Published: April 17, 2020 Updated: March 27, 2023 17 min read
What are the best quality clothing brands that are affordable? This post is a fashion industry insiders guide to shopping for well made clothing. Obviously I wouldn't feel right just giving you a list of brands that you should buy from. That's not how I do things here at virtue+ vice. I want to teach you, so you can shop for quality on your own, and never have to resort to another listicle again.
If you haven't noticed, in the past decade there has been a serious quality clothing decline. It feels like everything is made to fall apart, and end up in a landfill. But, don't worry, there are some well-made gems out there, and I will show you how to find them.
Found something you like in the store? Let’s find out if it’s quality-made.
Care labels can give you some insight into the quality of the garment.
First off, it’s not true that made in determines quality. Many shoppers are under the false impression that made in China means cheap and unethical, made in India means it was made by artisans on a utopian ashram and made in the USA equates to quality.
None of this is true.
There are good and bad factories with different standards of quality all over the world.
This is helpful if you are trying to shop more sustainably. Opt for natural fibers like cotton, hemp, and silk.
If a garment is dry clean only, this means that it’s extremely delicate and won’t be able to hold up in your washing machine. If you are trying to shop for quality products that won’t fall apart, look for garments that can be laundered at home and don't require special care.
But, there is also a dry clean only loophole.
Some brands are not able to afford the testing needed to determine how a garment should be laundered at home. The legal loophole is to label it dry clean only. So, if you are about to buy a pair of jeans that read dry clean only. Put them back. That is a key indicator that the brand was not able to afford the proper testing (because most jeans should really be able to survive a washer and dryer), and they probably cut quality corners in other places.
Really pull at it. I mean, don’t try to put a hole in it or pull it apart in two pieces or anything like that. But, give it a few good stretches. Is the fabric slow to return to its original shape? If so, that’s a bad sign that the garment will probably stretch out over time. Can you still see your fingerprints in the fabric where you stretched it? Put it back on the rack.
Unless the fabric is meant to be see-through for style purposes if you hold the fabric up to the light with your hand behind it and can see through it, skip it.
Are there tiny little hairs sticking up from the fabric if you look closely? This is a sign that low-quality fibers were used, which make low-quality yarns, which make low-quality fabrics. The fabric will most likely continue to get fuzzier through time and even start to pill (those little fuzz balls on the surface of your clothes).
You can rub your hand up and down the fabric a few times, creating a little friction. That should be enough to see if tiny lint balls start to form. If they do, don’t buy it.
This check is absolutely necessary when buying sweaters and fibers that are hydrophobic like polyester.
Remember, if you want clothes that last forever they shouldn't start falling apart in the store.
Speaking of polyester, what are the fibers?
I just mentioned that sustainable shoppers should probably opt for natural fibers. But, this is where we get into a real debate between two schools of thought.
If you want something that is truly going to last forever, then synthetic polyester and nylon fabrics are the way to go. But if you want something a little more earth-friendly, go for natural fibers like cotton and hemp. And of course, organic is always better.
So, what is more, important to you? A garment that will last a lifetime and might be made of petroleum-derived fibers, or something that might not last as long but is more natural? Only you can decide. There is no right answer here.
I think a good compromise is shopping for natural fibers that have a small percentage, about 10% or less, of polyester to help give it strength. And if you can get recycled poly, well, that is even better.
Really feel it. Does it feel like the fabrics in your closet that have been able to stand the test of time? Does it feel like it will be comfortable to wear? Because what’s the point of having something that will last forever if it makes you itch or does not feel good on your body?
All fabrics have a technical face and back, and a top and bottom. In knits, you want the side that has little V stitches on the front, and all of the V stitches should be in nice neat columns running up and down. A telltale sign of a bad quality garment is if the back has a V stitch and the front has an A stitch (upsidedown fabric) and the sleeves are cut on some sort of weird angle. Everything should be lined up and facing in the same direction.
This simple detail is important because it will prevent twisting and warping when you go to wash your clothes.
More expensive garments will use French seams and flat-felled seams (mostly denim), while cheaper brands will use seams with raw, exposed, fraying edges, or marrowing.
Good quality garments should have a folded hem. Garments that were made hastily with no attention to quality details will have raw finishes with interlock machines. Look like the below image, this should be avoided. Marrowing or interlocking is the quickest and cheapest way to finish a garment. The long term problem is that the hems will stretch out, and the fabric will start to fray - leaving you with a wonky looking garment.
