How to Build a Designer Wardrobe on a Budget

Megan of Charade (go there now) came to me with this seriously smart contribution on building a designer wardrobe on a budget and it got me to thinking: Could I go cold turkey on my shopping habit in exchange for a few seriously well-made and fitted designer darlings? Could I possibly hold out on the thrill of the hunt and that buzz I get from the very first donning of the newly-acquired…?

It is something to consider. And according to the quick poll I made of some fashionable friends, there seems to be a few different schools of thought pertaining to the subject of wardrobe fortification on a budget:

  1. Wardrobe Bulimic – You consistently have buying binges at thrift stores and discount clothing joints. You have perhaps 10 things in your closet you’ve owned for more than 5 years. Your style changes as often as your underpants. Your most inspired outfit is the one you just bought.
  2. Practicality Rules – You stick with tried and true key pieces year after year, splurging on a some quality staples and supplementing with quirky vintage and Forever 21 for your trend fix.
  3. Quality Over Quantity – You have a keen eye for the classic, yet eye-catching, the well-made and tres cher. You know what you like enough to plan out your purchases on pieces that will rack up plenty of mileage. You have willpower to covet because your wardrobe is small and organized, cohesive and classic. You always look hella (apologies) put-together.

Me? I started out Practical but am now a full-on Wardrobe Bulimic. Which school do you belong to?? You may change your answer after reading Michelle’s post. She is very convincing. And probably looks hella put together.

Thanks so much, Megan!


by Megan Hayes

(Note before reading: If designer wear is not your thing, substitute it for ‘quality’ and you might be more impressed.)

So, I know Painfully Hip is all about thrifty fashion for the weak of wallet, but I’d hazard a guess that you (yes YOU mystery internet browser!) could potentially get your wallet working a lot harder. Your money is worth more than you give it credit for (pardon the pun…) if you look at it logically.

None of us want to be label whores, selling our souls to the big names but, equally, I think we would all agree that a little more quality in our wardrobes would be a plus. I’m certainly coming around to the idea of a wardrobe that doesn’t just give something back in the short term, but keeps on giving, perhaps even years into the future.

I want more from my wardrobe, do you?

It’s All About the Attitude
Firstly, you need to alter your attitude towards clothes and allow yourself the determination not to be seduced by all the little bargain buys that you currently can’t resist. This is the only way you’re going to build a budget strong enough to splash out on designer items. A particular bonus of spending more on single items is that we will really start to think about what we are purchasing and begin really considering its place in our wardrobe. No more buying on a whim and regretting it; you’re bound to appreciate any item all the more if attaining it pushed you beyond a mindless swipe of your credit card on a busy Saturday afternoon in Target. Every item in your wardrobe deserves this amount of appreciation.

Quantity vs. Quality
It looks to me like some ghastly corporate consumer type started a nasty rumour back in the 80’s that we must all own oodles of clothes, then along came the Carrie Bradshaw walk in wardrobe fantasy to fan the flames of the very same myth. Add to that our basic human impulse to hoard, hoard, hoard and we’ve ended up with quite the recipe for wardrobe meltdown. My question is: why are we all buying (literally) into it? All it spells to me is more clutter, more stress in the morning and a positively mish-mashed personal aesthetic.

Take Your Time
Nobody’s saying you can snap your fingers and, hey presto, have a capsule designer wardrobe in mere minutes. It. Will. Take. Time. But understand that this will be a positive process in which you will learn to harness your personal style as well as your finances. The best thing about making this change, other than the envy-inducing collection of clothes you’ll have at the end of it, is the self-restraint it’ll teach you in all areas of your life. To thrive, and in turn have a thriving wardrobe, we need to forget this magpie, must have, grab and go consumer complex and start thinking about what we really need, in this case a wardrobe that actually works for us as individuals, not as a heaving mass market.

Rethink Your Idea of Designer
Start thinking of each item you buy as a ‘piece’ in its own right, rather than an addition to the heap. This is made far easier when we start to reassess what we think of as designer. Someone has put creative energy into fabricating a garment that deserves to be cherished, that is an artwork in its own right – that’s what designer means. And you don’t necessarily have to stick to the big names, there are the emerging designers of tomorrow who are probably putting more creative energy into their pieces now than they ever will again – it’s your job to suss them out, assess the quality, and consider the spend.

Save Your Money, Save Yourself
All these points are supposed to add up to a whole new attitude towards clothes and shopping. Here’s an example situation where this new attitude will be necessary:

You walk into a high street store, your eye is caught by a glitteringly eye-grabbing dress, it’s only £40 and you have got that event coming up at the weekend. You’ll probably wear it again and you’re so bored of all your other dresses. The stitching is fraying slightly at the hem but you’ll get a few wears out of it and, really, for £40, who’s arguing?

This is the type of occasion where you need to stop and whip your attitude into shape. Is this a dress from your dreams? Does it suit you down to the ground? Does it deserve a place in your wardrobe? Is it actually worth that £40 price tag you’re so quick to dismiss as a bargain? Come the end of the month that £40 might not seem like such a steal, £40 is £40 after all.

If this happens to you, say, 3 times on the average spree, and you grant yourself 2-3 sprees a month, that’s up to £360 you could potentially be blowing each month on clothes you don’t really need, or perhaps even want… Can’t quite believe it? Well, you’d better. That ‘I have nothing to wear’ wardrobe has probably set you back a small fortune, easily enough to have netted you several designer items.

Your wardrobe, your clothes, are likely to be integral to the way you live, the way you project yourself out to the world, and the way you feel as a part of that world. So don’t we deserve to give our wardrobes, and subsequently ourselves, a little more respect?

Now for the fun bit…

Which Designers Could You Realistically Afford?
You need to suss the market for designer wear that you can really covet and that is in your potential price range. Check out this article on 10 Must-Watch Fashion Designers for Young People by College Fashion for inspiration

Or consider these examples:

vivian westwood dress

This Vivienne Westwood Dress is £300. Now, how much do you wish you could swap that entire drawer of thinning cotton band t-shirts at £20 a pop for this baby in your wardrobe? £300 is a price you can aim toward, by the above deductions it could be less than a months spending, and for a dress with such a classic shape and great colour – it’ll be making you smile for years to come.

miu miu clutch

This Miu Miu clutch is £205. Pricey for a clutch? Yes. Wearable with practically every outfit you own? Also yes. This is an investment, it’s a luxury addition to your wardrobe, and it’ll be a veritable fantasy to walk around with.

Marni Maryjanes

These Marni Mary Jane’s will set you back £196 but really, what are we getting for our money here? Effortless style? Check. Classic design? Check. The envy of all out friends? Triple check.

sonia rykiel sweater

This Sonia Rykiel number is more than a sweater, it’s a statement; it’s a little slice of your personality in 100% cotton form. £160 it may be, but I ask you this: will it ever stop appealing to you?

Total: £861 but, honestly, any would-be fashionista is likely to be spending close to, if not more than this in a year already without even realising it. And yeah, yeah, you’re thinking ‘four new items of clothing a year? Do me a favour…’ and I hear you, I really do. The emphasis here is on building a designer wardrobe, as in, brick by brick, piece by piece.
You will be making a sacrifice – you get four fabulous items like these over the course of a year instead of a whole heap of high street garb. It will perhaps take many years to get your wardrobe acting the way you want it to, but it will definitely be worth the process.

This idea is totally up for debate, so what do you think? Would you swap cheap for chic if it meant living by a ‘less is more’ mantra? Or does thrifting bring you far too much joy? Do you hate the high street? Or can’t you resist a bargain? Discuss!


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