How to Shop for Vintage Clothes (and Spot Knock-Offs) Like a Pro

A fashion expert shares everything she knows and loves about shopping vintage.

There's nothing quite like getting your hands on a designer original. Between the quality, uniqueness, and overall sense of wearing something special, putting on a vintage clothing item proves that clothing just isn't made how it used to be. However, shopping for vintage clothes takes a certain level of skill, an eye, and true patience that has to be learned over time.

Luckily, we have the inside scoop on shopping for vintage clothing from expert Jillian Clark, a costume designer in Los Angeles, and the owner of Roboro, which makes new garments out of discarded or underutilized fabric.

"I found my way to fashion and design through an undergraduate general education course [on the history of fashion]," Clark says of her unexpected path into fashion. "I was expecting a fun and easy required course, but what I got was a new excitement and appreciation for clothing."

"What is vintage clothing if not historical design research?" she adds. Here's everything Clark wants shoppers to know about scoring vintage deals and rescuing items from a bygone era.

The Best Places to Shop for Vintage Clothing in the U.S.

According to Clark, the answer to this question depends on what kind of vintage you're looking for. "Vintage isn't only pristine Chanel suits," she says. "Vintage is also your grandmother's homemade dress or a hand-me-down band T-shirt."

If you're in the market for vintage designer labels, Clark suggests heading "to where the retired money is." And that's Palm Springs, New York City, or Santa Fe.

As for items like vintage Levi's and band T-shirts, go where the hip vintage shops live: New York, Los Angeles, or Austin. Clark recommends combing college towns, too, where inventory constantly moves thanks to incoming and outgoing students.

Where to Shop Vintage Online

For Clark, it's all about getting her hands on the garments before she buys them. However, she notes that there are some spectacular online resources and shops. She names Farfetch and Vestiaire Collective as excellent luxury resellers. Asos Marketplace also has a new online network of vintage dealers, so anyone can shop for vintage from anywhere.

How to Check the Quality and Integrity of Vintage Items

"Most vintage clothing will have wear and tear," Clarke says, explaining that it's best to go in understanding that things will likely not be perfect. "There are vintage shops that pride themselves on mint-condition garments, and you'll pay a premium for that." She suggests keeping an eye out for wear and tear that isn't easily repaired or strengthened—those are red-flag pieces.

However, Clark notes you may want to stay away from fabric that's stained or yellowed because it's hard to clean and even harder to replace. Small tears or threadbare fabric, however, is relatively easy to mend, especially if you bring it to a tailor or vintage specialist.

You'll want to check the hardware of a garment, like zippers, snaps, and buttonholes, too, to look for anything that needs replacing or has signs of irreparable damage.

How to Spot Fake Vintage Goods

This, Clark says, all depends on how good the fake is. "Most fakes are easy to spot based on whichever logo or design they are mimicking," she says. "Most often, the design will be altered ever-so-slightly, so it can go almost entirely unnoticed by an unconcerned consumer."

She says true vintage designer clothing will most likely have some sort of "label of authenticity" or its original labels sewn in, which are difficult to replicate. The easiest way to make sure you aren't purchasing a fake, is to trust the vintage dealer or shop you're purchasing from.

Is a Slightly Stained, Ripped, or Flawed Piece Still Worth Buying?

"Let me say this loud enough for the people in the back: yes," Clark says.

For one, she reiterates that most vintage clothing will have some sort of damage. "That wear and tear is proof of the life that garment has had," she says. It's simply part of the charm.

Second, Clark points out that shopping vintage or secondhand is the most sustainable shopping choice we can make. "If we're using our reusable water bottles and skipping the plastic straws, we also need to start considering the environmental impact of our clothing purchases," she says. "Unless you're concerned about the 'buy-back' value of the garment, repairable damage should not discourage you from buying a sustainably stellar item."

If you want to clean or repair any items, find a professional cleaner and a great tailor—and check they have experience with vintage pieces—to do the work for you.

The Best Thing to Buy as a Vintage Newbie

New to the game? Clark says to start by buying an item from Levi's. "A vintage Levi's denim jacket will be in your closet for the rest of your life," she says, noting that her own personal favorite item is a pair of vintage leather boots she purchased at American Vintage in Los Angeles. "I wear through the soles and then bring them to the cobbler to be replaced."

Clark's best advice is to start with items you know you'll appreciate and have for a long time.

"If you're slowly introducing vintage into your wardrobe, look for pieces you could easily pair with your daily outfits," she says. "If you go to the office every day and a jean jacket doesn't feel at home in your closet, then a great vintage blazer or briefcase might be what you should hunt for."

In short? Vintage is all about finding exactly what fits your personality and your body best. "Clothing is about personal style," she says. "Vintage can mean different things to different people. Don't let the rules of what vintage is 'supposed to be' define what it actually means to you."

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