I've been asked by several friends how and where I find my great finds: a pair of Ferragamo riding boots for $10, a vintage Dior scarf for $1, an even more vintage pair of Dior sunglasses for the unbeatable price-tag of 50 pence (that's about 75¢ in American currency). Whether you're looking for a great deal, a great treasure, or both, thrifting is an obsessive hobby that requires a lot of practice and patience. I go by certain guidelines when rummaging through old things and I'm willing to tell you my secrets.
1. Check for quality and wear & tear: Such as linings intact and sturdy seams (few thrift-store items are worth bringing to the tailor).
2. Find fine fabrics: Natural fabrics such as silk, linen, cotton, wool and cashmere hold up better to age and can easily be machine or hand-washed. Say no to synthetic fabrics that require dry cleaning only: these items still cling to all of their 40-year-old smells.
3. Make sure it fits: especially in the shoulders. But sometimes, the fit can be flexible: shorter arms can sometimes pass for 3/4 sleeves (common with jackets from the mid-20th century). Jackets or sweaters that are big in the waste can sometimes be cinched with a belt or broach. Unlined skirts can easily be taken in.
4. Approach accessories first: especially if you are new to thrifting. You don't have to worry about fit there. Plus, accessories are the easiest items to incorporate into any wardrobe. For vintage accessories, steer clear of synthetics unless it's a statement piece: they tend to disintegrate with use. Instead choose leather or faille purses with satin linings.
5. Avoid "vintage" boutiques: they'll charge you an arm & a leg. Instead opt for church basements, yard sales, and estate sales. The down-side of the cheaper places is that you have to rummage through a lot of junk to find anything good and you must be willing to walk away empty-handed. If you don't have a lot of time and don't mind paying more, then vintage stores might be your best bet, because all of the good stuff has already been weeded out for you. IHowever, I still see this as kind of cheating, and less gratifying than finding a treasure on your own, on the cheap.
6. Look for the label: Older, quality woven labels usually signify a vintage item. They are typically better made and boast unique features and retro cuts.
7. Try to bargain: This is a guilt-free and expected practice at yard sales. However, at charity shops and church thrift stores, you should be more sensitive to the organization and its volunteers. If you can afford the asking price then pay it, and even make a donation if the moment so moves you.
8. Be one-of-a-kind: my best finds have been in places where nobody else would have wanted what I was looking for. The funky pieces, for instance, only sell in rural Vermont during halloween, because there's really no market for them there. so, they're pretty easy to find and don't usually cost too much. Fancy items like Gucci heels and black lace dresses are more expensive and much harder to find in places like New York City, because they're more sought after there.
9. Consider the source: who's making the donations? Finding thrift stores in more affluent neighborhoods will sometimes prove a jack-pot of couture labels at thrift-store prices, because the individuals who are supplying the goods are typically quicker to dispose of higher quality items, regardless of their value.
10. Lastly and most importantly: have the attitude that anything goes. Be creative, be resourceful, and don't be afraid to be a little different. It can be a little scary, but it's invigorating and you will be noticed for it.