Thinking About: Wardrobe Investment Strategies

black low-heel ankle boots

I’ve had a few questions in recent months about wardrobe investment pieces. I think it’s a given that no matter our budgets, we all want to shop smarter and avoid costly mistakes. But what do we mean when we talk about “investment pieces?” It can be rather subjective, but here are my thoughts….

Crunching The Numbers

As clothing and accessories rarely appreciate in monetary value, a wardrobe investment can’t (and shouldn’t) be measured that way. (Of course, some high-end designer pieces have historically gone up in price, but that’s a discussion for another day.) My best investments have been those that add value to my wardrobe. So how to quantify “value?”

After noodling this over for a few weeks, I’ve realized I have two different criteria for determining value. The first is what I’ve often referred to as amortizing, or cost-per-wear. In general, I’ve found it’s worth spending a little more for those pieces that a) are of higher quality b) fit better and c) are more versatile because I’ll wear them more often, for longer, and the cost-per-wear of the item amortized over its “lifespan” will be much lower. My Eileen Fisher silk tanks and tees weren’t inexpensive, but I wear one of them almost daily, they wear like iron and last for years. At this point, my cost-per-wear on these is down to pennies.

It can be hard to know the first time you make a purchase how well that piece is going to perform in your wardrobe. That’s where having a signature style, or at least leaning toward one or two silhouettes can help. My closet orphans (pieces that I’ve bought and worn once or twice, if at all) were often experiments, or steps broadly outside of my usual style or silhouette. Once you know the types of pieces and styles that work best for you, it becomes less risky to spend a little more for better quality.

Feeling The LOVE

But we can’t live by numbers alone. There’s an emotional component to style that we shouldn’t ignore. Sometimes the value something adds to your wardrobe isn’t measured by number of wears, but how you feel wearing it, and how sometimes it’s just the thing that makes an outfit come together. I consider the pieces I’ve LOVED LOVED LOVED the minute I tried them on to be some of my best wardrobe investments; they’re what add the “wow” factor to my wardrobe. I find ways to wear things I love more often, and I keep them longer. They make both financial and emotional sense. (And the author of this recent NY Times article comes to the same conclusion about buying what you love.)

It can be tempting when you find something you LOVE that’s out of your budget to want to “buy around” it, and find something else that scratches the same itch for less. Sometimes you can. But I’d caution…if the substitute doesn’t give you that same feeling, skip it and save up for the next Wonderful Thing that does. Like like passing up a scoop of gelato only to binge on a fat-free-sugar-free substitute later, you may often end up spending more over time without the satisfaction. Watch for sales, and check ebay, etsy and consignment sites too.

I’ve often heard advice not to spend on really trendy things because they’ll have a shorter shelf life. I’ve come to take that with a grain of salt, and regard trends as opportunities to find a greater selection of styles you’d want to wear anyway. Don’t buy something just because it’s “in,” but also don’t avoid it for that reason either. The life cycle of trends has evolved; they are more amorphous, last longer, and have more concurrent streams (consider that both minimalist and boho trends have recently been popular at the same time). Again, it’s a matter of Personal Style > Fashion.

I’m not a financial advisor, so I can’t tell you what your wardrobe budget should be or how much should go to basics vs. LOVE buys. It’s going to depend on your financial situation and temperament, as well as your style preferences. I’ve spent a few years building up my basic wardrobe, and now am more interested in keeping my eyes open for the exceptional pieces that make my heart beat a little faster.

A few additional thoughts:

  • If you are rebuilding or replacing your wardrobe, invest in your basics first. A good core wardrobe greatly reduces that nothing-to-wear feeling of deprivation that can trigger desperation shopping.
  • If your budget is limited, use accessories to add variety while you build up your wardrobe.
  • Think about your lifestyle and what your wardrobe needs to accommodate. Clothing that travels well is a priority for me. Are you working now but planning to retire or change careers soon? How much are you willing to spend on dry cleaning? (I’ve found that sometimes paying a little more for something that’s hand washable saves a lot of $$ over time once you factor in the cleaning bills.) Does your social calendar include more nature walks or evenings at the symphony?
  • I’m a believer in Quality over Quantity, in selecting fewer, but better pieces. I’ll always advocate buying the best quality that you can afford.

