I Pitted Luxury Basics Against Their Budget Counterparts

When I started working for a fashion media brand three years ago and, for the first time, got to see luxury-priced clothing up close, feel it with my own hands, occasionally my own limbs, I was horrified to discover that I loved it. I loved it all. The way it felt, the way it fell, the way it kept its shape over time, washes and wear. It was then that I finally understood the response to the question I’d jokingly posed to friends so many times over the years: “Who the hell would pay $200 for a single piece of clothing?” The answer, it turns out, was me. At least, the hypothetical version of me who could afford to.

When I consider how many paychecks I spent at fast fashion outlets during college, though, and then how much more I spent those first years post-graduation, high on my entry-level salary, the truth is, I could have saved up for nicer things. I simply chose quantity over quality, mistook thriftiness for wastefulness. And today, at 29, have exactly nothing to show for it. Not a single garment I bought before I turned 26 is still in rotation. Most of it ripped, stretched or became ill-fitting in under a year and was subsequently cycled out. I’m embarrassed to admit it, especially given the amount of waste the fashion industry is under fire for producing.

Yet, even knowing all that, I still feel the magnetic pull of fast fashion. The quickness with which new styles are churned out at reasonable prices. It’s so hard to resist, especially on the rare occasion that something relatively cheap looks like a perfect dupe for its more expensive counterpart. It steers me right back to my old mindset: Why spend 3x, when I could spend x?

There isn’t one straight answer to that. Not every low-priced item is cheap, not every high-priced item is luxurious, and not every type of garment needs to be an investment piece — or purchased at all. So how does one navigate the waters of wanting fewer, better things, and getting there with some measure of fiscal responsibility and care for long-term sustainability? I endeavored to answer some of these questions below, whereby I pulled three close-to-identical outfits comprised of fall basics — jeans, a T-shirt, a blazer and loafers — priced entirely different, and compared them tit for tat.

1. First Up: On a Budget

Something Navy T-shirt, $19.60; Zara blazer, $69.90; vintage Levi's jeans, $20; G.H. Bass Weejuns loafers: $110, but starting at $36.99 on Amazon styled with Uniqlo beanie and Tome detachable turtlenck Something Navy T-shirt, $19.60; Zara blazer, $69.90; vintage Levi's jeans, $20; G.H. Bass Weejuns loafers: $110, but starting at $36.99 on Amazon styled with Uniqlo beanie and Tome detachable turtlenck

This outfit looked and fit great, but fell victim to some of the classic pitfalls of mass-produced clothes within this price range. The T-shirt has a slight mock turtleneck that I love, but was a little clingy and more delicate than I prefer in an everyday shirt. The blazer has such a nice boxy cut, but is quite thin and lined in something resembling black rayon, making it more stylish than useful. The jeans fit nicely, but are a bit unforgiving in certain areas, as vintage jeans are wont to be. The shoes, the most expensive item of the bunch, feel sturdy and comfortable, with the exception of the way they graze my ankle bone. This push-and-pull is expected with approachably priced items, and makes them better suited for something you only intend to wear a few times, for style, versus over many seasons, for style and utility.

2. Next Up: The Middle Ground

I love the middle ground — it’s where I typically shop, but it’s also an easy place to get lost: quality can be hard to predict, and you can end up paying over $100 for something that won’t last. Take this blazer, for example, which hangs beautifully but maintains a similar lack of heft as the Zara one (it’s perfect if you’re in a warmer climate, less so if you’re not). I can see it maintaining its shape over time, but it isn’t particularly comfortable. (Plus one/minus one.) The Kule shirt is lovely — perhaps the perfect white T, and I know from brand experience it will hold up over time. As for the jeans, I’ve become a huge advocate of saving up for a good pair, and the quality of these felt solid, but the shape wasn’t perfect for my hip area, so while I’d recommend the brand, they weren’t it for me. These Madewell loafers came recommended by my sister, who told me she was willing to pay even more when she went on a loafer hunt, but ended up not needing to. I have to agree: They’re incredibly comfortable and feel even more expensive than they are.

If you’re sick of fast fashion and its associated adjective, and are willing to spend a little more, the middle ground can be a saving grace or a money pit. I’d recommend purchasing based on reviews, genuine examination of the quality and the brand loyalty of people you trust. More money doesn’t always mean more quality.

3. And Finally: The Lap of Luxury

This outfit felt as expensive as it is. This blazer feels like silk, falls perfectly and has a weight to it that kept me warm. It’s the kind of jacket I could imagine hanging in my closet for years. The T-shirt registered as wimpy at first, but once I had it on, fell nicely, never clinging or pulling. These Eve jeans are actually my own (everything else here is a sample), purchased with a gift card after I saw them on Leandra and then launched an office-wide debate about them. They need to be shortened on me, but they are unbelievably comfortable, sturdy and “flattering” (whatever that means). Everything you want in an investment pair of jeans. The loafers feel super luxe, but are fairly indiscernible to me from the Madewell pair, in fit and feel.

These outfits look similar but felt completely different on, which is exactly why basics-shopping can be such a puzzle. While I probably wouldn’t wear this exact look (I chose these garments for their “fall basic” reputation), if I had to build it for my own closet, I’d probably choose the Kule T-shirt, the Eve Denim jeans, the Madewell loafers and the Anine Bing blazer. A mix of middle and high, which makes sense given my current focus on quality, but which would take me awhile to save up for.

I suppose the upshots here aren’t all that surprising, but for me this experiment underlined the importance of how something feels versus looks, and of not assuming the higher price tag will always win. Those are two things worth remembering as online shopping becomes more common and Instagram further celebrates aesthetic over utility. For me, building a closet based on longevity means shopping slower and smarter — and possibly in real life, like I did with the Uniqlo beanie I’m wearing throughout this story. It was $15 and is the nicest feeling beanie I’ve ever owned. That is, until I get my hands on the Goldilocks version.

Photos by Casey Zhang

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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