Exactly How to Afford Designer Clothes Without a Benefactor

How to Afford Designer Clothes

Updated: August 6, 2017

Frugality and designer clothes. Sounds like an oxymoron, right?

But what if I told you that there are ways to rock designer clothes without wrecking your budget?

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: you’re flipping through Vogue and see a super cute jacket. But then your heart plummets: the super cute jacket costs $1,000. With an outrageous price tag like this, it’s easy to feel discouraged and think designer clothes are out of reach. That they’re just for rich celebrities, and not for “people like you.” Or, after going out and noticing the fifth Céline bag in one day, you wonder: how DOES everyone afford all this luxury stuff?

Yeah, I’ve been there, too. A few years ago I came across a Proenza Schouler tie dye T-shirt I fell in love with. But I hated the price point. Two hundred and eighty freaking dollars??!! For some, that’s chump change, but for most people (including me) that’s way too expensive. Tissue cotton T-shirts are delicate by nature, and the coolest design in the world won’t extend the life of a fabric that’s not meant to last.

So for normal people like you and me, what are we supposed to do if we have discerning tastes? Just settle for clothes we don’t even want? That kind of seems like the fast track to a closet that looks like this:

Messy closet from Clueless.
Buying things you don’t want creates a cycle of bad shopping.

No thanks.

PSA: Mall Clothes Aren’t That Cheap

Besides settling on buying clothes you don’t love, the other problem is that your ‘go-to’ mall clothes are EXPENSIVE now. Wait, what?

Let’s look at Exhibit A, B and C.
Mall Clothes Are Too Expensive
Those seemingly affordable storesthe Banana Republics, the Club Monacos, the Madewellsnow sell items that can set you back hundreds of dollars. What many don’t seem to realize is that for about the same price of what you’d get at the mall you can actually get a designer piece. So, if you bought that dress in Exhibit A for $148, I’m telling you that you could buy a designer dress for a comparable amount. I’ll show you specifics a little later.

But for now, let me ask you: Would you rather have a Miu Miu dress or one from Banana Republic? I know which one I’d choose.

The Secret to Buying Designer Clothes for Less

Just like with personal finance, the critical path to scoring deals on designer clothes is not about making a Wall Street salary, nor is it cashing in on the Bank of Mom or Dad.

It’s about your HABITS.

Here’s a result of those habits: Last year I spent less than $900 on clothes, no benefactor needed, and while maintaining a healthy savings rate. Skeptical still? Remember that $280 T-shirt I talked about before? My equally frugal friend (we travel in packs) bought it for me for just $32 (I paid her back via Venmo).

Proenza Schouler Tie Dye T-Shirt
My Proenza Schouler shirt I got for 90% off.

Four Habits for Shopping Smarter than Most Everyone Else

1. Buy less, not more.

Say you currently buy five fast fashion items a month. When you make the move to buy designer this doesn’t give you free reign to continue with the same shopping frequency. Your purchases should be reduced, because in theory, you’re holding out for what you really love. It’s June, and I’ve bought 5 items this year, and am tracking to buy no more than 12 items the entire year.

2. Avoid paying retail at all costs.

Just because that jacket retails for $1,000 doesn’t mean that paying that price is the only way to get it. Half the battle of acquiring higher-end clothes is RECOGNIZING that almost everything can be bought for less. A couple rules of thumb:

  • Most items will eventually go on sale for least 40% off.
  • Popular items never go on sale, but you’ll still be able to score at least 20% off in many instances.

Which leads me to the next point…

3. She who waits, wins.

You’ve heard that saying that patience is a virtue. Well, never has delayed gratification been more rewarding than buying designer clothes for less. Savvy shoppers never ever buy clothes when they first show up in stores. They take note of said item, do research, and then they wait, often for months, for their coveted items to go on sale, or for secondhand items to show up online. If instant gratification is your vice, then saving money on designer clothes will be a challenge for you.

