So let’s assume you have had your epiphany. You’ve had a long hard look at your wardrobe. OK it’s not so bad that you can’t even give it away to OxFam but it needs serious work. It might be that you are at a significant moment: a new career or you’ve hit thirty and decided you better start dressing like a grown-up. Whatever the stimulus you’ve decided you need to build a gentleman’s wardrobe. The big problem is that you don’t really have a lot of spare cash to spend on what is a minor issue in the grand scheme of things like rent or a mortgage, university fees, loan payments or children who are outgrowing their clothing at an alarming rate.
However, building a great wardrobe is possible on a small budget. Clearly, one man’s small budget may be another’s small fortune. Nonetheless, the first and most important step in building a gentleman’s wardrobe is to decide what is the size of your budget over the course of a year; is it £150 per year, £350, £500, £1,000? Once you have a budget stick to it. A budget of £300 per year (£25 per month) over 5 years would provide £1,500 which is plenty to build wardrobe. So how might one go about a 5-year project?
In year 1 cover the basics. Figure out your most pressing needs and address them. Purchase strategically; go for solid basic colours. Shirts in blue or white are both popular and versatile. If you already have these you might consider shirts from a lilac or pink palette or in simple checks. New shirts, especially in colours you do not already own often need new ties. If you need new suits navy, charcoal grey or mid grey work with most colours and are the best place to start a new collection. When you buy a suit if possible buy an extra pair of trousers which will help the suit to last longer as trousers wear out more quickly that jackets. A decent pair of shoes, ideally with a pair of shoe trees to help them last is a good idea. In subsequent years you build upon year one and carefully build up your collection.
Avoid styling that dates quickly; choose classic styles which have stood the test of time. A skinny tie may not be in vogue in 2017 but a tie of regular width will. Figure out which clothing items you do not mind buying cheaply and which items you wish to buy more expensively. I have no qualms buying a cheap suit (as long as it does not look or feel cheap) but can’t bear a cheap shirt. Seasonal sales are your friend. So what if your suit is from an end of season sale if it will be in your wardrobe for 5 years?
Look for value and be prepared to look in unlikely places. A suit by George @ ASDA or TU @ Sainsbury’s may be hard to tell from one by John Rocha in Debenhams or M&S, especially if it fits you properly. However this will not be true of all George or TU suits. Buy carefully. Budget stores like Primark deliberately copy the fit and shape of suits that are produced by more expensive tailors. You can do the same. Over the course of the year feel free to visit the stores which sell the wardrobe items you would buy if money were no object. Now you know what quality looks like and feels like go find alternatives which are similar but fall within your budget.
It is perfectly possible to find a suit which fits you well which costs under £50. However, you may need to wait some months for it to go on sale. I once was in a high street menswear store to look at their suit collection. I was wearing a suit from Primark. The store manager commented on how well my suit fit and tried to find me a suit which fit as well as the one I was already wearing. I accept that this may just have been the silver tongue of a salesman but it appears this man whose job was selling suits had a little trouble telling that I was wearing a suit that cost less than £40.
Most importantly, don’t rush this. Have an annual shopping list in your head, possibly with an idea of what you are prepared to spend for each item on it. You’ve got 12 months to complete this phase of the project. So you have time to get it right, time to wait for the sales promotion, time to look for something that is a better fit or better value. However it also means you can move quickly when you stumble across exactly the ideal item for your wardrobe you have had in mind for the last few months.
So below is a sample £300 annual budget based on current prices (21 April 2012). Think about what you could do with a budget of £600 or £900….
£52 Navy suit (plus extra suit trousers), Primark
£40 Charcoal suit, FF @ Tesco
£100 5 shirts assorted colours/patterns (limited deal at T M Lewin)
£35 Smart shoes, T K Maxx
£15 Shoe tree, Jones Bootmaker (sale)
£18 3 silk ties which cover all 5 shirts, Matalan
£20 Cufflinks, Hawes & Curtis
£10 Button up Jumper, New Look
£10 Cords/casual Trousers, TU @ Sainsbury’s (sale)