Thrift Art – Sport Coats and Blazers

Admittedly, I like to visit thrift stores, vintage shops, and second-hand stores.  I fully understand that it isn’t for everyone.  For those that are game, there are some treasures to be found.  Most prominent style forums and quite a few blogs highlight what’s out there, some of which is jaw dropping.  I have had some luck, and thought I’d share some knowledge with my readers.

First up – sport coats and blazers.  There is a subtle difference: blazers typically have a patch pocket and gold or silver buttons, and sport coats are typically patterned, made of heavier fabric, and have tonal buttons (horn, plastic, etc.).  It’s a blue blazer and a tweed sport coat.  As is important in any aspect of style and fashion is the importance of having a good tailor.  Go into second-hand shopping with the mentality that almost everything you find will need some sort of alterations.  Sport coats and blazers will typically cost more than taking in pants, darting shirts, or adding cuffs, but there is nothing looks worse than an ill-fitting sport coat.

Buying a second hand blazer or sport coat can be tricky, but can yield some outstanding results.  The first thing to do is understand what you need.  There is a big difference between a want and a need, as real estate in most closets is at a premium.  Odd patterned jackets are fun to look at, but would you actually wear it?  How many blue blazers to you really need?  Do you really have a spot for a black sport coat in your rotation?

Next, become familiar with the different fabrics.  If a coat or blazer is shiny, stay away.  Go for natural fibers – wool, silk, cashmere, cotton, or a blend of any of those.  The makeup of the jacket is listed inside the internal pockets 90% of the time.   They are easier to clean, and will typically fit much better than synthetics.

Brands are important here.  Learning about good brands is important for the experienced second-hand shopper.  As important as knowing the right brands is not becoming a brand whore.  Zegna is a good example.  They are one of the finest makers in the world, but they have been doing it for a long time.  An ugly old olive and lime green windowpane sport coat with NFL-sized shoulder pads may have a Zegna tag, but the style popular 20 years ago doesn’t translate today.   Now, their more recent stuff is outstanding, and will leave you looking for a reason NOT to buy it.

Know your style.  When shopping for a sport coat or a blazer, you need to know a couple things: are you a two-button or three button guy?  Do you prefer a sack or darted?  Soft or more defined shoulders?  Thick or thin lapel?  What is your tolerance with each?  You need to have a good gauge on each prior to your search.  While the hunt is part of the fun, don’t go for fool’s gold.  If you won’t wear it when you get home, don’t buy it.

Finally, know your size.  And I don’t mean small-medium-large.  Are you a short, regular, or long?  Do you know the difference?  Do you know your chest size?  The best way to find your size is to have someone do it for you.  Go into any good men’s store and speak to a salesperson about getting measured.  They are going to talk to you about shoulders, chest measurements, jacket length, and sleeves – all of which are important, as the wrong fit can ruin the look.

Alright – time to start the search.  Go through the rack, and don’t be afraid to touch the fabrics.  Search thoroughly, and when you find one you like, start the initial inspection.  First, make sure that it is your style – or close to your style.  Second, check the size.  If it’s within two inches of your off-the-rack size, you are getting warm.  Third, inspect the jacket.  Look for any holes, stains, tears, pulls, on the exterior, and check the general condition of the lining.  Look for any tears or stains – especially around the armpits.  If it passes muster, then grab it.  Go through the rack and repeat the process.

A recent find.  I’ve been looking for something this color, and lucked out. It will need some serious alterations, but I’m willing to spend the money.

At this point, it’s time to try on the candidates.  I typically wear an OCBD or polo shirt when shopping for sport coats, as I want to see the actual fit (rather than putting it on over a sweater or sweatshirt).  Find a fitting room with a mirror and put the jacket on.  It should ‘feel’ right – not to tight in the wrong places.  The first thing to check is the fit of the shoulders as they are the most expensive to alter.  A good rule of thumb is that the jacket shoulders shouldn’t stick out further than the widest point of your shoulders.  If you lean against the wall, the tip of the jacket shoulder should touch the wall at the same time as your own shoulder.  Next, check the fit of the chest.  Button the jacket and see that it lays flat down your chest.  When buttoned, the jacket shouldn’t be too loose (your fist should be able to fit between the buttoned jacket and your stomach) or too tight (there shouldn’t be any fabric pucker around the buttons).  Next, check the length of the jacket.  Just right or a little long are OK, as this is typically an easy fix for your tailor.  Finally – the length of the sleeves.  The sleeves should hit at your wrist, so make sure there is enough extra fabric folded under if they are too short.

Another recent find.  It fit perfectly off the rack, except the sleeves are about 1″ too short.  An easy fix.

So you found one that works…and at a price of roughly $6-$10.  Not a huge investment, right?  Back to the alterations – are any of the above-mentioned fits just a bit off?  As long as they aren’t too short or too small, then your tailor should be able to fix it.  Lengthening sleeves is easy.  Shortening the length is relatively easy.  Taking in the sides is relatively easy.  Trimming the shoulders essentially requires a full jacket reconstruction, so make sure you are willing to spend some serious money if you have to have that jacket.

Once you make the purchase, get it to the tailors as quickly as possible so you can start wearing it.  Take it to the dry cleaners after alterations, and get it in your rotation.  The last thing you want is for it to collect dust in your closet…it could be doing that back at the thrift store.

Alex - February 11, 2013 - 8:24 AM

As someone who frequents secondhand stores, I can’t give you enough praise for this piece. Extremely insightful and well written. Cheers.

Jeff - February 11, 2013 - 2:04 PM

Any good recommendations on thrift stores in Atlanta that carry good brands as you feature in your write up?

Greg - February 11, 2013 - 5:47 PM

Hey Jeff: I would check the Little 5 Points area. I have found several scores down there in regards to jackets and ties.

Dan - February 11, 2013 - 9:42 PM

Hey, just curious about something. I’ve never seen a site call a jacket shortening an easy fix. I’ve had it done once, but it was $75 and I was advised against doing it. Is there something I don’t know? Also, thanks for the write-up, it (like all your other articles) is fantastic.

James - February 12, 2013 - 9:33 PM

Sounds like you have a great tailor? Can you share. Have a decent one in ATL but always looking for suggestions. Love the blog….thanks!

[...] Talk about timely…  So I was out and about this week and came across this vintage Polo by Ralph Lauren blue label tweed…  Bonus: it fits like a glove off the rack.  Off to the cleaners and into the rotation. [...]

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