How Much Should You Pay For Clothes?

By: Peter Nguyen
Last Updated: August 29, 2017

Good things often cost money, but is a $425 pair of Common Projects really better than a $80 pair of Adidas Stan Smiths?

When should you splurge? When should you buy budget?

I spent almost 11 years on the production side of fashion. You probably think I’ll be shouting “Pay more! Support good designers!” like a lot of the articles out there. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

I’ve had to work with clients with all types of budgets, from guys who got sticker shock at $50 jeans, to CEOs who have flown out to NYC just to shop.

You can see how giving specific numbers you should pay could be a problem.

So I’m going to give you something even more useful: I’m going to share with you insights on why certain clothes cost more, and what makes something “cheaper” from my experience as a designer.

At the end, I’ll arm you with some mindsets to use when you go shopping so you can make better choices. This guide isn’t here to demonize cheaper products, or even shame you into buying more expensive clothes. It’s about being able to determine what quality and price point makes sense for your lifestyle.

Finally, I put together a list of what I personally pay for clothes that you can use as a starting point. In this pricing list, I break down what you can expect in terms of qualities and details when you pay a certain amount for things, like leather jackets, jeans, and suits.

If you want, you can download the free bonus now by clicking below.

When it Comes to Price, Quality, and Clothes, There Are a Ton of Myths

Myth #1: “When you pay a lot of money, you’re mostly paying for the marketing budget.”

One of the biggest lies is that popular designer brands aren’t actually well made. And that the premium you’re paying is to fund a bloated marketing budget. This just isn’t true, just take a look at this fascinating video of the making of a Dior dress.

Sure, there are some brands that market the shit out of bad products to compensate (I’m looking at you, Old Navy), but just because a brand has a marketing budget doesn’t necessarily mean that’s why you’re paying a premium. And just because a brand doesn’t advertise doesn’t mean their clothes are better quality than a brand that does.

Myth #2: “More expensive clothes should be tough as nails and last longer.”

Most people associate higher price and higher quality with being rugged and lasting longer.

This is sometimes the case, but it depends on why you’re buying something.

What you’re paying for when it comes to clothes are the qualities and the quality.

Qualities are the features. You might pay more for a tee made from cashmere and silk because it’s super soft. What you’re paying for are the qualities of the shirt – that airy softness. Think of it this way: You order a souffle for because it’s light and airy, not because it’s filling.

Quality is how good are the materials and construction. The quality of the cashmere determines how soft it is. There’s a tradeoff to that though, and that it’s really delicate. It can easily rip and be a challenge to clean.

If your goal is to have a really nice, soft tee, it makes sense to pay $100 for a cashmere tee.

If you work on a construction site and need a shirt for everyday wear that can take some abuse, it makes sense to pay $5 for that rugged Beefy Hanes tee.

Myth #3: “Cheaper clothes fall apart after a few washes.”

On that note, most clothes will last if you’re not completely reckless, regardless of how much you paid for it.

I have $5 Uniqlo t-shirts that are almost 4 years old that are still holding strong.

While budget brands will cut costs by using less expensive fabrics and produce at more affordable factories, this doesn’t necessarily mean the clothes are going to disintegrate after a few washes.

There are areas like cheaper zippers or less reinforcement in sewing that make it weaker and more prone to damage, but for the most part, don’t buy into this myth.

Myth #4: “Markups are bad! You’re getting ripped off!”

I love this one.

People complain about markups writing blogs on their computers that were sold with a markup.

“Markups are evil” is just a marketing gimmick.

I think it’s a smart way to pitch a direct to consumer brand, but keep in mind that everything you buy has a mark-up. That’s how business works! You need to sell something at a higher price than you made it.

So What’s The Real Difference Between Budget and Premium Priced Clothes?

A safe bet you can make: When you pay less for something, it’s going to be lower quality.

If you pay more for something, chances are it’s going to be better quality.

Is this 100% true? No, not always. But in my experience manufacturing and shopping for a living, it’s mostly true.

Here’s the reality: it’s just REALLY hard to make something good for a cheap price.

Not just clothes, anything!

What do you think the difference would be if you had to throw nice, fancy dinner party for 4 people with a $20 budget compared to one with a $200?

Here’s what you get when you choose to go cheaper:

#1. Fabric doesn’t feel as nice & materials that aren’t as sturdy

The biggest cost to a garment will be the fabrics. It’s usually the first thing a designer will cut back on.

Softer leather, tougher denim, and plusher cashmere all costs money.

When you go budget, your leather’s going to be tougher (or even fake), your denim fabric weave might be weaker and more prone to rips, your cashmere fibers will be shorter, making it more coarse to the touch.

Materials and details, like buttons, zippers, and linings, will be lower quality too to save money.

