The Next Step: Professional Clothing Brands Across All Budget Points

professional clothing brands across all budget points2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on professional clothing brands across all budget points — but do check out our more recent discussions of Workwear Stores Off the Beaten Path.

A lot of people know where to go for inexpensive professional clothes — and then they know the brands that celebrities wear.  But the middle ground for professional clothing brands can get confusing for people — particularly, how to step up your game when it comes to fashionable workwear.  We talked a few weeks about what the next step is for furniture (based on a commenting thread a while back), and this week I thought we’d talk about the spectrum for professional clothes. (Obviously, some of these brands could fit in multiple buckets — any big disagreements, though?)  Readers, where did you shop when you started your careers — or when you need budget pieces?  What was your next step, and the step after that, and the step after that? When did you notice a big change in quality?  Am I forgetting any brands?  What are your top 3 in each bucket? 

Bucket 1: Budget Fashion

  • Dorothy Perkins
  • Express
  • H&M
  • Loft
  • Modcloth
  • New York & Co.
  • Old Navy
  • Target
  • Zara

Bucket 2: Midlevel Professional Clothing Brands

  • Ann Taylor
  • Anne Klein
  • Banana Republic
  • BCBG
  • Boden
  • CK Calvin Klein
  • Club Monaco
  • J. Crew
  • Jones New York
  • Karen Millen
  • Kay Unger
  • Lands’ End
  • Lauren Ralph Lauren
  • Limited
  • Michael Michael Kors
  • Pendleton
  • Tahari (I would put all lines except Elie Tahari in this bucket)
  • Talbots
  • White House | Black Market

Bucket 3: Upgrading Some Items

  • Agnes B
  • Austin Reed
  • Boss Hugo Boss
  • Brooks Brothers
  • Classiques Entier
  • Diane von Furstenberg
  • Elie Tahari
  • Equipment
  • Kate Spade
  • Lafayette 148
  • LK Bennett
  • Milly
  • Nanette Lepore
  • Pink Tartan
  • Rachel Roy
  • Rebecca Taylor
  • Reiss
  • Smythe
  • Theory
  • Thomas Pink
  • Tory Burch
  • Tracy Reese
  • Trina Turk
  • Vince

Bucket 4: Getting Fancy

  • Armani
  • Black Fleece
  • Hugo Boss
  • Isabel Marant
  • Marc by Marc Jacobs
  • Max Mara
  • Missoni
  • Ralph Lauren
  • St. John
  • Victoria Beckham

Bucket 5: Money is No Object

  • Akris Punto
  • Alexander McQueen
  • Donna Karan
  • Escada
  • Jason Wu
  • Michael Kors
  • Roland Mouret
  • Saint Laurent
  • Stella McCartney
  • The Row
  • Zac Posen

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Maryna Pleshkun.


Professional clothing brands exist in ALL budget points -- yet it seems like a lot of people don't know where to shop between Target and Saks. We rounded up our favorite professional clothing brands for EVERY budget -- and discussed how to upgrade from one tier to the next.


  1. Interesting post! I had not realized how few places I’ve shopped at until reading this list.

    I think that Zara is not budget fashion… it’s cheap compared to the brands it knocks off, but it’s way more expensive than Old Navy and even some of the brands in Tier 2. I can buy a CK everyday value suit for the cost of a blazer at Zara. The other brands I’d include are Gap.. maybe also Halogen or Uniqlo?

    • This is so timely! I am a 5th year associate about to start the “next step” for me job wise at a bigger firm, and I have been contemplating how to “step up” my wardrobe. Looking forward to these responses!

    • I’m solidly a Tier 2 but occasionally a Tier 3 when looking at clearance items. I don’t usually buy Tier 1 things but rather get Tier 2 items (t-shirts, sweaters) when they are on deep discount. Honestly, don’t like to pay Tier 3 prices and usually buy only on sale. And I don’t see myself more in Tier 3 until I get the loans paid off…

  2. Agreed w/ Anon. It’s also a reminder that aside from a great deal, it’s best to stay in my lane regarding shopping in order to reach long-term financial goals.

    Having said that, I am tired of buying cheap bags that wear out after a year. I am admittedly rough with bags. Any advice for bucket-2 level bags made with real leather, especially those large enough to carry a laptop?

    • Coach outlet? I was wondering this myself. Hope someone else has ideas.

      Although I have been disheartened to hear via this s!te that “Coach is for secretaries”

      • PrettyLawBelle :

        I have been struggling with this. I am an attorney and moved on and “upward” from Coach after graduating law school because I associated the brand with college students. However, in hindsight, out of all the pricey bags I own, those are the best quality, despite other brands being more expensive.