If the coloring near the seams or other folds in the garment looks faded, this is a strong indicator that the garment is going to fade quickly in the wash. During the production process, most of the stress and abrasion on the fabric happens around the area of the seams. So, if a fabric can not hold up during the manufacturing process, it won't hold up in your closet.
This is specifically for knit garments that tend to have more stretch than woven fabrics. Does the inside of the back neckline have a nonstretch enforced ribbon? By stabilizing the back of the shirt with this ribbon, it will help the neckline not to stretch out, and for the shirt to last longer.
Look closely. Each stitch should be evenly spaced apart. If stitches are missing or loose, this a bad sign and you will probably end up with a hole in your clothes.
Next, pull at the seams. Do the stitches loosen or feel like they are going to unravel? Or does the fabric around them kind of start to slide? When the fabric around seams moves around, this is called seam slippage. Sometimes, even if the seams look like they are well sewn, they can have this hidden defect. It’s especially common in silk and other lightweight, flowy fabrics. If pulling at the seams makes the fabrics feel like they are sliding apart, this is a no-go.
This is my top-secret tip and I am sharing it with you.
Try to buy clothing that uses only one type of fabric. And try to avoid knits mixed with wovens at all costs.
Well, most fabrics are not totally pre-shrunk. And when there are two different fabrics, they will almost always have two different shrinkage rates. So when you go to wash your clothes, one fabric might shrink more or less than the others, leaving the garment distorted and not fitting quite right. Knits and wovens tend to shrink very differently (knits have a low more shrinkage), that is what you want to avoid garments with both.
Are you actually going to wear this?
This is where the 30 wears challenge comes into play. Will you wear this piece of clothing at least 30 times? Is it something that you really love? Or, are you buying it because it is on-trend and cheap enough that it doesn't really matter?
If you really love it, then continue...
What does seam matching mean? Let's take the example of a striped shirt. Seam matching means that the stripes on the shirt will line up.
This used to be an indicator of quality. If a brand was going to take the time to cut their patterns and make sure something as detailed as a stripe was aligned, then they were probably taking the time to do everything else right.
The thing is, fast fashion caught onto this consumer belief. And, they started seam matching too. By using even cheaper fabrics, and faster sewing, fast fashion is able to match seams, and maintain margins.
So while back in the day a matching seam showed craftsmanship, in today's fashion world it has nothing to do with actual quality.
I know, fashion is tricky, and brands are constantly trying to get ahead and give the perception that their products are of higher quality than they actually are.
Take a look at the full-size range. Are the pockets graded? Fast fashion brands often "forget" or try to save money on pockets. So a size xs will have the same size pocket as a double xl. So, reach your hands in an check the pockets. A well-designed brand with attention to detail will have graded the pockets and spent that little bit of extra money on a detail that most consumers will never realize.
High-quality garments will have a lining in high-stress areas. In shirts, one of the highest stress points in the shoulders. Do you know that little semi-circle of extra fabric stitched into the neckline and shoulders of some garments? That is actually a sign of good quality. The shoulders have been reinforced to help the garment last longer.
In dress shirts, you want a style that has been made with a yoke.
More often than not fast fashion brands will choose to skip this extra detail that helps garments last longer in order to cut down on costs.
On pants, you can see this same attention to detail at the waist seam. High-quality brands will reinforce the waist seams, where pants often have the most tension and are at risk for seams bursting.
It is important to check not just the fabric, but for other quality materials.
Button and un bottom the garment. Do the buttons seem loose? They should be sewn on well. Are the buttonholes tight? When it comes to buttonholes when you first buy a well made garment you want the buttonholes to be tight because they are going to stretch out with wear. If the garment already has loose buttonholes, they are only going to stretch out over time making the buttons unusable.
Zip and unzip them. Do they stick, do they feel smooth? Do they feel sturdy? One of the easiest ways to spot high-quality zippers is the YKK logo. YKK is basically the gold standard for trim in the fashion industry. If you see this logo then you know you have good quality.
Pick at it a little. Does it feel like it's going to fall off? Skip the purchase. Good beading should feel sewn on securely. And, good quality embroidery should be sewn snuggly to the fabric.
Real leather is always a sign a brand was willing to pay a little more. But, I get it. If you are vegan, that's a no-no.
