How to Build a Designer Wardrobe on a Budget

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!

36 comments to How to Build a Designer Wardrobe on a Budget

  • I love this post! I am definitely in the Wardrobe Bulimic school of fashion myself. I am cursed with that dreaded impulse to “hoard hoard hoard” and I find it hard to get rid of things because they develop sentimental value and then I always think “but what if one day I -need- this *insert crappy thrifted item here* to complete a perfect outfit? I think that this designer based quality-over-quantity wardrobe is fantastic and I applaud anyone with the self discipline to follow through with it. Me, I like having an endless hodgepodge of stuff because I am sure to find something to suit my every mood. And the fact that I am accident prone/a space cadet who loses things hourly makes it preferable for me to have cheaper more numerous items. Think of the tears of blood I would shed if I allowed my $500 Jimmy Choo pumps to get scuffed or accidentally left my Marc Jacobs jacket sitting on a chair at a restaurant. Someday I could see myself converting to the faith of the well-made less-clutter closet, but that will be in a few years when I have to start looking like an adult and I learn the value of a dollar and what not. Great post, excuse this novel I felt compelled to write in response, but the article really was thought provoking :~)

  • Great post! I wish there was something out there like this for guys.

  • On the one hand, I can see where you’re coming from. On the other hand, this is a wardrobe practice that may not be too practical for some people. Take, well…me, for example. I’m a college student working 12 hours a week at barely above minimum wage, and over half of that paycheck goes to bills. Subtract gasoline (even at the current relatively-low price) from what’s left, factor in the occasional oil change, need for shampoo, toilet paper, deodorant, etc…and by the time I saved up for one designer item, it’s probably not on the market anymore.

    Add that to the fact that, like a lot of women, I struggle with my weight (18 credit hours + a job + study and homework time + at least 6 hours of sleep per night leaves little time to go to the gym, even if I could afford it), and you can see why building up a wardrobe over a long period of time might not work. What fits me today might not, and probably won’t, 2 years from now, whether it’s because I’ve gained or lost weight.

    Now let’s do some math. Say I do manage to buy 4 designer items a year. Now, since I don’t want to wash one outfit over and over every day (even high quality designer pieces won’t stand up to that for very long), not to mention that I don’t want to wear the exact same thing every day, it stands to reason that I’m going to have to keep some of my “other” clothes for awhile until I build up a repitoire of, say, four or five complete outfits that can be mixed and matched with one another. So let’s say three bottoms, maybe two dresses, three tops, a sweater or coat, and at least one pair of shoes. That’s ten items right there, and that’s a pretty small closet. No hats, belts, purses, or other accessories, either, just the very basic coverings.

    That’s going to take me two and a half years. In two and a half years I’ll no longer be a college student, I’ll be entering the work force. Which means my wardrobe needs will change dramatically. Comfort will probably take a slight backseat to style, and what I wear will have to have a lot more to do with what will help me get hired than with what I’d just love to be wearing that particular day. At the same time, I don’t want to wear a bunch of semi-to-very conservative office clothing while I’m a happy-go-lucky college sophomore.

    See the problem?

    While this would probably be a great approach for some people, for others it would just be more trouble than it’s worth. Thrifting works for me, because even though I’m always pressed for time, I have twice as much time to shop as I have money to spend. Not only that, but I do a lot of different things, so my wardrobe needs to be varied enough to accommodate that.

    I agree that people should always be very choosy about their clothes, and only take that bargain if it’s really, REALLY what you want. But it never hurts for it to be a bargain, either.

  • Love this post (and the Westwood dress). One more secret — get old. At 39, I now have a drawer full of cashmere, several perfect Victorian lace up boots, etc. These things add up over 2+ decades.

  • Lots of great idea’s presented here on how to look good and be frugal with your money at the same time.

  • Lindsey

    great points… definitely some things to learn here. but this woman needs an editor… dang, it gets downright verbose for a blog post!

  • Dee

    I totally agree its wonderful to own designer/quality items. But at the same time, thrifting and making mistakes teaches me what works for me. As I sift through my wardrobe year after year, I learn the importance of owning a white dress shirt, a tailored blazer, a well fitting pair of jeans, and what fabrics drape best on my body type. I would hate to spend a lot of money on this learning process. Besides, finding designer/quality items at a thrift store is possible. Quality pieces are not limited to fancy boutiques.

  • great great post
    investment dressing is difficult yes, but so worth it
    i do think that it takes a lot of exploration and experimenting with clothes before you are confident enough to purchase the right quality pieces however

  • KB

    A great post! I’m a self confessed fashion bullimic, in fact I binged today. I wish that I could have the self control to save for these pieces, you know it makes sense.

