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Sorting Through the Shit: the Art of the Thrift

An honest guide to adding sustainability to your sartorial selection

My personal fashion/passion project for 2017 was to buy as few brand new clothing and accessory items as possible. I intended to buy from sites like Depop, from physical thrift shops – shout out to my local RSPCA and Oxfam shops for their great work and amazing clothing selection! – and if I did need or want something new I tried to buy from a sustainable, ethical, and affordable brand, like People Tree or Komodo.

I was also keen to start selling my under-worn items, and with their departure what would be left was a wardrobe that would be more sustainable, with higher-quality clothing, and more suited to my personal style.

Like any recovering shopping addict I couldn’t resist browsing the standard high-street shops (both in person and online) to check out the styles on offer. This kind of leisurely perusal is great for inspiration, but this shopping technique is why many people think they are not talented in the Art of the Thrift.

It might not be nice or polite but when thrifting one does unfortunately need to sift through piles of shit to find great items. Aside from having the time and patience for this, the Art of the Thrift is really about having a plan.

The Art of the Thrift: The Plan

Know what you want and commit to it like you’re getting a mortgage together. If I ever open my Depop app with the thought “oh I’ll just have a look” I emerge from a scrolling coma an hour later when my phone gets too hot and, possessing more wisdom than its owner, shuts down the app. Having a plan saves you time because you’re not looking for “something nice” amongst a sea of seasons-old Zara tops, and it saves you money because you’re not buying a cheap shirt because it is kinda cute and was in the sale.

The Plan must be specific. “A new pair of jeans” is not specific enough. When shopping in thrift stores for jeans you need to have a specific fit in mind – skinny, straight, culottes, high-rise, etc – to help you flick through racks of “no” jeans until you grab a pair that fits The Plan and you hold your breath, checking the size. And when shopping online The Plan needs to be as detailed as possible: a pair of moderately high-waisted jeans, straight but cropped leg, in a medium/dark wash, in that fairy tale size between falling-down and unable-to-sit-down.

I have been hunting that pair of jeans for the last three months and finally found a pair worth buying, literally, last night. This is why time and patience are as crucial as The Plan.

I am attending a proper British wedding at the end of June, one with a church ceremony and a three-course dinner. And, determined to stick to my second-hand philosophy, I have already begun to plan my Wedding Outfit Plan.

Yes I plan for plans; yes I have anxiety. Why do you ask?

Check Out

Purchasing an item in a shop is much easier as you can fondle it, check the seams, and check for pit stains. But when buying online you need to examine the seller even more than the item itself. You’re at the mercy of their photographs that might have hidden a snag or stain, or maybe even have a photo filter changing the colour of the garment. So you need to make sure you trust their photos and their description of “worn once, excellent condition!”

You’ll need to check the written reviews of their previously sold items and if I can find a review of a similar item, such as another pair of jeans, that is a bonus. The trick here is to check the prices of their sold items as well. You can compare prices to see how much of a bargain you can ask for.

It never hurts to ask for a discount or for free shipping. Once I’m at the point in my selection and research of an item that I’m messaging the seller I have usually decided I’m willing to pay full price, but I do love the small thrill of getting a good deal on something I’ve long been searching for.

Before either of us start thinking I’m some great deal-maker I should say I’m highly unlikely to negotiate like this in person.

The Happy Ending

On a recent trip back home to the States for nearly the entire month of February it wasn’t until we arrived and I looked through the clothes I packed in a feverish, NyQuil haze that I noticed that most of what I’d chosen to bring with me was second-hand. It is no coincidence that my favourite, most versatile clothing comes from a focused style plan and the will to sort through all the shit to find my favourite thrifts.