Think about it. With clothing rental companies the same dress or top is being rented out thousands if not at least hundreds of times. Those clothes are getting a serious amount of wear. That means that the brands that are selling to them must pass some high testing standards to be able to hold up that long.
Companies like Rent the Runway and Nuuly have done the work for you. So, if a brand is carried on one of these clothing rental companies, it's a good sign that it's made to last.
Yes. You read that correctly.
Remember how I mentioned that dry clean only loophole, and how brands cut corners because they can’t afford to test? It’s a way bigger deal than I let on earlier.
Big brands like The Gap, Ralph Lauren, LLBean, etc, have really difficult testing requirements. We test for everything from how a fabric will hold up in UV light, how many pounds of weight will tear a garment, how well a fabric can stretch and recover, what happens to it when it laundered up to 100 times, even how fire resistant it is. These are all very official tests, done in labs, and with scientific procedures and protocols. The purpose of these tests is to create the highest quality product possible. Each fabric and garment needs to pass the tests to be sold in stores.
For example by testing a fabric's stretch and recovery we know exactly how many times it can be stretched before the elastic wears out and the fabric gets baggy. By setting company standards through test requirements brands are able to ensure a certain level of quality for each garment they produce.
Even Walmart, which is the worst, and considered evil by many sustainable fashionistas, have pretty rigorous testing requirements in place.
And, most small brands can’t afford it. You have to test every fabric, and every garment made. Which for some brands can be hundreds or thousands a season. So, they skip it.
They roll the dice and pray that there won’t be problems like the color completely fading once a garment is exposed to sunlight, or the fabric being defective and ripping like toilet paper. The thing is, they don’t know where there is a problem until the problem is reported by their customers. Brands like this operate under the fact that their marketing spends or getting a celebrity to wear their clothes will keep you coming back for more even if you receive a damaged product.
Did you know that QVC has some of the highest testing requirements in the industry? Maybe all the aunts and grandmas shopping from TV are on to something?
But, there is even more you can do to make sure your clothes last as long as possible.
I have well made clothes from Forever 21 that I have owned since 2009 thanks to shopping with the tips I just shared with you,.. It is possible to shop fast fashion that lasts. You just need to know-how.
Every piece of clothing you buy needs to be checked. Even if you buy the same style from the same brand again and again. Most brands use multiple factories all over the world, and they are constantly changing their fabric suppliers. For these reasons the best shirt ever that you bought two years ago, might be totally different today.
While price is definitely not always correlated to quality in fashion (most of the high prices we see are due to good marketing). Sometimes spending a little extra cash on something does end up better for your closet in the long run.
So, here are some shopping tips to save money while shopping for quality.
I'll have an event like a wedding or something like that, it's 3 days away, and I haven't gone out to buy anything to wear. I need something and I need it fast.
This is the worst way to shop for quality and save money. If I find something I like, I am most likely going to have to pay full price. Shop in advance, find something you like, and then wait for a sale. All retailers design their retail strategies around some sort of sale system. So, just be patient and wait.
Whenever I find myself in this crunch situation where I feel like I need to buy something, I always end up feeling guilty, after all, I know how much this stuff really costs to make, and end up passing on the purchase. Instead, I wear something already in my closet. Or from Rent the Runway.
Fibers like silk, linen, and cashmere or merino wool can be very expensive. And, admittedly out of many people's price points. If you are interested in adding luxury fibers into your closet try shopping blends.
A silk/viscose garment will be a lot cheaper than pure 100% silk. And, to the average consumer most people when given a side by side test can't even tell the difference between 100% and a silk blend. Linen blended with cotton is a great way to cut down on price also. For cashmere, I recommend a cashmere, cotton blend. I like cashmere because it was way less itchy than wool. By blending wool with cashmere the sweater will become itchy. And then, what's the point of even having cashmere in it. By blending with cotton instead the price range comes down and the sweater stays scratch-free.
I mean, if a garment can last in someone else closet, and still look good to be re-sold to you - that is a huge indicator of quality. And, by shopping second hand you can get some really great deals. Recently at my local vintage shop, I found a vintage wool Burberry dress for $40, and wool Balenciaga tailored pants for $50. They are both amazing, will last me forever, and only a fraction of what they cost at retail (upwards of $500).
