy method that I recommend to first-timers is to enter your favorite brand on eBay. Choose a brand you can't normally afford! In the resale world, you can buy Valentino!
If you do buy something awful at a resale store, you can discard it guilt-free! That chevron print shirt was on it's way to the land-fill anyway. You gave it one last chance, but you are not responsible for it's existence.
And don't for even a moment worry about cleanliness or germs. I've been shopping re-sale my entire adult life, and I still haven't encountered anything worse than normal dirt. I have never been made ill by used clothes. If you have a dust allergy, you should probably take some Allegra before a serious shopping trip, but most resale clothing is actually healthier than new stuff. New clothing has a lot of chemicals on it - that's why TJ Maxx makes everyone's eyes sting. If you are a germaphobe, pop your resale finds in the washer when you get home. BTW: I have tossed men's wool suits in the washing machine with zero consequence (except that I had to iron them). Most stuff, no matter what the care tag says, can be washed on gentle without damage (obviously, this doesn't apply to sequins). If it doesn't survive, at least it didn't cost much anyway.
I'm really far from my original topic now. Sorry. The title of this post was "When to Buy New Clothes."
There are some items you can't buy in resale stores. Socks. Underwear*. Bathing Suits. Stockings. Nice resale shoes exist but are very hard to find. But what about other stuff? Stuff that just speaks to you?
My friend Amy Lynn, who worked at Barney's for a year or two, once told me a secret: "Every season, designers put out one or two really great things, but everything else in the collection is just merch."
The spectacular dress in the front window that caught your eye from across the street? Buy that. Do not ask if they make the same one in black. Do not get confused and buy a polo shirt instead. Buy the one fabulous thing you really love, or don't buy anything at all.
Stay away from merch. It wasn't made to be loved.
*Never donate socks or underwear to Goodwill. It's rude.