These things might feel minor, but over time can change your experience with your clothes. Cheaper light metal or plastic zippers aren’t as strong and can break easier, and cheaper linings won’t be as breathable or feel nice on your skin.

#2. Fewer details like functional pockets, or seams that make clothes fit better

General rule: the more details a piece has, the more work it takes for someone to put it together. More work means you have to pay someone to do it, so it’s in a companies best interest to reduce the number of details a garment has. If you’ve ever came across an almost great jacket at a budget store that had no lining, not enough pockets, or anything that would be useful, this is why.

#3. Inconsistent Quality

Companies move production overseas because it’s cheaper. While there are a lot of great factories overseas, it’s harder to control quality unless you have a Quality Control person there during production, which is costly.

Many brands will skip this and opt for having samples sent back and forth, which isn’t as effective. So your products are more likely to have defects or inconsistency in quality.

Here’s One Reason You Should Pay More For Clothes

For many people, they often want higher prices to mean longer lifespan.

If I’m paying 2x more for a shirt, it should last me at least 2x longer.

I understand this logic, and in many cases paying more does mean a higher build quality. But there’s a better reason to pay more for something.

When it comes to clothes (or anything for that matter), “I bought it because I like it.” is a 100% valid reason to pay more for something.

It’s your money! You don’t need to justify how you use it to anyone else.

If you like it, buy it! Stop overthinking it.

So Are $400 Sneakers Worth It?

Photo via On Point Fresh

As much as I want to scream YES because I love my Common Projects, I have to be a bit diplomatic.

My job at The Essential Man is to give you the knowledge and tools to help you dress better. A lot of my recommendations are based on my own personal preference and experience. I probably won’t ever recommend a $100 leather jacket because, in my experience, it’s not worth it. It’s just hard to make a great leather jacket that retails for $100.

But if you come across a $100 leather jacket you like and decide you like it more than my personal opinion, awesome! Get it! And if you look great in it and don’t regret your purchase, I can’t argue with that!

A more useful way to approach this debate is to give you a few things to think about.

From there, you can use your best judgment. You can follow my expert lead and decide to shop based on how I shop (which is not a bad strategy), or you can decide you don’t really care if your jeans are made from special Japanese denim and spend less. Perfectly fine.

Alright, to wrap up, here’s what you should keep in mind when shopping:

#1 Assume you get better quality by paying more, and corners are cut when you pay less. 

It’s not true 100% of the time, but it’s a relatively safe bet.

Think of a low budget movie vs a high budget movie. With a bigger budget, you have more opportunities to make a good movie (hire better screenwriters, directors, actors, etc).

Be realistic. Don’t expect wagyu beef quality and taste at 24-hour diner steak prices.

#2 Pay for the best quality you can for your budget.

This is what I tell all my clients. As long as you get the basic style rules right, I don’t care if you’re doing it shopping only at Express or clearing out a rack at Bergdorf Goodmans.

#3 Invest in things that affect your body.

Two places you shouldn’t skimp: shoes and bags.

When you get, say, boots made from supple leather with great soles, your feet and body will thank you. (My personal favorite, Thursday Boots, aren’t even that pricey at $199).

The same goes for bags with solid support that won’t fuck up your back.

#4 Mix it up. Shop high and low.

The truth is, even I don’t buy all high-end designer clothes.

It would be hypocritical of me to suggest you buy expensive designer or custom clothes. And I guarantee you all those style bloggers who rip apart budget / fast fashion brands shop there on occasion too.

Think of it like fast food. It’s ok here and there, but you don’t want a diet that consists only of McDonald’s.

On the flip side, going all designer is like only eating at 4-hour chef tasting menus, it can be extremely decadent and unnecessarily expensive.

It’s ok to mix it up, high end, fast fashion, vintage and 2nd hand. That’s how I dress. That’s how the best-dressed people I know dress.

#5 “I like it” is a perfectly valid reason to pay more for something.

You don’t need to justify it to people. It’s your money.

#6 “I don’t get it/I hate it” is a perfectly valid reason to go budget on something.

If you don’t understand/get/or just plain hate the idea of a $100 t-shirt, don’t buy it. Go to Uniqlo and get a Supima tee for $10. They’re nice.

#7 Paying more for new  releases is paying a premium so you don’t have to wait for the sale. You’re also guaranteed to get your exact size.

Think of it like a stress-free tax.

#8 If you want high quality at lower prices, buy used designer clothes

Buying used Uniqlo stuff is not worth the effort. However, getting a 2nd hand Rick Owen’s leather jacket for 50% retail is totally worth hunting down. My favorite place for 2nd hand designer clothes: Grailed

Want to Know What I Splurge On and What I Buy Cheap? I Put Together a Pricing and Quality List

I breakdown what items in my closet I go cheap on, which I spend more on and why, all compiled in this price/quality guide. Click below to get the free bonus.

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