Q&A: How to Build Your Wardrobe from Scratch

December 22nd, 2009

Q:  I’m getting a pretty big bankroll for Christmas this year, and I’d like to spend almost all of it on clothes.  I have a few questions - should I buy all clothes for the winter? Or mix it up for Spring coming next year? What are some of your favorite things that are currently out? When building a new wardrobe, what are your "must haves" that you need to get before anything else. Also a list of your favorite stores would be great too. And maybe show me some of YOUR recent purchases.  I love clothes and am a big fan of name designer brands.

A: Well-dressed men are never define by who they wear; rather, it’s about how they wear it.

As far as what one “should” buy, my answer really depends on a few things, none of which concern what season is currently in store.

I am a firm believer that if one splurges on clothes, one should first splurge on essentials, items that never go out of style.  These pieces should be your first priority: a wool charcoal single breasted suit, a wool navy single breasted suit, a couple pairs of shirts (either solid white or solid light blue), a couple of ties (solids and stripes only for now), one pair of black leather oxford lace-ups, one pair of brown leather oxford lace-ups, a wool overcoat (either in navy or charcoal), and a dress belt (black and brown reversible; keep the egregiousness of the belt buckle to a minimum).  I am also assuming you have a pair of dark navy jeans, with no fade or ridiculous embellishments on the rear pockets, as well as solid navy or charcoal sweaters.

This is the foundation of a well-dressed man’s wardrobe; the colors I pick –navy and charcoal- are the two most versatile.  Notice I did not pick a black suit.  I don’t know when it became acceptable to wear a black suit during the daytime, but it is not “appropriate.” 

If you don’t yet have all of these items, get them.  If you feel like you know about proper fit, from reading posts on this site, or from reading magazines, or from other respected forums (Ask Andy about Clothes is a classic), feel free to shop around.  If you are less-than-confident, go to a respected department store and trust the TAILOR (not necessarily the salesman).  Listen to what he has to say, and follow his advice.  Note that magazines such as GQ and the like often pick up on trends that are not deemed “traditional” fit.

Now, if you DO already have these items, pick up pieces from what I am arbitrarily deeming the second “tier” of the foundation.  These items include classics such as bomber jackets, wool peacoats, scarves, mackintoshes, trench coats, slacks, blazers, and suits in colors not previously mentioned (keep them wool, for now).

If you also have these second tier foundation items in your closet, you can start to find more novelty, trendy items.  Read through the trends highlighted on this site; there are plenty and not worth listing here.

As for what I’ve bought recently, I’m never one to buy and tell (designer wise), but I will say that the items included a navy oilcloth peacoat, a crewneck gray sweater, a wax cotton jacket in a fantastic dark olive, and a navy windbreaker with a vivid red detail.  I also managed to find a great pair of cords on Gilt, as well as some ties.  I think my next purchase will be a toggle coat.

If you really are insistent on brand names, I would suggest buying items that do not have labels or logos showing.  You pay for brand names for fit, details, texture and quality of construction (well, you should anyway), not so you can show people how much you can spend.  I have a pretty firm “no logos” rule.  I would make exceptions for jeans from Dior Homme (the “slash” is a logo of sorts) and items from Martin Margiela (the 4 thread indentations are a clever subtle logo).

As far as my favorite stores, I really don’t want to be a walking advertisement for a designer, so I make a conscious effort to mix it up.  Here’s a few of my favorites: I like Steven Alan for button downs; H&M for novelty trendy items; Gilt.com for anything; Alexander Olch for ties; and James Perse for t-shirts.  Michael Kors (the designer himself) is known for loving peacoats, and it is reflected in the peacoats he sells.

One last word on style: an item isn’t a good deal just because it is on sale.  It’s a good deal if you would have paid more than the price for that item, regardless of what the price is and regardless of whether it is on sale or not.

And a last word - don’t be afraid to save some of that bankroll to pay your parents, undoubtedly the generous donors of this gift, for, say, college tuition.  Spending beyond one’s means helped get us into this economic mess.

Have a great tip about how to build your wardrobe from the ground up? Share it with us in the comments!