4. Show up and do the work.

You’re going to need a healthy dose of grit. If you can’t find the item you want discounted at Barneys, then you try Saks. And if it’s not at Saks, then you’ll try Shopbop. If the Shopbop website is acting up, you get on the phone and actually talk to a customer service rep. I’ve been able to get almost anything I want by simply being diligent.

The Ultimate Guide for How and Where to Shop

Now that we have the basic principles down, here’s a retail roadmap of my 8 top ways I’ve scored designer goods for less. To further illustrate my points, I’ve hand-selected my favorite deals up for grabs right now, PLUS price breakdowns so you can see exactly how much you’d save.

*This post contains affiliate links–clicks and purchases could result a commission for me. I really appreciate your support!

1. Online Consignment – The Real Real

Shopping secondhand will yield some of the best deals you’ll ever find. I’ve been buying from thrift stores since I was a teenager, so for me, secondhand is an easy win. I prioritize lightly used, higher-quality clothes versus mediocre brand-new clothes any day of the week. Think about it: everything brand new (cars, diamonds, etc.) depreciates like hell the second you bring them home. While clothes don’t depreciate quite as quickly, retailers encourage us to buy new by constantly churning out cheaper and trendier clothes. But the savvy shopper knows that for higher-quality clothes, used is the way to go. Anything with holes/tears, stains and more than light wear is obviously a no go. Everything else is fair game.

For brand variety, consistently desirable selections, and fair pricing, The Real Real (referral: get $25 off your first purchase) is my favorite online luxury consignment shop. As shown below, the biggest problem here is that you can find so many gems, it’s hard to choose the best ones. Instead of browsing by category type, I focus my searches on brands that work best for me. And I usually can find most things I want from past seasons here, if I look often enough. The site is “members only”, but all you have to do is create an account to browse and you’ll get a $25 credit off your first purchase.

Pro Tips:

  • If you’ve never shopped at The Real Real before you can get $25 off with this link.
  • They always have a 20% coupon code right at the top of the website you can use.
  • You can return clothes, but not swimwear, handbags, luggage or any items discounted by 40% or more. Make sure you read the fine print before checking out.
  • Besides the coupon code you can use for almost anything, they’ll regularly discount merchandise to 20% off. Note: if an item is marked down already, you can’t stack the 20% off coupon on top.


How to Afford Designer Clothes - The Real Real
1. 3.1 Phillip Lim Beaded Floral Dress 2. Equipment Striped Shirtdress 3. Ann Demeulemeester Asymmetrical Jersey Dress 4. 3.1 Phillip Lim Ivory Jumpsuit 5. Marni Plaid Skirt 6. Proenza Schouler Printed T-Shirt 7. Equipment Black Silk Shirt 8. Tory Burch Halter Bikini Bathing Suit 9. Comme des Garçons Wallet 10. Yves Saint Laurent Ankle Boots
The Real Real Savings Breakdown
Item Actual Price Retail Price Percent Savings Notes
3.1 Phillip Lim Beaded Floral Dress $90 $500+ 82% off
Equipment Striped Shirtdress $76 $260 70% off
Ann Demeulemeester Asymmetrical Jersey Dress $76 $455 83% off
3.1 Phillip Lim Ivory Jumpsuit $95 $500 81% off
Marni Plaid Skirt $68 $470 85% off
Proenza Schouler Printed T-Shirt $56 $280 80% off
Equipment Black Silk Shirt $52 $228 77% off
Tory Burch Halter Bikini Bathing Suit $95 $210 55% off New with tags
Comme des Garçons Wallet $75 $225 66% off The forever wallet
Yves Saint Laurent Ankle Boots $100 $600+ 83% off

2. Set Up Passive Searches on eBay

I’ve been eBay-ing since high school, and it still doesn’t disappoint. Unlike The Real Real, there’s a ton of crap to wade through, so eBay works best when you know exactly what you’re looking for. For example, I’ll search for the designer name I like, plus one or two qualifying words:

“Phillip Lim XS”
“Isabel Marant Sweatshirt”

Pro Tip:

I “follow” my favorite searches so I don’t have to waste time manually searching when I remember to. Then I move on with my life and wait for alerts to pop up on my phone. Using this tip, I got all my wedding clothes for massive discounts on eBay.