Once you buy your clothes, here are a few tips to follow at home that will make them last even longer
Let's be honest, all of our weights fluctuate. If you are buying tailored work pants, make sure that there is a center back seam, and that there are belt loops on each side of the seam. Not smack dab in the center. This makes taking out the pants a lot easier if you need to and might help you not have to buy a brand new pair because of a few pesky pounds.
You can also check the seams of dresses and other garments. Good high quality garments will have a little extra fabric in the seams that can be let out to add about 1" to the garment if you need to make it bigger.
Modern washing machines are really rough on clothes. Every time your things go through a cycle, they become a little more beaten up and worn down. The less you wash and dry your clothes, the longer they will last, it’s that simple.
The denim community loves this trick. Instead of washing your clothes, try putting them in the freezer. The low temperatures can kill off bacteria that would cause bad smells. And, it is a much gentler way to clean your garments.
If freezing your clothes instead of washing them isn’t your speed, try hand washing. Hand washing and line drying is a less aggressive way to wash your clothes and help extend wear for years.
Detergent companies are in the business of selling detergent, so they want you to use a lot of it. In general, you can get by with about ¼ of what the back of the box recommends.
And, using less may even make your clothes cleaner. When you use too much detergent, it starts to build upon the fibers instead of washing away. That buildup will attract even more dirt, making your clothes look dingy, and leaving you in a vicious cycle of overcleaning, but actually never really cleaning, your clothes.
Detergents like Clorox contain chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite), which doesn’t mix well with petroleum-derived synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon. It actually breaks the fibers down and makes them turn yellow faster.
Clorox isn’t all bad though, it's great for whitening natural fibers like cotton. Just don’t use it too often or your clothes will start to look worn out.
For polyester and nylon, try an oxygen bleach like OxiClean - sodium percarbonate. It’s basically a mixture of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide that will keep synthetic fibers their whitest.
You can even make your own mild bleaching agent using baking soda and/or peroxide at home.
If you're trying to go all-natural, try soaking your cloths in vinegar or lemon juice.
Store clothes properly so they don't stretch out on the hanger. I won’t even get into this if you need tips check out Marie Kondo.
I'm not the person to teach this. I am a horrible clothing folder, I have spent years of my life in factories, watching people fold clothes, and to this day it still amazes me how precise they can fold. And, I have tried to learn, an embarrassing amount of times, but I just can’t seem to get the hang of it.
If you know me, and have been following my writing, then you probably know that I am a huge advocate of textile and garment testing. I think that brands that invest in testing, are the real deal, and truly committed to a high-quality product. So, it goes without saying most of the brands on my personal list have stringent testing requirements.
Please note the brands on this list are not affiliated with me in any way. This is all just my personal opinion based on my time in the fashion industry.
Remember, when it comes to quality, brand loyalty is a no-no. While some brands are known for quality, you still need to inspect every piece of clothing you buy.
But, there are some brands that generally, for the most part, provide quality products. These are a few that I believe in that are the best quality clothing brands that are affordable.
Me, my boyfriend, and his entire family all swear by Uniqlo. Shopping the store in Soho, New York City is one of the things we always do when we are together (we have weird traditions). The clothes are fashion-forward but still basic and last a really long time. This is my go-to for affordable basics. To date, I have always been happy with my Uniqlo purchases.
While Everlane is far from being the fair trade radically transparent company they claim to be (more on that another time), I do have to admit they but out a pretty high-quality product at a low prices point. With this brand, you are getting al to of value.
For those with ethics and sustainability in mind. I like people tree because they were one of the original sustainable and ethical brands operating in India providing affordable fashion. They were doing the conscious thing before conscious was cool And, I have loved watching their brand grow.
I also love the fact that I personally know a lot of the suppliers that they produce in, so know first hand they are making in top of the line factories and high-quality clothing manufacturers. I think the brand is perfect for women and men who want a little something more design-forward and more than just ethical basics.
Old Navy is owned by Gap, and also Banana Republic. Urban Outfitters by the same people as Anthropology.
By shopping the lower end sister brands you are often getting similar quality to the higher-priced stores. This because these brand retailers will sometimes work together to share suppliers and factory resources.
Let me know in the comments!
I have spent over a decade living and working in fashion factories, seeing firsthand how clothing is made.
And now, I want to share with you everything I know. To help you navigate supply chains, and launch your own conscious clothing brand.
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