This is part of an ongoing series on how to find quality bargains so you can be a thrifty gent, too.
Part 1, on thrift stores, is here.

As I mentioned, when you’re hunting for bargains in a thrift store, it’s a good idea to start with suits/sportcoats and shoes. Those are the most expensive items in a man’s wardrobe, so that’s where you’ll see the biggest savings.

When you’re looking through a rack of suits and sportcoats, how do you know what to look for? In the next post I’m going to focus on touching, feeling, and looking at the key details on a suit that tell you it’s well-made. In this post, though, I’m going to focus on brands.

In general, I find brand to be a fairly reliable guide to quality in suits (and everything I’m going to say applies equally to sportcoats). It isn’t the last word in quality, because quality standards vary within a given manufacturer’s different lines and price points, and there will always be little-known boutique makers that will surprise you with their quality. But there are some general guidelines that will give you a good starting point to build on as you learn to identify quality by looking at the clothes themselves, not the label that’s on them.

I’m going to divide suit makers into four tiers so that when you see a label, you can know roughly how well made that garment is. In some cases there is a big spectrum of quality even within these 3 tiers, but I’m trying to keep it simple.

Tier 1: Always Buy
These are the seldom-seen holy grails of thrifting. These suits are mostly or completely handmade from the finest-quality fabrics, they’re sold only in the most exclusive stores, and they retail for thousands of dollars. The bigger, richer, and closer to the coast your city is, the more likely you are to see them. If you ever see these and they’re in good condition, buy them. Even if they don’t fit, you can flip them for profit (or send them to me and I’ll flip ’em).

  •  Oxxford
  • Ralph Lauren Purple Label
  • Kiton
  • Brioni
  • Zegna
  • Isaia
  • Bespoke (custom) suits from London’s Savile Row tailors – Huntsman, Henry Poole, Anderson & Sheppard, Dege & Skinner, etc. (NB: Avoid the “Savile Row” brand – it’s a poor quality label that tried to trade on the fame of the London street).

Tier 2: Reliable Quality
These are the well-made workhorse suits worn by well-dressed businessmen who understand that quality clothes are an investment and an asset. Properly cared for, they’ll last decades in some cases and will still look good years hence. They are usually at least partially machine-made, though they sometimes have handmade details depending on price. These suits usually retail in the $800-1500 range when new.

  • Brooks Brothers
  • Polo Ralph Lauren
  • Hickey Freeman
  • Southwick
  • J Press
  • Samuelsohn
  • Paul Stuart
  • Canali
  • Corneliani
  • Corbin
  • H. Freeman (a Philadelphia maker that is different than Hickey Freeman)
  • Some store brands from high-end department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, etc.

Tier 3: Okay in a pinch
These suits are completely machine-made from mediocre-quality fabrics that wear out (relatively) quickly, don’t hold their shape, and will need to be replaced in just a few years if you wear them frequently. Sadly, some of these manufacturers actually made great stuff in the past, but have gone sadly downhill. The only reason I can think to buy these is when you need a suit immediately and just don’t have time to wait until an affordable Tier 1 or Tier 2 suit comes your way. If you do buy one secondhand, spend as little as possible ($20 or less is ideal), make sure it’s in really good condition, and try to make sure it fits as well as possible off the rack. You don’t want to spend $80 or $100 getting one of these altered to fit you.

  • Joseph A. Bank
  • Hart, Schaffner, & Marx
  • Lauren by Ralph Lauren (green label)
  • Store brands from middle-market department stores. Examples include Daniel Cremieux for Dillard’s, Club Room for Macy’s

Tier 4: Don’t waste your money
These are the bottom of the barrel. Terrible fabrics, terrible construction, and usually terrible style. Seriously, don’t waste your money. A half-dozen thrift-store visits will turn up something better.

  • Anything from Men’s Wearhouse
  • Anything from S&K Menswear
  • Anything from K&G Superstore
  • Anything from discount stores like TJ Maxx & Marshalls, unless it’s one of the brands above
  • Anything from JC Penney, Kohl’s, Sears, or Target.
  • Anything with polyester in it
  • Anything from a far-East (Hong Kong, Korea, China, etc.) custom tailor. These can be fine if you’re the one in the East having them made for you, but they usually aren’t good enough quality to outweigh the drawbacks of a suit made to fit the quirks of someone else’s body.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll focus on the specific details to look for that tell you when you’re handling a well-made suit.

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27 Responses to How to Thrift, Part 2: Labels

  1. JD says:

    Very helpful! I’m going to print this list and take it with me.

  2. Yes. I’ve been thrifting menswear for a little over a year and have added some amazing things to my wardrobe for pennies on the dollar, but I’m always eager to learn from those with more experience. Eager for your next posting.

    Best Regards,

    Stokes Schwartz

  3. Ben Hottel says:

    So you’re saying a Stafford suit at JCPenney, even on clearance, is not worth having? Or are you overgeneralizing? Just curious. Thanks, Jeff!

    • Jeff says:

      Ben, the whole post was aimed at discussing what to buy secondhand. In my opinion, there’s no reason to buy a used Stafford suit from a thrift store. Buying one new on clearance might be fine, especially if you just need a suit and don’t have the time or interest to troll thrift stores looking for a better one.