At the end of the day, the goal is to have a wardrobe that works for our lives and budget, that suits our style, and that we feel good wearing. Whatever supports that objective is likely to be a good wardrobe investment.

Top photo: those Stuart Weitzman ankle boots are now 12? 13? years old. At the time I bought them, they were my most expensive shoe purchase ever. But I wore them several times a week for several years, and I think they’ve held up well and turned out to be a very good investment. Similar look here and here.

What have been some of your best wardrobe investments?

Investments With A Good Track Record…

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  1. Hi
    I follow your site from India and though my wardrobe is largely ethnic clothes I find I learn a lot. My western style clothing are largely casual wear, so I’m not deeply concerned about investing heavily and recouping that investment. But with ethnic clothes it’s far easier. Sarees never go out of fashion!

  2. Totally agree about Eileen Fisher basics! I hesitated to spend the money, but as you noted, the cost per wear is down to pennies. Shoes and handbags are in this category, too, as I don’t need a lot of variety in those items.

  3. Could not agree more on the EF investment pieces. I also try to add a new color (poppy this year!) when a bright comes out that suits me. And this goes double for good, classic shoes and boots. Great post!

  4. The cashmere sweaters I wear everyday in winter are at least 20 years old. I cannot find cashmere of the same quality now. I wear them with a Paloma Picasso scarf I found in a consignment shop.

  5. Even though I live in a very warm climate (Dallas), I’ve found that some of my best wardrobe investments have been coats, both light weight and warmer. My favorite is a wool coat from Worth NY. It is a one layer wool reversible coat (fabulous fabric) that is a black/white tweed on one side and a an expanded black/white plaid on the other. It has pockets on both sides and interesting seaming detail. The coat also has great buttons on both sides. It’s about five years old now and still my favorite. It’s sophisticated and always lends its quality to whatever I’m wearing. As I recall, it cost around $1,000 which was quite a budget buster when I bought it. I’ve never regretted buying it for one minute. It’s my favorite article of clothing.

  6. I could not agree more! “Buying around” something I love ends up costing more in the long run because I am never satisfied with substitutes. My EF items are the backbone of my wardrobe and get worn more than anything else.

  7. My Balenciaga black handbag. It’s a warrior. Silly enough but UGG boots last forever. EF is terrific on most items but the neck stitching of the silk tees often frays. Although unpopular with some, I purchased a black mink 3/4 jacket and it is another wardrobe warrior. Goes with everything and wears like steel and I’m warm. I overbought EF and have pieces that look great on you but don’t work as well on me…so this is my year of culling down…again….my closet. My mother always said it was less expensive to buy excellent merchandise no matter what it was than to have to buy lesser quality more often.

  8. My best wardrobe investments are fabulous accessories and basics. Not that great accessories or basic clothes can’t be found at lower pricepoints- it’s just that I never seem to regret investing in things like a great pair of jeans or a Hermès scarf. Basics are what I wear most so it just seems sensible to invest in quality when possible. Accessories last typically way longer than clothing items and never fail to elevate and personalize a simple outfit.
    Over the years I’ve also learned in what NOT to invest: formal wear that looks beautiful and tempting, but that isn’t a good match to my casual lifestyle would be #1 on that list… I’m much better off with just one boring classic LBD at a reasonable price point. After all, LBD’s are very easy to accessorize…

  9. A well thought out article,Susan. Your boots look like the softest of leather. They are a bit of a statement boot. I bet they look great worn with a pair of cropped pants or skirt.
    I always buy quality footwear. They are worth every penny when they are comfortable and fit well. Another investment piece is a classic coat, such as, a winter wool and a spring trench. They will last for years when you buy quality. And, I do love cashmere. It feels luxurious and keeps me warm.
    I have found a wonderful consignment shop that only takes in quality garments in excellent condition. I’ve found many a treasure there and it keeps my cost per wear down while still looking good.