  • Hmmm…. Im not 100% convinced. I think this advice is overly simplified. There are definitely more options to achieving a high quality wardrobe and who loves to shop? I actually just love the act of shopping, i actually do it for a living but maybe its like over eating… i love to eat and i love food so from time to time i over eat :) but really who wants to starve themselves or ALWAYS eat a perfectly balanced diet? Where’s the fun?
    I do agree with learning some form of restraint or will power from buying on a whim AND following all fashion trends… which i am personally still working on. Due to lack of time and a consistent income, i absolutely find my self making impulse purchases but that doesnt always have a negative result. As i get older i find it easier to see beyond most of the cheap trends that are in and out in the same month and i really do have a good idea of what i love about fashion and what style i like for myself.
    Really the best thing you can do for your style self is figure out what you truely love and realizing when you are being influenced by what’s currently hot. (not that you have to be bound to one category but just realize the difference between the two.) Of course, also knowing what really works for your body and lifestyle is essential.<<< i know this is not new advice but in order to shop with a discerning eye, especially if you enjoy shopping, establishing these distinctions really makes a difference.
    If you are a “thrifter” which i am sure most of us who read this blog are, you know that there are tons and tons of “designer” gems to be found in thrift stores and designer re-sale shops are becoming more and more common. Why not recycle? Plus there is also vintage. A great thing about vintage is a good amount of it is constructed better than what you could find at forever 21.

    so i can just keep going on and on but i curb this strict advice and say spend a chunk of change on a classic-high quality pieces once or twice a year and then enjoy shopping and having fun with your personal style.

    Life is short, its better to have fun!

    Side Note: If your wardrobe is so upsetting that you are now frustrated when getting ready for your day, you might wanna look for issues outside of your shopping habits.

  • Eve

    I agree with Jasmine. I don’t think that $500 on a dress is ever worth it. Unless maybe it’s your wedding dress. And it’s just perpetuating the whole “making the rich richer and the poor poorer” through a little underground marketing. Why NOT recycle?

  • Great points everybody! I’m glad my little article caused so much hype.

    Katie – Great points, I love the idea of your wardrobe growing up with you and if designer wear doesn’t fit your needs now, then thrift away my sweet!

    April – I agree. I too love a bargain and a bit of variety in my wardrobe. You don’t necessarily need to take the ‘four items a year’ literally if it doesn’t suit your lifestyle, just something to think about.

    Erica – Fabulous! You’re living, breathing testimony to the joys and benefits of building up a dream wardrobe. Great comment.

    Lindsey – Oh golly… I do go on don’t I! Thanks for keeping me in check.

    Jasmine and Eve – My bad for not mentioning vintage wear, of course that’s a classy and ethical option. I was trying to emphasize quality as much as ‘label’ so the amount of money you spend isn’t the issue. Love the food analogy.

    I hope that, if you are desiring a designer wardrobe on a budget, this article gave you a good starting point.

    All the best x

  • B

    This is great advice! I already do this, I buy a good investment piece every season (two per year). Sometimes, like this year, it’s something small, like a pair of sunglasses, other years I can spend some more. Of course, I still buy other, cheaper clothes at H&M or Zara, but with time, I’ll have a basic wardrobe of things I like and that I can accessorize differently every time… hopefully!

  • Very good article. If you like handcrafted fine jewelry, here’s a $100 Fine Jewelry Gift Certificate Sweepstakes you might be interested in. Cheers!

  • This is a good way to live your fashion life if you don’t have a ton of money to spend, i think a lot of people could gain from this article a way to live within their means. credit is a monster that can be tamed.

  • i think this post was fantastic – you made a LOT of good points that i haven’t thought about much before, due to the fact that most of my shopping is done at thrift stores and fabric shops :)
    these points that you make should be considered by anyone – not just someone shopping for a “designer” wardrobe in the normal sense of the word, but anyone who wants to be the owner of a smooth-running, cohesive closet. you could substitute any style-related word for “designer” here and still walk away with an arm-load of fantastic advice. i think we’d all do well with a little bit of forethought in our purchases. (and i think it’s a bit sad that it took an economic crisis for so many to wake up to this realization.)
    i don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t have an overflowing closet if you’re the type of person who changes looks/styles/eras/whatever every other day – i just think i’d rather have a closet overflowing with thought-out, useable options, than racks of crap and “nothing to wear.”

    (also, i personally LOVE long posts. this didn’t seem rambly in the slightest to me. most of mine have been fairly long too – sometimes it takes more than 2 paragraphs to really present a topic. it’s the meaty posts that get the blood circulating in the ol’ brain anyway :)
    high five!

  • Not a bad post, although as a “thrifter/vintage shopper” I immediately balked at the idea of spending $500 on ANYTHING in my closet. Since there are so many people who’ll buy designer duds and then chuck ‘em as soon as the season’s over, why not try to thrift those?

