Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Customer Manifesto: Three-and-a-Half Weeks of Thrift Store Insider Wisdom: Dos & Don'ts

Yes, these were for sale in Charlottetown. Crazy, I know!
On Friday this week, I'll have been working at a cool nearby thrift store for four weeks. It's been a neat experience, especially since I've been shopping at thrift stores for so long. It's made me realize a few things, and seeing this post on Foxtail & Fern inspired me to come up with some Glamour-style Dos & Don'ts of my own for thrifting (maybe kind of specifically in Charlottetown), from the point of view of both an employee and a shopper. Here goes, in no particular order!

Do wear clothing you can comfortably and quickly change in and out of in the dressing room. If you wear tight jeans, or some intricately layered outfit, you risk not bothering to try stuff on, which will either keep you from buying cool stuff, or leave you buying things that might not work out so well. For warmer months, I suggest a comfy dress and flats. If it's colder, like it will be for 9 1/2 months of the year in Charlottetown, easy-to-get-out-of jeans and a long sleeve tee, with no baubles or extraneous clothing or accessories.

Do read signs, look for a pricing scheme, and ask informed questions if you go shopping at an unfamiliar thrift shop. If items are not individually priced, like at the shop I work at and many others, then deduce that there must be a different way of finding out prices. Are they marked on signs on the racks? Are there lists of prices posted somewhere? If something has a coloured tag, what does that mean? Look around, read what you can, and enjoy. If you can't figure it out, just ask.

Consequently, Don't continue to shop if you have no idea how much anything is. Many people shop for half an hour, or an hour, or more, then show up at the cash and say something like "I don't know if I want all of this because I have no idea what any of the prices are." What if stuff is too pricey? It will save everyone time by asking first.

Do keep in mind that sizing in thrift and vintage shops will be quite different from retail stores. Not only are you getting a mix of contemporary clothing brands - I am a medium at Old Navy and a XXL in Powder Room - but you are also looking through clothing from multiple decades. A size 8 Liz Claiborne (or Smart Set, or Gap, etc.) from 2009 is not going to be the same as a size 8 Liz Claiborne from the early 80's. Vintage sizes are generally smaller than contemporary sizes. However, some cuts of clothing were more voluminous or roomier in the 80's and 90's, so it sometimes evens out. As a tip, check all the sizes, because cuts, styles, and sizes might work for you in more than just your section. Finally, keep in mind that most of the clothing has been washed by its previous owner, and may have shrunk a little. I find this happens most with jeans, as even brands and specific styles of jeans I already own may not fit if I buy them second-hand.

Thrifted Givenchy earrings - it can happen
to you too!
On the other hand, Do be mindful of your size. Be realistic. I see ladies dumping all the clothing they tried on, and I'm always a little surprised. A size four? Really? AND a size fourteen? Huh. I get it - you found something you love, it doesn't come in any other size than the one that's there, it might just fit. You can 'make it work.' But be serious! It can be discouraging to try on things you love but know won't fit. Maybe they will, maybe it'll be worth it. But chances are, if you are trying on a range of things that are TEN sizes apart, you might not have a lot of luck. Look at things. Stretch them out. See if they can be taken in or out. But just be sure think about you, your size, your shape, and your style.