        Regarding “Coach is for secretaries” I think of MICHAEL Michael Kors along the same lines and have been avoiding purchasing one of MK’s bags.

        • Yes and yes. I also think Kate Spade is going down hill. I hate to say it but I dont like associating myself with Coach or MK because of LOGOS LOGOS LOGOS. And yes, LV isn’t much different but I’d never spend that $ either.

          • Ugh. Logos. Why… WHY?! Even Louis V – I just can’t even..

          • I have a sneaking suspicion that many people that base their distaste for logos on avoidance of conspicuous consumption were buying logos 10 years ago. Are we sure that its not because logos are out of style?
            It’s like when someone starts wearing Birks again and claims to have done it for comfort, rather than because it is not socially unacceptable anymore thanks to our fashion gods.

          • Uh no I never wanted to pay anyone to advertise for them. I might have had some logo-ridden wristlets that were purchased as gifts.

          • I’ll speak for myself, but it’s not about style whatsoever. Maybe it is for some, but I know that I do not sit alone in this camp.

            There was a fabulous article a few weeks back about the former first lady of Virginia and how the logos on her stolen, fraudulently funded belongings (which were on display at her corruption trial) were symbolic. It was as if they were meant to project something she was not – she needed them to project status and an image she otherwise did not have. It’s too late in the day for me to be appropriately articulate on the topic, but the article hit the nail on the head.

          • Same Anon :

            I totally get it, and I am partially critiquing myself–but I almost feel like pretending that I’m ‘above labels’ is in itself a fake outward projection of an upbringing which I did not recieve.

          • I see what you’re saying, Same Anon, and I share a similar perspective. Monogrammed Coach purses were all I used 5-10 years ago because I liked the conspicuous consumption. I’d say now we have some type of anti-conspicuous consumption where it’s important to AVOID labels to fit in with the upper class.

          • Puppy at Heart :

            I think your observation is spot on, Anon! For me, at least, I can admit it’s about the style of it. Years ago when they were the rage, I was all about a Coach logo hobo bag.

            But I think purchasing items that are obviously made from a certain designer (Valentino rock studs much? Tory Burch *everything*) achieve the same exact objective as logo-ridden items, but because we’ve determined that they are “stylish,” they get a pass.

        • I love my Coach bags, they’re classic and good quality. You can’t really go wrong with a black pebble leather NON-LOGO bag from them. And at the outlet, the prices can’t be beat. I just got a black leather wristlet/clutch to use as a wallet for $35. I can pull it out of my bigger bag (not a Coach) and run into the grocery store or wherever without lugging in my larger purse. And it’s perfect for going out. I say Coach is in – logos are out!

        • What is the intended meaning of “for secretaries” in regards to Coach and Michael Michael Kors? Is that intended to mean “cheap” or “low end” and to slight the carrier as being cheap and low end for not being able to afford higher end? As people move up the ladder are they expected to value more expensive accessories simply because they can afford it? Just because you “can” doesn’t always mean you “should.”

          • Actually, it’s the opposite: if you aren’t really high up on the ladder, you buy conspicuous, fashionable items. Those who are moving up tend to buy classic, classy, and understated.

            Coach used to be for executives, bankers, and lawyers; you could only tell it was Coach by the quality and style. No logos.

            At least that’s how it is up in New England; the really wealthy go-getters buy classic and use it until it wears out.

      • Coach logo bags, are in my opinion, the problem. I think coach leather bags are fine for all. Unless you look closely, how would you even know? It just looks like a nice, real leather bag.

        • Senior Attorney :

          I dunno. I was at the Rack yesterday and saw some nice Coach leather bags, but they all had the name “Coach” spelled out in big gold script front and center. I just… couldn’t. It’s a shame.

        • I’ve noticed that the Coach bags without the logo tend to be pricier and less available on discount than the ones with the logos. I used to be in the Coach is for secretaries camp, but I found a logo-less bag there that I loved. After 13-months of daily use, it’s held up great. But, I did pay almost full price after stalking it for a long time. The only discount I received was from a 25% off coupon a sales associate mailed to me after I admired the bag in store. Definitely worth it for me.

          The new bags popping up on all of our non-attorney professionals (who tend to be more fashionable than the attorneys) have the big MK dangle or are recognizably Kate Spade. Since I look a bit too young for my seniority, I’m finding myself avoiding these. If I’m being honest, it’s more of a snobbery-based preference than anything to do with the styling/quality of the bags.