Entry Filed under: Men, Men's, Q&A

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lynn  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 8:14 am

    I don’t normally read through the men’s wear (my men are 14 and 10 years old right now) articles, but this was an EXCELLENT one! What a great summary giving men stepping stones on where to start. Thanks as always for GREAT practical yet stylish advice!

  • 2. huong  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 10:52 am

    definitely making sure you get clothes that fit your body type. it won’t matter if its brand name or not, if you know how to dress yourself. The person that doesn’t, even brand name clothes will look ugly on them. Check out books like Details, mens style manual. The tailor shall become your best friend:0)

  • 3. Iris  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Thank thank you thank you for writing this long-awaited post! My boyfriend has been struggling with figuring out how to build a great wardrobe from scratch, but there is no other resource on the web that has addressed it so eloquently and clearly like Omiru has today. Now I can tell him to return those unfortunate purchases and start right here!

  • 4. John  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Speaking of trusting your tailor:

    http://www.gq.com/style/blogs/the-gq-eye/2009/12/what-you-can-learn-from-americas-greatest-living-tailor.html

  • 5. Becca  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    This was interesting and helpful for women to think about too. One bit I would add is that the shopper should consider his (or her) lifestyle when deciding what to get. My mom used to always try to convince me to buy nice dress clothes but they really weren’t necessary for me - they were too nice for my work and I don’t go to fancy events often. Of course you should have a good suit and some other dressier options, but if you don’t need to wear a suit to work perhaps don’t spend a huge portion of your shopping dollars on multiple suits and get more casual classics instead.

    Also, I totally agree about ridiculous pocket designs on jeans - those are awful.

  • 6. Amanda  |  December 25th, 2009 at 12:55 am

    If you’d like to get a bold dress shirt, I’m absolutely in love with dark, rich purple. Purple is such a flattering color on darn near everyone. Sadly it is often overlooked.

    http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41qA6Fu2y3L._AA280_.jpg
    The shade of an eggplant really, not something overly pink.

  • 7. Tina  |  December 26th, 2009 at 4:00 am

    This list seems overthought and boring. It appears everywhere and shows no imagination. Sure, the items you listed are classic, but it seems youve created a system that runs you and not the other way around.

    Its almost predictable. Break free a little, will you?

  • 8. Gary  |  December 27th, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    The list is a fine traditional list, especially if your lifestyle warrants wearing these garments. But frankly I can’t think of a duller way to spend a windfall. Personally I’d use the money to buy “fun” things to wear, i.e., things you enjoy wearing. But do take some time carefully to consider quality and style.

  • 9. alex  |  December 30th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    This is a wonderful post, I think every man who needs a place to start should read this. One thing is missing though: shoes. You have a great eye for style and quality I bet you could write a whole post just on shoes.

  • 10. Shanita  |  January 1st, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    H&M is agood brand that isn’t pricey. I use to shop there alot when I was in Germany. You can still look nice when not wearing name brands. Style is in……. And I’m rocking pink.

  • 11. Yorky  |  January 9th, 2010 at 4:42 am

    This advice was great, for 1965. These days black suits in the daytime are very common and aren’t considered “inappropriate” except by folks who care enough to write blog posts on the subject.

  • 12. Tom G  |  January 12th, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Here’s GQ’s style guy on black suits in the daytime…
    “I would probably wear a black suit to work on days when I was also attending a funeral.”

    http://www.gq.com/style/style-guy/suiting/200307/black-wearing-frequency

    He also notes, however, that it’s a matter of taste, and there are many people who wear black regularly.

  • 13. Ivy  |  January 20th, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Sounds like a great way to waste a whole lot of money to be hidden in the pack of other people wearing the same stuff… Well done!!

  • 14. Zain  |  February 7th, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    I disagree about being hidden in the pack. I think the article is very helpful and described how to spend the money exactly the way I might advise someone. Start with the classics, and work your way out to splurging. The reality that while other people may be wearing the same things, the way you wear those things will certainly make you stand out. Besides, trendiness is not for the faint of heart, and, where there’s doubt, an exquisitely made classic will make you look infinitely better than something trendy that makes you feel as though you aren’t wearing your own skin.

  • 15. Judy  |  May 9th, 2010 at 12:18 am

    Thanks a lot for so detailed tips and explanation.

    I always find myself in trouble while arranging wardrobe, I followed your tips and happy to get everything arranged in less time.

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