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Secondhand Chic: How to Thrift the Perfect Clothes

By Kenneth Cervantes

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, especially when you enter your local thrift store and you’re surrounded by clothing that was once loved. Shopping secondhand has a plethora of benefits. You’ll encounter one-of-a-kind pieces at a marked-down price, allowing you to affordably experiment with different styles. But there’s more to thrifting than just revived fads and vintage swagger.

“Thrift shopping can help the environment by extending the lifespan of a product, which keeps clothing out of landfills and lowers the water consumption needed to create new clothes,” said Nicoletta Roppo, secretary of the Adelphi University Environmental Action Coalition.

It might be intimidating to shop with the idea of being environmentally conscious, especially if you’ve never been to a thrift store. But think about how fascinating it is to find a piece of clothing you can’t find at the mall. After a few trips to different stores, you’ll be able to sustainably take your closet to the next level.

From first-time shoppers to full-time fashionistas, most people find it overwhelming and time-consuming to scan through racks upon racks of clothing. You may think thrift stores are crowded with random used items, when in reality it’s a frugally riveting experience. Here are eight things to keep in mind next time you thrift.

1. Create a Vision Board

A wise tip to mentally prepare for your thrifting adventure is to set some general expectations for the types of pieces you’re shopping for.

First, think of a few adjectives that describe your target aesthetic. Are you looking for something preppy? Minimalist? Retro? Maybe you want to try fashion trends from a certain decade. There might even be a celebrity whose fashion you want to mirror. It’s also practical to create a color palette. Fall and winter are the perfect time to flaunt neutral colors or earthy undertones like yellow ochre, mossy green and burnt sienna. During the spring, pastels are popular. As the weather warms up in the summer, you may gravitate toward vibrant hues. Perhaps you wear black all year round?

You can narrow your ideas even further. Pattern, sleeve length and fabric type are some other useful factors that come into play. But don’t get too specific with your vision or you’ll ruin the magic of thrifting—not knowing what you’re going to find.

I bought the shirt from Buffalo Exchange in NoHo and loved the pink color scheme and paisley prints. The background is from the restaurant Pietro Nolita.

After capturing a broad idea of the style you’re aiming for, do some searching. Flip through magazines or search on the Internet for some images of outfits that fit into the categories you’ve created. Then, cut and paste your pictures onto a piece of cardstock or create a digital collage to build your dazzling fashion vision.

Creating a picture in your head can improve your shopping efficiency. “Many people come in with a general idea of what they’re looking for and they walk out of the store with more than what they anticipated,” said Luisa Reyes, a front-end supervisor at Savers Medford.

2. Research Your Store

The next step is to look into various thrift stores to ensure the optimal shopping experience. It’s just as important to be familiar with your style as it is with the location you’re buying clothes from.

Consider the business model your secondhand shop runs on. A thrift store (e.g. Savers) allows you to donate your garments to the store, where they’ll be sold at a lower price. A consignment shop (e.g. Buffalo Exchange) accepts your donations in exchange for a cut of the sale price or store credit. These stores are most ideal for those looking for a reimbursement on their used clothing. Plus it helps you get a little extra money to buy more items. An outlet (e.g. Goodwill Outlets) contains mass loads of merchandise that are shipped in large bins. For a more wild and adventurous experience, you’ll be sifting through piles of clothing that aren’t organized in any particular manner.

3. The Early Thrifter Gets the Clothes

When you’re done looking up your store, it’s time to venture out— the closer to the store’s opening time, the better. It’s ideal to shop in the morning to avoid large crowds. Act quick; before you know it, the best deals will be flying off the racks.

With the mysterious nature of thrift stores, there’s no perfect day or time to fill your cart. However, a general rule is to shop earlier in the week. Many people drop off their donations over the weekend and employees are ready to expand their inventory when a new comes around. Reyes said, “It’s best to shop in the morning when our employees are processing new donations to sell to our customers. We typically release new items every Tuesday.”

4. Look Out for Sales

Whatever day you embark on your quest, keep your eyes peeled for discounts. Many stores have colored tags to represent different sales. Every MyUnique Thrift location has select discounted colors that rotate weekly for 25 percent to 75 percent off the original price. Some stores have larger sales on national holidays such as Labor Day and Memorial Day.

I bought the shirt from American Thrift in Baldwin. It just reminded me of summer so I wore it to a carnival in Levittown.

You can also ask your store if they have a rewards program. Savers promotes their Super Savers Club, which offers plenty of perks for its members. One point is earned for every eligible dollar spent at a Savers location. Members will also receive a 20 percent off discount for a future purchase after accumulating 100 points. Their exclusive email coupons, including one for your birthday, make it easy to save money.

5. Two Heads Are Better Than One

If you typically scavenge for those discounted items alone, switch it up and shop with a friend or two when possible. While you roam about the aisles, you might miss something that you’d want in your closet. Together, you can even analyze each other’s carts and share advice on the clothes you’ve picked out.

My thrifting partner-in-crime, Abby-gail Edwards, is always up for a round-the-city thrift trip in her home borough of Queens. Her keen taste for fashion on top of her economic wisdom are responsible for almost a quarter of my favorite finds. “Shopping with a partner gives a second eye to items you might overlook,” said Edwards. “When you ask someone else to shop with you, they look at the store from their perspective.”