          • Anonymous :

            Ditto this – I have a black leather coach tote (actually sold as a diaper bag but I didn’t even realize that when I bought it at the outlet). It was under 150 at an outlet sale when I got it in 2005. Fits a laptop, zips on top (key at the time for the courthouse metal detectors). It is so spacious I even used it as an overnight ba a few times. It was my go to work bag until the last 2 years when I needed something with backpack straps so I could wrangle baby/stroller. I just had it refurbished at the cobbler for 40 bucks and it looks almost new. No logos, just understated buckle hardware and clean lines.
            I have also bought an refurbished numerous smaller classic leather coach and d&e all weather leather bags via goodwill. They are amazingly resilient and durable, esp those made 80s and before. Good luck!!

          • I got an MK bag a while back and just took off the dangle. It was great once I removed the advertising.

    • Manhattanite :

      I’m interested in this too. I want a better bag ($200-300 range), but I’m not big on labels that let everyone know exactly how much I spent on it (coach, Michael Kors, Kate spade, etc). I don’t need to carry a laptop, but do need to carry a few documents.

      • What about that Rebecca Minkoff bag?

        • agree with the Rebecca Minkoff suggestion – I have a black one that I use for work (big law attorney) and it is sleek and looks high quality but you can’t tell the brand unless you have an eye for Rebecca Minkoff bags.

      • Zara has real leather bags in the $100-200 range. Not sure how they hold up but they look nice. Lots of larger options you can carry a laptop in. Banana Republic also has nice leather bags, and you can often get them 30 or 40% off to bring them into the $200-range.

      • I noticed in a recent catalog that Lands’ End has some nice looking leather bags. Also try their Canvas line and LLBean Signature, which are more office-appropriate than their more casual styles.

      • In super happy with my Ted baker bag from several seasons ago.

        Also my Rebecca Minkoff.

      • Fossil

        • wintergreen126 :

          +1 I’ve been using a Fossil one for several years now and it’s held up nicely.

        • Agreed on Fossil – and you can find some new without tags / last year’s model (looks the same as this year’s to me) ones on eBay for a steal.

      • oil in houston :

        Longchamps all the way! amazing quality, very professional, discreet

        • Nylon Girl :

          I second that. I especially love their canvas bags for casual since they are very light-weight.

      • Fossil. They have some really great options for work bags that are in that price range that are pretty lovely. I currently want this one in both black and brown:

        In total agreement with the whole advert on your bag thing. It’s just tacky.

      • I got an Olivia Harris bag a couple years ago that has worn like iron, and I’m incredibly hard on bags.

      • Anonymous :

        Perfect work bags and totes:
        I am very hard on them. Three month average until I found Levenger. I have one that is going on 20 years (not my daily). My daily I just replaced after 9+ very, very hard years. Top quality leather. Hardware that outlasts the bag.

      • Love my Everlane Petra bag.

      • I usually carried Kate Spade, but the “everybody knows I spent $300 on this bag” was annoying. Now I’m planted firmly in the TUMI camp for the Villa Q-tote. It’s super high quality without being all status-y.

    • Anonymous :

      I’m hard on bags too. I had great advice for an L.L. Bean leather zip-able tote. Can’t recall the name, but it’s tougher than most, though it may be on the bigger end for what you want to tote. I commute, so it fits shoes, a few files and electronics plus purse essentials.

    • Anonymous :

      Lonchamp has some great totes for $500. I wear them in court. If you want to step up to Bucket 3/4 I would suggest the LV Neverfull and Burberry has some beautiful briefcases in the $1000 range…

      • I second Longchamp. Lonchamp Planetes. I just wish they lined the inside of the bag with a different color :(

      • I have a Longchamp tote and the leather began to “bubble” after a few years. I don’t know how else to describe it. I took it to Nordstrom and they basically said that there was not much that could be done about it. I was none too happy and wouldn’t buy Longchamp again.

        • Anonymous :

          You might try taking it to the longchamp store. My longchamp tote was pretty beaten up after years of wear and tear. They sent it to Paris for repairs at no charge. It looked great upon return.

    • Bag Recommendation :

      I have two Lauren Ralph Lauren leather bags that have held up great with almost daily use. My favorite is the Newbury double zip satchel – it’s big enough to hold my laptop and the branding is minimal – I took the dangling logo plate off.

    • I LOVE LL Bean’s Field and Town Tote. It’s LL Bean, but classically styled, gorgeous black leather, is incredibly well made, and lasts forever. I’ve had mine for 2 years and have the heck out of it, and it still looks gorgeous and new. It’s just under $200.

      • Boo. Doesn’t look like the Field and Town Tote is a current LL Bean item.

    • The Madewell leather tote

    • Baconpancakes :

      Are there any outlets near you? Coach, MK, RL, Longchamp, Dooney & Bourke- all of these can be had for a lot less at outlet malls. I’m really happy with my D&B outlet bag.