      In fact, the whole post sort of assumes my audience is interested in building a nicer wardrobe by thrifting. If that’s not the case, and it might not be for a number of very valid reasons, then the whole calculus of what’s worth buying changes significantly.

      • Ben Hottel says:

        After I wrote, I realized my mistake. You were talking about thrifting rather than new. I changed categories there. Thanks for taking the time to answer.

      • Ryan says:

        Hey Jeff, What about a Levi Strauss suit coat?

        • Jeff says:

          Unless it’s something special I haven’t seen before, likely something very old, I wouldn’t expect it to be very high quality.

    • Corey says:

      Jeff, from what the author is saying, I come away with the notion of certain guidelines that may help someone who wants a quality, well made suit from a thrift store at a cheaper than new (or clearance) price. Staying within a budget without sacrificing quality so that you can have a well-made suit/sportsjacket that will hold up for a lifetime is the vibe I’m getting.

      Having owned a Stafford brand sports jacket bought for under $90 and a Ermenegildo Zegna suit jacket (found at a thrift store for $3.99) I can say there is a HUGE difference in quality of workmanship and materials.

      I wear the Ermenegildo Zegna sports jacket so much more because of the fit and feel of the fabric. I did have some alterations done, but having spent less than $4, it was well worth it.

      Given the choice of choosing a $3.99 Ermenegildo Zegna sports jacket (when new for $800) or a less than $90 Stafford sports jacket of lesser quality in workmanship and materials, I think most would choose the better quality product, despite being used.

      The Ermenegildo Zegna sports jacket was bought at a thrift store 3 miles away from a very affluent area and still had dry cleaners tags attached!

  4. VIK says:

    Hi Jeff!
    Thank you for this article. A while back I purchased some Loro Piana suits at an Off Saks store. What do you think of these products? Also, I purchased a linen suit from J.Crew which I really like. What do you think?

    • Jeff says:

      Vik, it depends. Loro Piana is actually a fabric company, not a clothing manufacturer as far as I know. Your suits were probably made by another company from Loro Piana fabric. LP actually make very good fabric, as it happens, so the suits are probably not bad and may be quite good.

      J. Crew are all right, I’d put them in tier 3. Quality isn’t outstanding, but the nice part about J. Crew pieces is that the cut and styling are often quite good and they tend to be affordable. To get better quality with the same kind of slim, modern cut you’d have to spend two or three times as much (I’m talking new, retail prices), so J. Crew is a fine starting point.

  5. JWarrenMD says:

    I recently picked up a Tweed Jacket from a brand named Jaguar from a thrift store. The size was 4/40 and it is really nice material. The label says made in hungry.. Have you ever heard of this brand?

  6. Abanu says:

    So I saw that you said pick up suits by certain brands as to possibly sell but would it also be worth it to buy shirts, pants ect.? Also I see Salvatore Ferragamo sometimes at my local thrift stores, should I be afraid of them being diffusion goods or would it be a good buy?

    • Jeff says:

      Yes, if the shirts, pants, etc. are high quality and/or a desirable brand, they’d be worth buying to sell. The profit margin on those usually isn’t as good, in my experience, but it’s still worthwhile.

      As to Ferragamo, if they’re shoes they’re probably at least decent; if it’s other Ferragamo-branded stuff it probably is just licensed with the brand name and may or may not be anything special, quality-wise.

  7. Michael says:

    I see that Burberry or Burberrys (as might be the case) is absent. Where do you think they might go on the list here? I realize they’re from the UK, but I’ve actually come across, and purchased, several items from them because I intended on flipping them for a profit. I was under the impression they were, at the least, Tier 2, if not Tier 1.

    • Jeff says:

      Michael, the only Burberry that’s really high quality is recent stuff from their designer line, Burberry Prorsum (label here: http://cdn.stylesequel.com/files/_catalogs/product/3312/burberry-prorsum-forest-green-wool-rolled-hem-trou-label-20409.jpg). If the label just says “Burberry,” or if it has the older label with the horse and rider, it’s almost certainly fused and consequently Tier 3 at best. Country of origin is usually a good indicator. Made in UK or elsewhere in the West = good. Made in the East = meh.

      Now, that’s speaking only of quality of manufacture. Burberry is a recognizable and desirable brand, so their stuff sometimes has decent resale value even though it isn’t the highest quality.

      • Michael says:

        Hmm, I see. Here’s a shot of the label I have. (http://i.imgur.com/4sWz3.jpg)
        From some cursory research the fact that it is a “Burberrys” means it’s older than 1999. What would this label tell you about the quality? Tier 3 as you said? I can’t determine country of origin. The only other markings on the inside are a patch that says, “All Wool” and a red patch that says in gold script, “Boyd’s Philadelphia”.

        • Jeff says:

          It’s hard to be precise with these things. It might be Tier 2, 2.5. Best bet is to go by the things I outline in How to Thrift Part 3 and make a judgement call for yourself as to its quality.