How to Afford Designer Clothes - eBay
1. 3.1 Phillip Lim Denim Martini Sandals 2. Reed Krakoff City Pouch 3. Lela Rose The Pond Wedding Dress 4. Miu Miu Black Silk Pleated Dress 5. Prism Santa Margarita Bandeau Bikini
eBay Savings Breakdown
Item Actual Price Retail Price Percent Savings Notes
3.1 Phillip Lim Denim Martini Sandals $95 $495 80% off New
Reed Krakoff City Pouch $73 $200+ 73% off New without tags
Lela Rose The Pond Wedding Dress $400 $3995 90% off
Miu Miu Black Silk Pleated Dress $174 $1000+ 83% off
Prism Santa Margarita Bandeau Bikini $57 $325 82% off New with tags

3. Check Online Outlets

If shopping at Barneys and Saks is too rich for your blood, remember they have annex stores for closeouts and leftover merchandise. Wait until the end of the season and try the clearance arms of the top three luxury e-commerce sites:

Pro Tip:

Of the three, The Outnet yields the most interesting selection, and is a must-visit if you’re in the market for a modern wedding dress.


How to Afford Designer Clothes - Online Outlets
1. Rag & Bone Merino Wool Sweater 2. Proenza Schouler Black Skinny Jeans 3. Barneys New York Oxblood Leather Wallet
Online Outlets Savings Breakdown
Item Actual Price Retail Price Percent Savings Notes
Rag & Bone Merino Wool Sweater $70 $395 82% off
Proenza Schouler Black Skinny Jeans $97 $275 65% off
Barneys New York Oxblood Leather Wallet $49 $120 59% off

4. Don’t Forget the Indie Stores

Everyone knows the big-name department stores. But that means there’s more competition during mega sales. A couple times when I’ve tried to buy something from Barneys’ 60% off sale, the inventory evaporated before I could even complete the purchase. Here are my top independent stores whose inventory often overlaps with the more well-known stores, and who run sales discounting items by 40% or more:


Sign up for their emails to get the heads up whenever there’s a sale, and for unlocking ‘new subscriber’ coupon codes.


How to Afford Designer Clothes - Indie Stores
1. Rachel Comey Black Booties 2. Creatures of Comfort Blue Pouch 3. Woman by Common Projects Blush Sneakers 4. Isaac Reina Navy Blue Double Tote Bag 5. Alexander Wang Grey Skinny Jeans
Indie Stores Savings Breakdown
Item Actual Price Retail Price Percent Savings Notes
Rachel Comey Black Booties $171 $426 60% off
Creatures of Comfort Blue Pouch $78 $195 60% off
Woman by Common Projects Blush Sneakers $197 $375 48% off With extra 25% code
Isaac Reina Navy Blue Double Tote Bag $284 $710 60% off This is exceptional in person
Alexander Wang Grey Skinny Jeans $106 $265 60% off

5. If You’re in the US, International Prices Can Be a Pleasant Surprise

Once you find something you like, don’t forget to compare prices. A good place to start is to search for the item on Google Shopping. Check it out: I’m looking at these sandals from A.P.C., a brand based in Paris. Here are the search results when I plug in the item name in the search field:

A.P.C. Paula Flatforms Google Shopping Search

See something interesting? On the left is the pair of shoes on the US A.P.C. website for $435. On the right is the SAME EXACT PAIR from ModeSens for $312. That’s a difference of over $100! When I click on the ModeSens link, I get taken to the British online shop, Matches Fashion. $312 price confirmed, per the screenshot below.

A.P.C. Paula Flatforms Matches Fashion

So how could the pricing for the same exact item vary so wildly? Matches Fashion is a British website, thus, part of the European Union. The European Union collects a value added tax, or the VAT, on goods sold within the EU. This tax ranges from 17% to 27%, depending on the country. Since I live outside of the EU, I actually don’t have to pay this tax, which automatically brings down the prices.

