Good, Fast, Cheap, Pick Two

December 5, 2010

John writes: I’m trying to transition to better, more interesting clothing, but when I double-check the internets regarding whether something is worth buying or not, I almost invariable return with a “OMG… yuck. You could buy it… and then burn it.” (I’m thinking specifically of what I’ve seen on Style Forum, but it might be a general issue too.) And I’m starting to get the impression that it’s not so much a matter of style as it is of status.

I understand that you often get what you pay for, but, seriously, I work for a museum. Buying $500 pairs of shoes would be awesome, but, for me, it would also be foolish. And the internet tells me that I’d be a tasteless buffoon for ordering shoes from Lands End.

Put This On is always a reasonable-minded place learn about fashion, and for that I’m grateful. But y’all are busy dudes—where else is a guy to look when it comes to advice that isn’t based on narcissism and posturing? Maybe I’m just asking for permission to be confident enough to ignore “I’m richer and more fashionable than you” nonsense. Yeah? Thanks!

This is a pretty fraught issue, so I wade into it a little hesitantly, but I’ll give you my best thoughts.

I’ve generally found Style Forum to be a wonderful resource full of thoughtful, well-informed people who are happy to share information. Like many internet fora, however, it’s not especially welcoming to, shall we say, n00bs. There’s an archive of five years or more of information available for searching, and there’s not much patience there for folks looking for an answer to a question that applies only to them, or that’s been asked a dozen times. Responses to that kind of thing can be pretty unpleasant.

There are other clothing fora out there. Ask Andy About Clothes is generally a more positive place than Style Forum, but it also has a more conservative, traditional aesthetic. It’s also full of great people and information, but caters to an older, more classic American crowd, rather than the sharper Italianate and British-inspired looks you’ll see on Style Forum. The London Lounge is pretty amazing, but it focuses on bespoke clothing, which I’m guessing you’re not in the market for. The Fedora Lounge has some interesting information on hats and vintage clothes, but it also has a lot of… cosplayers. Reddit has a Fashion Advice forum, but along with some good advice there’s some, uhm, less good advice. SuperFuture has a lot of brand fetishists and tight-pants wearers, but it can be a valuable resource, especially for denim.

A list of the available fora wasn’t your precise question, though. Your real question, about money, is even more fraught.

The reality is that all of the people who populate these fora, and who write the blogs of the men’s style blogoverse, are enthusiasts. They care about the best things. Giuseppe from An Affordable Wardrobe is an enthusiast, and Will from A Suitable Wardrobe is an enthusiast. In most areas, the best things are also the most expensive. In many areas of men’s clothes, there is simply no inexpensive alternative if you’re paying full freight.

I’ll give you an example.

For our first episode, we decided to include a buying guide. In our guide, we highlighted the beautiful jeans that Rising Sun Denim makes in Pasadena (and they are beautiful). They cost about $350, which led to some very angry, bitter emails and web comments. We also highlighted the most basic “jean enthusiast” jean, the APC New Standard, which costs about $150. These also led to some angry, bitter web comments and emails. Our budget option was the Levi’s 501 shrink-to-fit.

The reality is that there’s a lot of compromise in the standard 501. It’s pretty roomy, and on slim and skinny guys, it’s not the most flattering cut. This is not unusual in a mass-market product – if something is cut bigger, it will fit more people. That goes for pant legs and arm holes and shirt torsoes and the whole nine. I’m a big guy, and I can wear 501s, though I prefer my slimmer 1947 501s, which were about a hundred bucks on eBay. When we said in the video that 501s were somewhat less baggy than before, we got a lot of emails from people complaining that we were putting down the cheap choice – and frankly, we were. Because the reality is that when you go down the food chain, there isn’t always a great choice at the bottom. The original 501 will work pretty well for a fair number of people, and it’s available at a very good price. It was the best option, but it’s far from perfect.

You know the old engineering saying, “Fast, good or cheap: pick two”? That also applies to shopping. I assume you’re here because you’ll want a good wardrobe. That leaves a choice between fast and cheap.

What I wouldn’t do is assume that everyone on Style Forum (or writing these blogs) is choosing fast over cheap. That all of us are rich people who can walk into Cleverley and order up a pair of bespoke shoes. The reality is that people who are enthusiasts are already spending their time. This is their hobby. Some of them are rich, some of them are thrift-store shoppers, some of them are deal-hounds, some of them have small wardrobes, some of them spend a larger portion of their income on clothes. Personally, I’m all of those except for rich, so I can relate.

The other day, a guy emailed me looking for a pair of shoes to wear while traveling in Europe. He said he wanted something cheap (his emphasis) and stylish, for his rugged classic style aesthetic. I suggested desert boots, he told me he wanted oxfords.

There’s not much I can do with that. There aren’t any cheap oxfords that I can recommend. At retail, there aren’t a lot of men’s dress shoes that are worth buying that are less than about $300. The market for good shoes has shrunken to the point where no value options are available. Now: can good shoes be had used, or on sale? Sure. But that requires an investment of time and knowledge. If you’re looking for cheap and fast, you have to drop good.

Lots of men’s style blogs are essentially lists of products. They’re composed of pictures from designers’ lookbooks, or product shots from boutiques. This is a great way to sell advertising – it’s the reason the one of the only new magazine success stories of the past ten years is Lucky, which is a list of things you can buy. It’s not what I do here, though.

The reason I generally post about ideas and principles rather than products or fashion is that I want to impart some information that helps you make your own informed decisions. I try to emphasize that quality is more important than quantity, that buying used is OK, that buying something great for a lot of money is OK if it’s within your budget, that looking for sales is OK.

These are things that you can learn from all of these places, even the product blogs, if you have the right perspective. The reality is that while I admire almost everything in Will’s A Suitable Wardrobe store, that’s not where my budget is at. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes find a Drake’s tie on eBay or at a thrift, though. You may see StyleForum as a place for rich snobs, but one of my favorite suits is a Brooks Brothers corduroy number I break out for country trips and special occasions, and I bought it new from a Brooks outlet for about a hundred bucks thanks to a tip on Style Forum.

The moral of the story: save money by simplifying, by shopping well, and by getting informed. And don’t let the bastards (real or percieved) get you down.