How to Spot a Gem: A Quick Guide to Shopping Vintage & Secondhand

 I first started shopping for vintage and secondhand clothes in middle school with my best friend Natalie. We'd have an iPod full of freshly curated playlists streaming through a cassette tape adapter in either her blue Camry or my hulking Doge pickup as we'd hit up our favorite haunts in our small home town. Nat was particularly adept at spotting gems within the seemingly endless bins of old clothes. We'd always come back with bags full of colorful, unique pieces that we'd trade and play with, coming up with wild, crazy, sometimes well-done (just kidding, they were all well-done) outfits that stuck out against the usual Hollister & Old Navy suspects. 

Sure, it's easy to pop over to the mall and flip through the well curated, easy to browse racks & stacks of clothes and shoes. You'd save yourself a lot of time buying articles of clothing straight off a display mannequin when trying to create a look or outfit. But you're cheating yourself of the chance to express your more creative side, to wear your personality on your sleeve, literally. Shopping secondhand is a less user-friendly experience, but what you lose in the quick, cold capitalistic interaction that saves you time and sweat, you gain in dollar & cents savings and the opportunity to honor something true, genuine and unique to you - your own style.

There are many benefits to shopping secondhand: your support helps provide funding to important community organizations like humane societies and shelters, re-using and  recuperating second-hand items is a more eco-friendly practice, and to my earlier point, you're going to have pieces that are one of kind - no one else will have them. 

 10 years later, I'm still shopping secondhand , but have finally honed in on how to spot gems when I'm out visiting my new favorite haunts in Albuquerque. Informed by frequent trips with Natty and years of personal experience at it, here are five ways to spot a gem: 

1. Find your treasure cove: 

Do your research - before you can learn how to spot secondhand gems, you need to find your haunts on the map. Determining the best haunts can depend on several factors: does the shop offer rewards, discount days or promotions? What's the total travel time to get to the shop? How are customer reviews online? I prioritize by keeping my favorite haunts within a five mile radius of travel, then by choosing shops that have the best internal organization. I love shops that sort their clothes and shoes by color hues then by size, making it easy to look through and identify pieces when I'm looking for something specific. 

2. Have pieces in mind, but be open 

Vintage and secondhand shopping isn't like going to a regular store - the contents of the store aren't there based off trends or what's in season, but from generous donations from locals. Therefore, it's a good idea to have general ideas for what you're looking for, but try not to be too specific, or you'll end up halting the process. For example, "I'm looking for a white blouse, with a distinctive collar" or "I want to find a pastel piece with interesting angels." 

3. Be as economic as possible 

Vintage and secondhand stores that offer some kind of initiative or reward for shopping are especially good for keeping to the goal of being as economic as possible. My favorite stores offer weekly discounts off of certain sticker items, discounts or store credit for turning in or donating items, and rewards systems for consistent customers. 

4. Ask yourself: can I easily find this elsewhere? 

It's not a good use of your time or your money if you go to a secondhand shop or thrift store and purchase something that was formerly Wet Seal or Forever 21. While the item in question might be cute, it's clearly something that was recently attainable, and probably circled the bargain bin before finally being purchased by an impulsive shopper who later guiltily gave it up before finally landing in your deciding hands. Let it go.

5. Good seams and interesting features 

The best treasures you can hope to find should have good bones: straight seams, quality fabric, and/or have an interesting feature or design like embroidery or brass buttons. 

The best, unofficially official sixth tip I can give you: have fun. Enjoy yourself, and do it for the process. Trust your instincts and let your creative energy free! 

Erin E BarrioComment