How To Spot Designer Details In Thrift Store Finds



There’s thrift store items that I’ve kept forever and some that got returned within a year. I return (and buy) items less often now after noticing why the items would end up getting returned. What was the difference? I started to really analyze the quality of an item by looking at specific aspects of how it’s made. An item that is well made with “designer details” doesn’t get returned often.

Higher-end brands aren’t usually common in thrift stores- so what do you look for in a thrift store item that’s more likely to be from Forever 21 than Banana Republic? How do you avoid “buyer’s remorse” at a thrift store (or even a regular store)? An item can’t just look nice; if it doesn’t do well in most of the 7 categories below, don’t buy it!

Whether buying new or buying resale, here’s how to spot “designer” details:

1. Buttons

Larger, plain, plastic buttons tend to make an item look cheaper. Smaller buttons that have interesting details such as a pattern, texture, a pearlized finish, etc. look more “high end.” Find a great thrift store item but don’t like the buttons? Cut them off and sew on new ones that are a better fit for the item.

2. Seam Construction

Many cheaper clothes have raw-edged seams: the fabric is folded over once and typically finished with a serged stitch. Over time, the raw edge can start to fray and the stitching can unravel. Look for seams that are folded over before being stitched so that the raw edge isn’t exposed.

3. Darts/Fitted Seams

Have you ever noticed that cheaper clothes tend to be more boxy and less fitted? It’s easier to sew a shapeless garment than one with darts and inset seaming (think of the time and knowledge needed to sew a fitted button down shirt vs. a basic tee). The shapeless fit with few details works for mass-market clothing retailers; it helps them produce huge quanities of clothing very quickly. However, if you want your thrift item to look more expensive, look for shirts or dresses that have darts and a more “fitted” look- these imply that the item took more time to make, with more attention to detail.

4. Zippers

Exposed zippers are a trend, but these can look cheap if poorly done. I had two dresses with exposed zippers- one a clearance find and one that was more expensive. The zipper looked cheap on the clearance dress because the “teeth” of the zipper were large and appeared to be plastic. The zipper looked better on the more expensive dress since the teeth were smaller and made of metal. I didn’t end up keeping the clearance dress, but I learned not to make that mistake again.

Inset “invisible” zippers are another higher end finish to an item.

5. Pockets

Pockets and pocket liners that lie flat when an item is worn are a sign of a better made garment.

6. Trims

Lace– Almost all lace is machine made now, but what it’s made out of can make a difference in the longevity of an item- cheaper, stretchy lace made from polyester tends to pill over time. It also can easily fall apart after being machine washed.

Details like grommets, studs, etc.– These can look cheap if done in plastic instead of metal. Also look at the finish closely- do the details appear to be painted, and so the coating will chip/peel later on?

7. Fabric

Does the fabric look like it has pilled? While this may be fixable with a special pill-removing tool, the item will probably continue to pill after you buy it. Look for thrift items that don’t have pills, aren’t see-through when you hold them up to a light, and do have linings- all are signs of better made clothes.

Look at the color of the fabric also. Neon colors draw attention to themselves- so if the neon fabric is cheap, the poor quality is more noticable.


The dress on the left is a Target dress, and the dress on the right is from Ann Taylor LOFT. The LOFT dress was originally 3x the price of the Target one (though I bought the LOFT dress cheaper at a resale store).  I have worn the Target dress out just as many times as the LOFT dress: while many Target clothing items do not, this one does have many of the “designer details” of the floral dress:



How do they match up when looking at the 7 criteria listed above? Neither has buttons or trim, so I’ll skip those ones.

Seam Construction:

This is the only category in which the Target dress wasn’t equal to the LOFT dress- it was better! The Target one has a finished edge, while the LOFT dress has a hem that was folded once and serged (when I bought it, I didn’t think to check for this; look closely and you’ll see the stitching on the floral dress is getting loose).

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Darts/Fitted Seams: 

Both dresses have darts on the front and back. The Target dress has an inset waistband; the LOFT dress has pleats along the neckline:


Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 2.27.13 PM.png


Both dresses have inset “invisible” zippers in a color that blends with the dress:

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 2.28.39 PM.png


Both dresses have pockets that lie flat.


Neither dress has pilled after numerous cycles through the washing machine (though neither one is put in the dryer). The LOFT dress edges out the Target dress for fabric quality, however- it is 96% cotton while the Target dress is 50% cotton/50% polyester; the floral fabric feels a bit better and looks like it will last longer than the green fabric.


What other criteria do you consider when buying clothes?

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