  10. What a timely post, since I just purchased a black pair of boots and was experiencing a wee bit of buyer’s remorse 😉 However, I know whenever I purchase something I love, it is never the wrong decision – thanks for the reminder! BTW, loved the NYT article about the bike. Thanks again for the great post 😉

  11. Thanks for the excellent fashion advice. Now in semi-retirement, I’m paring down to a travel-friendly capsule wardrobe. Having been raised in a family where money is tight, it’s hard to break with my training and consider more expensive items–but I try to do so when I find something that will serve me well and long.

  12. I love your comment: “Think about your lifestyle and what your wardrobe needs to accommodate.” My lifestyle has changed with retirement, and I have increased my attendance at our neighborhood yoga studio and I have been doing a lot more walking in the area. This requires a very casual wardrobe, and I need to dramatically pare down my stiff professional-looking clothes. And I believe in quality (over quantity,) always!

  13. Holy serendipity batman(woman)!!
    I have just been working through this question of quality over quantity, investment pieces and how I feel about owning an expensive and beautiful piece of clothing.
    For my birthday present, my husband wanted to buy me a winter coat – something I would really like and enjoy for a long time. I sort of began at the top and looked at Maxmara camel coats which do come with an expensive ticket attached to the silk lined sleeve. I even tried one on which was a lovey experience.
    Then decision time; how much would I want to invest in a coat? Not that much actually. I happily left Maxmara having decided that while I truly appreciate the garment, I don’t want to own it..and pay for it!
    A few hours later I walked past a Brooks Brothers Store, popped in for a wee look and there was “my” camel coat. On a terrific sale too. Yes, still expensive, but the kind of expensive that I felt comfortable with and the kind of expensive that wouldn’t mean I’d being paying for it for the next year.

    I really appreciated your post Susan; not because you justified my purchase but because of how you have teased out the issue of quality over quantity. Lately, I have less but really more because it all gets worn, appreciated and enjoyed.
    Great boots by the way!!

  14. Another great post. My first EF purchase was this summer (black washable crepe pants) and YOU were the inspiration. Not a second of regret. The “buying around” concept was what ultimately made my decision, as I was about ready to spend $85 on another pair that just wasn’t quite right. I finally recognized that I would end up buying three other less expensive pair and end up spending more ($$ and time!) in the long run. Time to move on from that fear-based manner of decision making. Thank you.

  15. I love it when an investment piece turns out to be everything it promised to be. Sadly that isn’t always the case.

    Often products are produced in the same factories with the same workers and attention to detail as cheaper items.

    In no way am I suggesting to purchase the cheapest items. However, I think that looking at each product on its own merit with sensible knowledge and a keen eye will guarantee more about the quality of a piece rather than the price of the piece.


  16. I agree with everything you said today, especially the “buying around”. Made that mistake too many times to mention. I have those Stuart Weitzman boots & still love them, a classic in my closet & so comfortable.

  17. One thing I forgot to add to my comment made earlier is this:
    I have noticed Susan, that since I have begun reading your blog, you have changed in your pictures. I am seeeing a relaxed, more confident looking woman with a consistent style and easy poise (look at your smile by the way; more often on the verge of a laugh!).
    I love this because to me, it shows that you are walking the walk in comfy, stylish boots that really suit you, rocking a snappy leopard coat you love accessorized by what has become your signature jewelry.
    You’re blog is a pleasure to follow!

  18. Hello Susan and everyone else: thank you for the blog and your wonderful food for fashion thought. I hope you know that your posts are uplifting and fun and a welcome retreat from other more weighty elements in life. I wonder whether I might request the favor of a topic. Could you again recap on skin care products in the moderate (not cheap) price range. I have a couple of products I love, Neocutis eye cream among them, but still can’t seem to find something for a daily moisturizer under makeup with SPF. I believe you have blogged on this topic before. Regarding your post today, I feel that makeup fits into the same general category: for the most part you get what you pay for, mascara being the one exception I have found to that rule. For clothing, I have found Tahari to be a particularly reliable workhorse for me. The cut is also usually generous and one can snag some great pieces on clearance periodically.