        • Frank says:

          Boyd’s of Philadelphia is one of the nation’s premier menswear store. Only the highest quality goods are sold there. I think you have a high quality garment there.

  8. jpchacko says:

    Great post can you expand the series to include shoes? What brands to look out for? What about proper sizing and fit? What characteristics should I look out for to distinguish quality? Lastly what about maintenance and how often should I see a cobbler to have them resoled?

  9. Scott says:

    Question for you: Where would you place Hugo Boss suits on sale at Nordstrom Rack on your tiers of suit brands? I’m in the market for a charcoal grey suit and don’t want to spend more than ~$450 or so. I’m a 46R and never seem to find any worthwhile suits which fit in nearby thrift stores (even in more expensive neighborhoods). If it helps, I wear a suit about two or three times per year only. Ideas?

    • Jeff says:

      Scott, I’d put Boss suits around tier 2.5, maybe tier 2. Usually decent fabrics, but they’re usually machine made and won’t fit as well as stuff with more hand tailoring.

      If you’re having a hard time coming up with stuff in your size locally, think about trying Ebay. Look at this guide to how to measure a jacket, and if you have a suit or sportcoat that fits you well, measure it this way and write down the measurements. Then you can start hunting on Ebay for suits from the brands in my Tier 1 and Tier 2. With a $450 budget you can probably find a used Tier 1 suit in very good condition, and possibly some Tier 2 suits new with the tags still on.

      I don’t think I have any 46R suits at the moment, but I occasionally come across nice ones that I buy to resell. I’ll try to keep you in mind if I do and shoot you an email if I find something that might work for you.

  10. David says:

    Hello all! Glad I stumbled upon this site. My Dad took me to my first thrift store and I’ve been shopping there ever since (even before Macklemore made it trendy lol) though I have been scouring for quality, brand name clothing just recently to supplement my wardrobe. I recently bought this beautiful Ermenegildo Zegna Jacket/Blazer at a thrift store near me for $10. The tags include the original Italian typed text, serial numbers for the client, material (100% Gold Mark Australian wool), etc. and the other label show it was originally from Gary’s, one the snazziest snf mspr upscale men’s boutiques in Orange
    County, CA. Though it is not from the couture line, it says “Trofeo” under Ermenegildo Zegna and I wanted to know if you were familiar with their Trofeo line and if it you consider that top tier? It may be the nicest thing I own in my closet though I may be tempted to sell if it is worth reselling. If that’s the case, I will run down and grab the Armani, Givenchy, and Hickey Freeman jackets/coats that I also spotted at said thrift store. Love how we gents can score some amazing finds in the most unexpected of places

  11. Story says:

    I just bought a sports coat at the goodwill made by Lord and Taylor. It’s made with pure virgin wool, and I was wondering if you could give me a range as to what it’s worth.

  12. Walk says:

    Just found an Oxxford blazer tailored by Mitchell’s (really high level tailor) as well as a Burberry suit

    I bought the suit since it fit me, but the jacket didn’t fit (arms short/to wide waist)
    Would it be easy to flip?

  13. Robert says:

    I’m in Melbourne, Australia where we have Savers, plus many other chains of thrift stores (Salvos, Vinnies, Brotherhood of St Laurence, Sacred Mission). I love thrifting and looking for suits, shirts and blazers, and have printed the guidelines and brands suggested here and I take it along when I go shopping (I suspect many of the listed mid-range and cheap brands aren’t often seen in Aust but the high end London and Italian ‘finds’ exist here just as they would in the US. I see a lot of South East Asian tailor made suits here.) I often find plenty of suits but they’re usually a little too large for me. I recently passed on a Savile Row bespoke suit as although the jacket was fine and a good fit, the trousers had palm-sized wear marks on the cuffs, a pocket had a missing button, and there were bare patches on two belt loops that just couldn’t be fixed (and they wanted a ridiculous $65).

    But yesterday I bought a Pierre Cardin 100% wool suit that apparently hadn’t ever been altered as even the trouser cuffs were original (or even worn, the interior lining and labels were pristine) in a great colour (charcoal with fine pin stripes) and an excellent fit (only the sleeves need a little shorten). Ther marked prince was $65, but I got it for half that due to the half price on colour coded tags deal. When I got home I googled the suit specs from the labels and Australian online retailers showed the exact same suit retailing at around $250.

    I got it at Salvos on Chapel Street in Prahran and that store does seem to have excellent stuff (as does the Errol Street Salvos store). There were Boss and Armani suits there though a couple I saw had tiny imperfections (cigarette burns?) that would need to be repaired.

    There are four thrift stores in Chapel Street in Prahran/Windsor, but the Salvos seems to be the largest and the best. All Salvos stores have the half price deal – each week a certain colour tag is half price.

  14. John says:

    Thanks so much for this excellent advice. I used this advice to purchase four suits: a Samuelsohn, a Hickey Freeman, a Brooks Brothers and a vintage suit. Total cost of the suits: less than $200. Total cost of tailoring and dry cleaning: less than $200 (I got lucky because they all needed minimal tailoring). This was a huge upgrade to my wardrobe, and now I have the confidence to buy more suits this way. I’m becoming a clothes horse. Thanks for your help.

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