Virginia Chamlee,  Author of Big Thrift Energy, in a thrift store

How To Thrift – Three Experts Share Their Top Tips

Navigating thrift stores and online marketplaces can feel daunting, especially if you are new to thrifting. We asked three expert thrifters to give their top tips for how to find the best secondhand items.

  • Liisa Jokinen

  • Jan 9, 2024

Cover photo: Agnes Lopez

Whether you’re a thrifting novice or a seasoned pro, there are some essential tips to make your secondhand shopping experience more rewarding. In this guide, we’ve gathered insights from experts like Virginia Chamlee, author of “Big Thrift Energy,” and other experienced thrifters. From the basics of understanding materials and craftsmanship to the benefits of expanding your brand horizons and hunting for specific styles, this piece will hopefully give you some ideas how to make the best thrift finds ever!

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Virginia Chamlee

Author of Big Thrift Energy

1. Educate yourself

My best tips for those new to thrifting clothing and accessories is to educate yourself about materials and craftsmanship. Especially when you’re buying something that’s vintage or used, you’ll want to ensure it lasts a long time. Look for materials like silk, leather, suede — anything that is high-quality. Even t-shirts can be high-quality (look for high-quality stitching and ensure it isn’t too starchy). It’s also important to shop often, either online or in-person, as merchandise in the secondhand market turns over so rapidly.

2. Define your taste & style

The best way to find the good stuff is to first educate yourself about what you like, and what to look for. Do this by finding what you love on Instagram and Pinterest and asking yourself what you like about those items – is it the color? the cut? – then look for more of that when you shop.

Photo: ecologie on Poshmark
Photo: The Placebo Project on Poshmark

3. Find your favorite brands

I like to search for materials first: suede, silk, and satin. And I have a list of favorite vintage brands I know resonate with me, like Ungaro and Victor Costa, that I always search for. Those brands are pretty much always high quality so if I find one of their pieces, I know it will last. Keywords-wise, it’s also fun to search trends you love, like 90s style. This can yield just the piece you’re looking for.

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Lissy Clow

Thrifter, upcycler

1. Thrift list

My biggest tip is to always have a thrift list on the go. Your thrift list can include anything that you’re on the hunt for to fill gaps or replace items in your wardrobe and even to jump on trends in a sustainable way.

I keep my thrift list in my notes app on my phone so I always have it ready when I pop into a thrift store or am scrolling on marketplaces. Every few weeks I’ll take a peek at things I’ve been pinning and saving for inspo, and see if there are any common themes/styles to add to my list, like “puff sleeve dress”, “oversized blazer”, or “cargo trousers”. I add adjectives like colors to my wish list, too. I find this helps so much in navigating a thrift store – you’ll focus mainly on the colors you know you’re on the hunt for (instead of looking through every single item)and your hunt will be more defined.

Lissy in the "Aje-like dress"
Lissy in the "Aje-like dress"

2. Do not get limited by brand names

I try to not stay too attached to brands when thrifting because thrift stores and online marketplaces are gold mines for discovering new brands or simply pieces that suit your style and surprise you without worrying about the brand. If you love it and feel great in the piece, the brand shouldn’t matter! That said, if you’re looking for specific brands that have a strong identity and you know you want a piece by that brand/designer, a trick I love using on online marketplaces is searching for brand-like items.

An example of this: I knew I wanted to wear a special dress to my best friend’s wedding this summer and I KNEW it had to be an Aje dress. I couldn’t find anything for rental or secondhand online so I typed in “Aje-like dress” into various marketplaces and found the perfect “Aje-like dress” for a fraction of the price. As a reseller myself, a lot of people use descriptive phrases like this in the description of the item to help with search engine optimization. If you know an item is “the Ganni vibe” but isn’t the exact brand - these are great terms to search!

3. Think about the origin of the style

When hunting IRL or online for specific trends or styles, think about the origin of where this style came from – whether that be 90s, Y2K or menswear. For example, a lot of pieces in my own wardrobe are oversized/baggy and have nods to menswear. When navigating the thrift stores or online marketplaces for anything that might categorize as “oversized” in a high street store, my best recommendation would be to search in the men’s section instead of typing in ‘oversized’ or hoping you stumble across a perfectly oversized women’s blazer IRL. You’re going to receive a much greater selection, more vintage options that are unique and give you the same look you’re after.

4. Spy your style idols

If there’s an influencer that you admire, take a peek if they have accounts on the online marketplaces – a lot of the time they use the same username so it’s an easy search. Then you can see what kinds of items they’re selling from their wardrobes, the kinds of wardrobes they are following, and items they like. This helps narrow down your hunt for pieces that resonate with your style.

Photo: ShopZestStudio on Etsy
Photo: vtg.issaack on eBay
Photo: BohoThriftbyDrea on eBay

5. Choose natural materials

As someone who’s started sewing their clothes, I’ve found that natural materials are the most durable and easy to upcycle into something new versus something made of synthetic fibers. Check the tags inside a garment to see the material before jumping on board. Especially if an item is priced highly at a thrift store, double check the material and ONLY invest if the material is composed of mainly natural fibers (ie 100% cotton, 50% linen/50% cotton).

6. Be specific

Overall, the more specific you are with your search, the more luck you’ll have!

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Sara Leeds

Creative director, host, and sustainable fashion content creator

1. Know what you are looking for

I think the best way to find secondhand online and IRL is to know in advance what you’re looking for. Most secondhand sites and stores are less curated than a traditional retail store. Don’t get me wrong, I live for the hunt! But it makes things easier when you have an idea of what you’re looking for beforehand.

Seller: eestigirl77 on Poshmark

2. Secondhand fast fashion is ok!

I usually end up buying from two ends of the spectrum – either something totally impractical but feels SO special and one of one that I just have to own it, or something right on the nose of what I need in my closet and that I know I’ll wear on repeat. My most recent purchases have actually been “fast fashion” brands like Nasty Gal and Princess Polly off of Poshmark because the sizing works well for me – and I end up keeping these items for years. There’s no shame in buying fast fashion secondhand! When finding more rare, special pieces I love Tracy Burton for jewelry and Japanese resellers on Ebay.

3. Check the seller reviews

The best way to spot good quality online is ideally through a seller with good reviews or who is responsive. Try to ask for both stock photos and IRL photos of the item you’re considering! Knowing your measurements is helpful too. I personally prefer shopping in person. I love feeling clothes, trying them on, and just the experience of being in a store. I have really tricky measurements, so fit for me is the most important factor in choosing what to buy.