Thrifters We Love: John McDonald

Men’s dress shirts, often in mint condition, overflow the racks at resale stores. Maybe men simply buy too many, or receive them as unwanted gifts. Maybe it’s because Americans’ casual dress habits have reached the point that it isn’t unusual to see men headed to church wearing polo shirts and jeans.

For whatever reason, we always find luxury brands of dress shirts, in fine cottons and even silk, at ridiculously low prices.

One person who has turned this thrifting sub-specialty into his specialty is John McDonald, Allison’s neighbor in California.

If it wasn’t enough that John is a skilled carpenter, home renovator, baker, floral designer, antiques expert and gardener, he has also achieved excellence in thrifting. He has schooled himself in brand names and garment construction details, and gleefully does online research so he can crow over the many, many dollars he saves by buying dress and casual shirts secondhand.

Row of shirts

John, a former custom homebuilder, and his husband of 24 years, Jim Craig, a former journalist who also appreciates good design, have long collected antiques, and were regulars at auction houses and high-end dealers when they lived near Washington, D.C. There, John occasionally bought a few clothing items at resale, but when the two moved to the Palm Springs area a few years ago, his garment thrifting shifted into high gear.

The Palm Springs area attracts seasonal residents who often donate barely-worn or new items to charitable thrifts, and John zeroes in on the best. He estimates his closet is now 90 percent thrifted shirts. The highest price he’s paid? $7.99. He often pays less by waiting for a sale day and getting a shirt he’s seen earlier at half price, in the $2.50 to $3 range.

 

He’s found a Pierre Balmain shirt (retail $200) on the rack at Revivals, a local thrift chain. He’s snagged a Patrick James Viyella shirt (retail $140) at Angel View, another local chain. A Thomas Pink shirt with double cuffs from the venerable London shirtmaker (retail $185-$295) and a Pima cotton polo from Montreal’s Robert Barakett (retail $95) are other buys. His well-organized closet is filled with high-quality names: Brioni, Façonnable, Dolce & Gabbana, Ermenegildo Zegna, Bullock & Jones, Loro Piana, Brunello Cucinelli.

 

Hawaiian shirts are plentiful in Coachella Valley thrifts, and John has done his homework to know the better brands. Tori Richard, a longtime Honolulu maker, sells its new shirts for up to $128. Costing only slightly less are new shirts from Reyn Spooner, another more than half-century-old Hawaiian firm. John has beautiful, mint condition shirts from both he snagged for less than $10.

 

Although Palm Springs area shops have plenty of high-end suits for sale, John passes those by. He and Jim have their own beautiful suits hanging in their closets, unworn now that they live in a casual resort area. The last time John wore a suit was to a funeral in Yuma, Arizona, and he recalls that he was the only adult man there wearing one. “People kept asking me questions about the service,” he said, “thinking I was the funeral director.”

When he was growing up in Texas, the adage “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” were words to live by. “The reason we can thrift is that people don’t do that anymore,” he says with a laugh.

John hasn’t yet convinced Jim to succumb to the shirt-thrifting bug, but Jim does appreciate John’s bargain-hunting skills. And, he’s very fond of a vintage shirt that John immortalized in a new look: Jim’s Eagle Scout uniform shirt, with patches, that John had made into a barrel-shaped decorative pillow.

Pillow

Here are a few of John’s tips for successful shirt searching:

  • Check the condition of the label inside the neck. If the label doesn’t show signs of wear, that’s a hint that the shirt hasn’t been worn much.
  • Look very carefully at the front of polo shirts. If the previous owner had a generous stomach, the knit fabric will be stretched out in the front and will never look right. Similarly, a stretched knit collar will never regain its original shape.
  • Most people have heard of better shirt labels such as Brooks Brothers and Burberry, but doing research on less common labels will help you recognize European luxury brands such as Brunello Cucinelli, Loro Piana or Pal Zaleiri, for example, or sought-after expensive yachting wear by the Italian brand Paul & Shark.
  • Another tipoff to a good label is if a high-end store label is added. The Wilkes Bashford store in San Francisco, Stanley Korshak in Dallas, Neiman Marcus and others often have their own labels sewn alongside a designer’s label.

Brioni WB

  • Know the difference between designers’ couture, high-end and mass-market lines. The Georgio Armani label, for one example, can be found in various price points. Armani Privé is the couture line, and next in price comes the Georgio Armani label. Armani Collezioni is the label’s diffusion line, and Emporio Armani is another less expensive line, although the price tag on a new Armani shirt at any level is still many multiples of a  thrift store tag.

 

  • If the label is unfamiliar and you want to know if it’s a quality shirt, check the stitching to see how close it is and see if the shirt features time-consuming construction methods such as covered seams and extra rows of stitching on plackets and collars. Also check buttons. “You can tell when the buttons aren’t plastic,” John said – a good sign.

    check detail
    Example of close stitching – and extra stitching on the cuff.
  • Don’t pass up a shirt with French cuffs if you don’t wear cufflinks. You can always add a button at the cuff instead of jewelry.
  • Look for multiples from the same donor. John recently found 12 clean and starched Emporio Armani shirts at Angel View, all in the same size. If that was your size (it wasn’t his), it would have been your lucky day.
  • Stay away from thrifted white knit shirts. “ They usually have a hard-to-remove stain,” observed John.

Rick Pallack shirt

 

 

 

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