Top international online shops to cross-reference:

6. Take Advantage of Friends and Family Sales

Sometimes the item you want is so popular, it annoyingly never goes on sale. For these cases, a good option to have in your back pocket is Friends and Family sales. During these sales, shops will give you a coupon code, ranging from 20-25% off, for almost anything in the store.


Here’s a list of stores where I can typically take advantage of these sales, plus the discounts they usually offer. Make sure you subscribe to the shop emails, so you’re always in the know:

7. Stay on Top of Sample Sales

If you live in a major city like New York City or Los Angeles, sample sales are your best friend. As my friends attest, some of the very best deals can be had with this option. But you have to actually know when these sales are happening. Subscribe to these sites to keep up:


If you don’t want to constantly check the sale pages for updates, follow sample sale sites on social media. Every morning there’s a sale, they’ll let you know.

8. Follow Your Favorite Designers on Social Media

Sometimes your favorite designers have sales at their own standalone stores. To minimize FOMO, follow them on social media. The platforms I’d use are Instagram or Facebook. There are a couple of brands I follow on Twitter, but Twitter moves so fast, it’s easy to miss tweets. By following Leanne Marshall on Instagram, that’s how I found out about a last-minute bridal sample sale.

9. Don’t Bother with These Sites

Many sites masquerade as “deal” sites, but merchandise tends to be lacking and better discounts can be found elsewhere. 

  • Flash sale sites – Gilt, Hautelook, RueLaLa, to name a few. I think these sites jumped the shark so long ago, and their merchandise tends to be less desirable stuff. The discounts aren’t anything to write home about, either.
  • Poshmark – I know, people rave about Poshmark, but for mid-market stuff. Since it’s all user-generated, there’s less of a curated designer selection here, and the bargaining aspect is a turn off.
  • Vestiaire Collective – The prices in general are too high, and the few items that are good deals tend to sell out immediately.

The Four Shopping Mistakes to Avoid

Now that you have the list of stores and strategies, it’s time to shop ’till you drop, right? Not so fast. I wouldn’t be responsible if I just let you loose in all the stores. Clothes are emotional buys, so it’s easy to overspend if you’re not careful. To keep your cool while shopping, follow these four tips:

1. Don’t shop mindlessly.

You know how you make a plan for your money? Yeah, do that same thing for the clothes you buy. Think of the holes in your current wardrobe, then track them somewhere, either in an Excel spreadsheet, the notes app on your phone, or Pinterest (what I use). Sit with those wants for a little bit before pulling the trigger. You want to make sure your purchases are intentional.

2. Don’t buy just for the label.

Just because a T-shirt has ‘Gucci’ emblazoned on it doesn’t mean it’s high quality. Don’t fall for the misconception that just because something is expensive or from your favorite brand, that you should buy it. I know a T-shirt from Alexander Wang that costs $80 is not worth my time when I can get something similar at Old Navy for $8. Discern by the fabric, design, and durability, and reserve your designer purchases for items that are epic.

3. Don’t buy for who you want to be.

Be realistic and buy based on your current lifestyle and needs, not for who you want to become someday. I work in a casual environment, so buying a fancy dress doesn’t fit into my lifestyle. Embrace who you really are. If you are a jeans person, focus on elevating your jeans to the best possible, but don’t bother fussing over dresses if they aren’t your thing.

4. Don’t buy just because there’s a deal.

So you found a pair of rainbow-colored drop crotch pants for $50, marked down from $500. You think, I gotta have itthese are a steal. Never mind that you can’t really think of where you’d wear them. Or whether they fit in with other clothes in your closet. Finding an awesome deal makes you feel good. I get it. But unless the item makes sense, let it go.

Final Takeaways

Affording designer clothes is a lot more accessible than you probably think. As shown in the charts above, by shopping strategically, designer items can be had for at least 40% off, and often at similar price points as clothes from the mall. When you look at it that way, designer clothes can be the smartest shopping decisions you’ll ever make.

So, tell me, what are your tips for designer clothes for less? How do you afford it?

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