6. Stick to Staples

It doesn’t hurt to throw some wardrobe essentials in your cart when you and your partner are stuck in a roadblock. By selecting items such as solid colors and quality fabrics, you’ll save some cash by preventing impulse purchases and own items that will last longer in your closet. That trendy cardigan you saw on TikTok might not be worth buying in the long run. Ask yourself, “Would I have liked this three years ago?” before you grab it.

Timeless staple items can fill your closet for years to come. Graphic tees are great for showing your personality. Button-ups and blouses can always be dressed up or down. A blazer can make a good statement piece. Charlotte D’Alessandro, a third-year fashion business management student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is always ecstatic to find quality denim whenever she’s thrifting. “A good pair of jeans can work wonders. If you put on a good pair of jeans when you don’t know what to wear, you can still look trendy and put-together,” said D’Alessandro.

7. Think Unisex

That stellar find may not be in the gendered section you typically shop in, so why not double your options and try both? Flannels, sweatshirts, overalls and accessories like fedoras are some gender-neutral garb to add an eclectic flair to your outfit.

When I was shopping for women’s hoodies, I couldn’t keep my eyes off this one shopper with an androgynous look. Daniel Alphys, a regular at MyUnique Thrift Westbury, enjoys browsing through every item, rather than adhering to a single section. “My style is just whatever fits my body. Not all men’s clothing or women’s clothing works with my body type,” said Alphys. “Finding a stylish outfit is like a big scavenger hunt when thrifting.” Alphys even recounts buying himself a $15 wedding dress that originally retailed for $400. Dig deep and you might find something that you never even thought you’d like.

8. Check the Condition of Every Item

Though this last piece of advice seems obvious, you’d be surprised by how many holes and stains magically appear in your finds as you approach the cash register. Assume that discolored spot is permanent and those rips are beyond repair. Before you call it quits, inspect your items under a bright light. Look at the collar, neckline and armpits of a top for sweat stains. Your bottoms might have a fraying hem or missing zipper. Shoes should have clean insides and sturdy soles. Turn your clothing inside out, if possible. When you’ve finished analyzing all your items, they’re ready to buy. Just make sure to give them a vigorous wash to eliminate any bacteria, odor or bugs and you’re all set to show off your secondhand chic.

Sidebar: Staying Thrifty in New York

New York is known for its unparalleled range of fashion choices. Sure, we have an iconic array of shopping malls and department stores. But where’s the thrill in contributing to not-so-wallet-friendly fast-fashion? On Long Island and New York City, there’s so much potential for unexpected discoveries at your local thrift store.

For an everyday experience, try shopping at Savers. The stores aren’t too big or too small and the racks don’t contain an overwhelming number of items. But despite its midsized stores, the size selection is quite impressive with shirts as large as a men’s 4XL and pants as wide as a men’s 50. Women’s clothing also includes a plus size section with tops up to a size 3X and pants up to a size 26. As a bigger guy myself, I never have to worry about walking out empty-handed. Savers has four convenient locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties: West Hempstead, Commack, Medford and Holbrook.

For a vast array of clothing options, try shopping at MyUnique Thrift. Their spacious buildings never fail to amaze. You’ll be sure to get lost in clothing racks that are always filled end-to-end. Their Levittown location in the Tri-County Bazaar even contains two floors, one with a corner section for jewelry, handbags and other knickknacks, another for all types of clothing. There are also locations in Westbury, Jamaica and the Bronx.

I bought the sweatshirt from L Train Vintage on DeKalb Avenue. I was attracted to the bright orange color juxtaposed with the dark green. It also had that vintage collegiate aesthetic.

For those looking to donate their clothing and possibly earn some cash, try Buffalo Exchange. You don’t need an appointment. Just come in with your garments and have them approved by one of the store’s associates. Think about how much joy you’ll pass on to a hopeful thrifter. Zoe Jackson, manager of Buffalo Exchange’s NoHo location, said, “Donating your old clothing is not only beneficial for the environment and your wallet; it also builds community through sharing clothes." There are various locations all around Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

For something a little more upscale, try L Train Vintage, where the 80s are making a comeback every day. Since 1999, L Train Vintage has blessed Brooklyn with colorful jackets and sweatshirts that’ll give you the grooviest look for any occasion. It’s also perfect for graphic tee collectors who want to reminisce on old-school cartoons like Looney Tunes. But you might want to save up since each item costs a pretty penny. In my most recent trip, I found a pair of lightly used Chuck Taylors for $15. What a steal! In that same trip, I also purchased a Chicago Bulls varsity jacket for $85, which definitely put a dent in my wallet. Like the name implies, there are four main locations that are subway ride away on the L train.

For the daring, try Goodwill Outlets on Van Dam Street in Queens. With large bins covering every foot of the store, get ready to dive in and find some cool clothing. Every bin is a new adventure, like a giant grab bag. The best part is that all your items are sold by the pound ($1.59/lb. for a bag 25 lbs. or under), so you’ll be able to walk out with dozens of items for only a few dollars.

Whatever part of New York you’re from, there’s a thrift store for everyone. Sooner or later, you'll want to thrift shop ‘til you drop.

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