Do take note of the information on tags. You can learn a lot from the information one finds on clothing tags and labels about a garment, which makes things more special (to me, at least). Look for things like:
  • Where was it made? As you know, most contemporary clothing is not made in Western or wealthy countries, since textile manufacturing is ... the same as every other kind of manufacturing: too costly to bother with in places with strict labour laws and regulations. But people used to bother with it! Canada had a flourishing clothing industry once upon a time, and many brands used to make their clothes here. Look for tags that say, often in red and white at the bottom of a white papery tag, "FAIT AU CANADA / MADE IN CANADA". The textile manufacturing industry left most other wealthy countries around the same time, so look for items made in USA, France, UK, Italy, Scotland, and so forth, because the item is likely genuine vintage. By and large, I find these items are excellent quality too. A thirty-year-old made-in-Canada sweater will, guaranteed, last longer than an eight-month-old Old Navy made-in-Bangladesh sweater (no offence, Bangladesh). Also, keep a look out for 'Union Made' tags - not something you see too often any more!
  • What is it made of? Most of you ought to know this but it can be important to remember in a thrift store, since certain fabrics hold up better and likely mean better construction of the garment. Materials like wool (Merino, Alpaca, Pure virgin, angora, etc.), cashmere, mohair, silk, Pima cotton, hemp, and linen are all good materials because they are natural fibres, chances are the item is reasonably well-made, and would have likely been expensive when sold at retail. Old-school fabrics like Tricel and Tencel can be neat but mostly are best in durable items like blazers (not super comfy for shirts). Polyester can go either way - like Tencel and Tricel, older polyester isn't super comfy but is super durable, while new polyester would be better suited to being melted down for making water bottles. Finally, I generally try to avoid rayon, acrylic, modal, viscose, and other human-made fabrics. For a good fabric glossary, try here.
  • What are its identification numbers? From the Government of Canada's Competition Bureau website: "A CA Identification Number, commonly referred to as "CA Number", is a five-digit number preceeded by the letters CA issued by the Competition Bureau upon request. Only Canadian manufacturers, processors or finishers of a textile fibre product or Canadians engaged in the business of importing or selling any textile fibre product are allowed to register for a CA Identification Number." Check out the above picture. By searching its CA number online, I could find out that this tie was registered to Abbey Neckwear Ltd of Montreal, Quebec. Neat! Similarly, in the United States, the clothing has an RN number, which you can search as well.
Don't forget that a little love - a fresh coat of paint, a different hemline, or a DIY upholstery job - can breathe new life into an item. Try to see potential in an item if something about it catches your eye. A shelf with a cool shape could look even better in cheerful bright turquoise. A dress with a funky neckline or back might just need to be taken up a few inches, or have its sleeves chopped off, or even just be belted. And really, for a few dollars, why not give yourself the opportunity to be creative and make something truly your own? Peter and I have furnished our apartment this way, and I've filled out my wardrobe too. But maybe just be thoughtful about how you'll use the item - I hate the thought of stunning vintage clothing being hacked apart until it's barely recognizable, especially if it's only for a couple wears. It's like making a beautiful heritage home into a bunch of tiny cramped apartments (you hear that, all of Charlottetown's landlords?). Don't wreck it unless you'll love and cherish it afterwards, please!

Do go often, to different places, with an open mind. This is a big one. Go as often as you find appealing, since there is usually plenty of turnover, and you might miss something good. Go to different stores, because you might find different types of stuff (some places have newer, nicer stuff, some places have old, special, vintage pieces). And always be open-minded about what you might find - if you only want to go in and find an oversized white knit pullover, you might miss out on, oh, everything else in the store that is awesome. Also, like Hannah from Foxtail and Fern mentioned in her aforementioned post, look in all the sections - women's, men's, housewares, kids, maternity, plus-size, linens, jewellery - for gems. Men's especially - vintage men's stuff is smaller, better fitted, and well-made. You never know!

Thrifting in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY.
Do try to go to thrift stores when you travel. I will always seek out thrift shops, whether it's half an hour outside of town (Montague has a good one!), halfway across the country (it's how I spend my time in Toronto, Quebec City, Riviรจre du Loup... you get it), or halfway around the globe (some of my favourite stuff was thrifted in rural southern Germany). There is so much diversity, and it's neat to see what people wore in other spots.

Finally (for the time being), Do manage expectations, and Don't be a tire-kicker. It's a thrift store! As in, generally, someone made the decision to stop owning that item and gave it away. Or they died and their family wasn't sentimental about it. Or the store had enough of it/found something a little wrong with it. Whatever the case may be, not everything in the store will always be pristine, beautiful, timely, well-priced, and your size, so think about what you're expecting. Do not tire-kick: a thread here, a minimally pulled seam there, a (useless) button missing. It's too bad, but it's nobody's fault. And please, do not haggle unless you genuinely think an item should not be sold 'as is' - and then do so at your own risk. Furthermore, it's okay to have some ideas of items you want to look for, but it is nobody's fault you can't find it at a particular thrift store. I get requests for items every day, some vague and some painfully specific. A green blazer? Sure. A particular shade of green which you can't provide an example of, in your size, cut a certain way, to fit both men and women? And the price is a little iffy? Manage expectations. All you can do with any thrift store is check often, keep an open mind about what you want, and hope for the best!

Whew! I hope this might be even just a little bit helpful in your future thrifting expeditions. Good luck!

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