    Cheers, Mary F.

  19. This post was excellent. Great advice here. And the words about dry cleaning are spot on. My investment pieces are my blazers and lady jackets. They aren’t trendy but are classics with a bit of a modern flair. That’s why most of my clothing is from J. Crew. I love my leather Longchamp bags as well–they get better with age.
    And inner comfort with the clothing is very important. If you feel good in it-you will look good!!

  20. It’s funny because it is the basics that last us the longest. I was just saying to my husband, how my grey turtleneck has been such a winter staple in my closet. Yet these basics are not what make me excited about getting dressed!!
    It’s like you described with the “love” pieces—these are what really make me get all giddy & happy!!
    In fact, I struggle with remembering to buy the basics. I know I’ll wear them, but they just don’t make me as happy! Silly, huh?

  21. This post flirts with what I really hope to see you address some day. I am at the point in life where I have plenty of “stuff”, and I am trying to do the “more quality/less quantity” thing. Where I struggle is in determining which splurges are really worthwhile. I have, on occasion, objected to items featured on your blog, because I thought “who would spend THAT much on a bag/jacket/shoes?” For example, I was recently gifted a Chanel bag (I know, right?). It is lovely and all, but I would NEVER spend that much of my own money on a bag. I bought a Brahmin bag a few months ago that cost $275, and I like it just as much. So where is it really worth spending the big bucks? I know that’s a matter of opinion. But is a Max Mara coat worth the price tag? They are beautiful and I would love one if I didn’t live in a hot climate. Tod’s suede driving shoes? Also beautiful, but are they worth four times more than the Louise & Cie red suede loafers I bought at Nordstrom? Is my Cartier rolling ring worth whatever my husband paid for it? I’m quite sure that a designer white tee for $100 is not a better deal than the $20 one I can get at Banana Republic.

    Guidance, please! Opinions from all would be helpful.

    1. Jill Ann, you probably won’t like this answer, but I don’t think there are universal “right” answers to those questions. It depends on what you value, your own tastes and experiences. As Suzanne mentioned, spending more doesn’t always guarantee higher quality, but sometimes it does, or provides more assurances about how the product was made and under what conditions. I’ve had boots I’ve paid $100 for that don’t look as good after a year as my Stuart Weitzmans look after 12. There are some companies like Everlane who have built around a business model of providing better quality for less. I’d agree with you about Brahmin bags, think they are a great value and well made. What I was trying to convey was that a lot of these “value” decisions are subjective. Someone else might find those Tod’s loafers a superior product for reasons that don’t matter to you. Trust your taste and what feels right for you. I think the key word is “satisfying.” Does what you’re buying feel satisfying to you?

  22. This post addresses exactly the issues I am currently wrestling with! I am so grateful to have your thoughts (as well as all the other commenters) as supportive guidance in my striving to buy less but of more quality, that really is stuff that makes me happy. Last summer I bought my first pair of denim that cost over $200, because I knew several women who loved those particular high waisted jeans; and I wear them constantly, and they will last for years, so I know I made the right choice! But it was painful to make the decision to spend that much; I had debated for months.

    I really don’t have a large budget to spend, and am looking towards retirement in perhaps 4-6 years (or maybe less?) when I’ll have a more relaxed life and also even less money to spend on my wardrobe. So all of this is taken into consideration.

    I will say that some of my best pieces are bought on consignment. I get to try things that I might not otherwise be able to afford, and also have found some truly remarkable vintage pieces that make me so happy to wear, and that bring pleasure to others to see. For instance, a few years ago I bought a long, dark green velvet skirt second hand. It probably was meant as “Western-wear” but dresses up or down quite nicely. When I wore it again to school a few days ago, it swished and swirled and reflected the light beautifully as I moved through the campus–much to the delight of co-workers and students!