    And kudos to the woman who pointed out that buying designer clothes doesn’t really work if your weight fluctuates. SOOO true. Better to buy a couple of designer accessories and thrift the clothes!

    I liked B.’s idea of buying one nice designer piece per season though. Seems like a good compromise. That way, you don’t have to totally blow your entire budget saving up for designer pieces. If a designer piece costs say, one month’s spending (as the article mentions) then you’d still have 10 months of spending money left for the year after buying your 2 designer items.

  • Hi, my name is Vanessa and I started reading your blog a few days ago. In response to your entry, I would say I’ve always preferred “quality over quantity.” Sure, there are a few items that I would stock up on, but I never absolutely had the advantage or the funds for it. This is the sole reason why I buy on sale or vintage. Otherwise, I would splurge for top quality.

  • Funny…

    I just DID a post like this on my blog, though I could have killed for all the great detail that went into this one. But I’ve recently come to the same conclusion that I have too much stuff – like WAAAAAAY too much stuff. It’s my personality. I think I need new things, despite then still wearing the old things, and I need WANT – MUST HAVE more more more all the time. I’m impulsive, addictive and excessive and none of these qualities make for smart shopping.

    Thanks for this article, I’m well on my way to getting “There” and this will certainly keep my in line.

    Lusty x0x0x


  • Amy C.

    I love this post. About two years ago I began to shop with high-quality and long-lasting style in mind. Without cutting out cheap buys altogether, I have significantly reduced the amount of clothes I purchase, and have started buying one fairly expensive but quality piece of clothing every few months. I am much happier with my wardrobe now. I feel more stylish and less wasteful, and I absolutely do not miss any of those extra ‘bargain’ buys that I bought because they were cheap, not because I loved them.

    One practical way to limit your clothes shopping is to ask yourself with each item, would I take this with me on a vacation? I tend to bring my cutest, most flattering, and most versatile clothes with me on trips, so asking myself this question has helped me say ‘no’ to many unnecessary, mediocre purchases.

  • Holy crap, Amy!
    That’s one of the best tips I’ve heard in a long time – that’s totally true! NICE.

  • i think im a number two, btw the stripy top is absolutely amazing

  • jackie gibson

    i like the shirt that is black and white with the red tie its really cute and i also like the high hells if there were my size and i had the money i would buy them there really cute

  • В очередной раз благодарю, хорошие что есть такие люди как вы, которые дают на самом деле дельные советы:)

  • This post could not have had better timing. I’m moving into a new apartment soon and will really need to thin out my closet. These tips are really going to save me

    Thanks so much!
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  • J’adore ces chaussures et ce sac est vraiment génial.

  • fantastic advice. I’m going to submit a link of this podcast on my blackboard website for my students. Every thing you said works for discussion boards too. Thanks !

  • Some great advice here. I agree, I think the best advice is to choose your investment pieces wisely- things like a great little black dress, classic pieces of jewellery, great-fitting jeans, a classic trench, etc that will stay in style and you’ll get wear out of for years to come. If you have those good quality basics you’ll always look well put together no matter how much or how little you spend on the rest of your wardrobe.

  • is an exciting showcase of clothes, jewelry and handbagsfrom up-and-coming designers, small boutiques and vintage sellers.Visit us to find unique conversation pieces you won’t find anywhere else.

  • I always go for cheaper clothes but fabulous designs. Sometimes I look for a wonderful cloth then I would go to a tailoring for a perfect fit.

  • Before you buy anything, make sure that it goes with at least three other items that you already own. By mixing and matching your key wardrobe staples, you can extend your wardrobe. By wearing different accessories and shoes, you can create a number of completely different outfits.

  • Yeah, what you said in your article is great, thanks for sharing your great article, but what you said is not complete, right? For a woman, besides to pay attention to the designer clothes, design handbags, and designer shoes, they also pay attention to their designer jewelry to perfect their attire and look, right? So, when talking about the designer wardrobe, you should focus on those designer jewelry to complete your wardrobe.
    betterdealz´s last [type] ..18G/1mm Acrylic Taper Spike Fake Cheater Ear Plug Stud Piercing Free ship Punk 2pcs

  • протезирование тазобедренного сустава Дона какое занимательное сообщение

  • In my opinion, you can give it a try to buy designer clothes, especial designer wedding apparel online to get a good collection of wonderful designer clothes with very affordable prices, thus you can be able to build your designer wardrobe on a budget, right? As far as I know, online clothing stores usually cost much less money than what you pay for the same clothes listed at your local physical stores. The reason is very simple, online stores do not need to pay much money for the rent and storage space, but physical stores have too much cost for them, so to get the same profit the latter have to sell the same clothes at much higher price than online clothing stores, right?

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