    • I like Cole Haan bags.

      • Seconding for Cole Haan. Classy, good quality, not flashy, but professional.

      • Has anyone heard of/tried this company dagnedover? I randomly discovered it last week and it seems so genius, but I wonder if it lives up to the hype. On paper it sounds perfect: a basic work bag with tons of compartments, no logos, reasonable-ish price, seems sturdy and well made…

        @ Kat: maybe you can contact the company for a bag and do a review? It seems like a product tailor-made for this community.

        • anon prof :

          wow. that looks incredibly perfect for me.

        • Anonymous :

          I have a bag from Clark and Mayfield that replaced a coach work bag (couldn’t find one I liked). I’ve been really happy with it but probably need to get a new one.

        • Anonymous :

          Reddit’s femalefashionadvice subreddit reviews this bag all the time. If you google search “reddit femalefashionadvice dagne Dover” they should pop up.

      • Another vote for Cole Haan bags. I bought one before my recent interview for a “next level” job and have been carrying it almost daily since. I love it. Classy and less obvious than Kate Spade, MK, etc. I have been avoiding MK bags since it seems like everyone and their mother/daughter is carrying one now.

    • Hit up Gilt for something like Furla. Honestly, without Gilt and Rue La La, I’d still be mainly in Tier 2.

    • Furla? One of the smaller bags is in that range. I have a gorgeous medium blue bag from maybe 5-6 years ago that has held up really well. Very small lettering on the side.

    • I am also solidly in my lane in Tier-2. I live in a Banana Republic sweater, or J. Crew super 120s suit. My shoe game and bag game are a bit different. I tend to go strictly for higher end (quality and versatility being the driving factors over name brand). I have a black leather tote from Cole Haan that fits *EVERYTHING* I need including a laptop/ipad,, shoes, water, folders, sweater, rain coat… It costs about $220ish, but I can wear it 365. Out to a casual brunch or to court. I also have a Cole Haan cross-body messenger in brown that is much more casual but doubles as a “brief case” of sorts if I want. Shoes are also something I’m willing to step into a higher bracket. But in order to stay budget conscience I shop at Zappos or DSW.

      I did decide to step up my 3-season suit game and get my first bespoke suit. It was $1800 and worth every single penny. There’s a few tailors in NYC that do custom women’s suits. It’s a charcoal suit and it’s unbelievable. I’ll probably get a navy one. I would rather spend high end money on custom than dept. store brands like Theory or other Saks, Barney’s brands.

    • S in Chicago :

      I love Cole Haan bags, no big logo’s, leather and hold up well.

    • I too was in search of the perfect black logoless bag that would accommodate a 15″ laptop. I went to the high-end places and outlets. I stumbled upon a bag that had everything I’ve been looking for at a huge sale at a Kate Spade outlet store. I can’t seem to find the brand online but it has the KS logo stamped, leather handles, a zip closure, pockets and gold feet. The only downside is it has this weird business card pocket on the outside of it but I hardly notice it anymore.

    • I really like McKlein USA. Check them out on Amazon. Their bags are all leather and look way more pricey than they are.

  3. This is pretty interesting – and doubly so because I realized that I don’t ever see myself moving beyond Bucket 2 in prices. I just can’t bring myself to pay that much for clothes that I know I will inevitably ruin.

    Of course, a lot of my hesitation also has to do with how I’m a 6′ tall size 16, so it’s really slim pickings for any brand that will fit me. I find ones that do and stick to them.

    • Anonymous :

      At just over 5′ and size 00, I feel the same way.

    • This is VERY interesting! I find that I continue to shop in different bucket’s for different thing’s. For example, I still go to Old Navy, primariley for causal thing’s, and I go to Zara for alot of thing’s but I do have Michael Kor’s and also Donna Karan stuff, so I run the gammit. Also, I totaly LOVE Ann Taylor so I am not sure where I wind up. Dad say’s I would bankrupt him if he still was payeing for stuff, but now the manageing partner pay’s for all of my work stuff (at 50%) so it is NOT that bad.

      Today at Lunch, I walked over to Macy’s and bought a beautiful new handbag. I wish I still had the Coach stuff I had in college, which was VERY durabel, and I had to get rid of my riding boot’s in DC after I slipped and stepped into horse poopie on the Toe Path along the Potomac River. FOOEY b/c they do NOT make boot’s like that any more!

      Noah I think want’s to get serius with me. He invitied me to meet his parent’s who here from Kansas City, Missouri. I hope they are not goeing to ask me alot of question’s but we are goeing to dinner tomorrow night. I think Dad mentioned trying to get smart about baseball b/c they are in the World Serie’s. I hope the dad is not goeing to wear a hat backward’s like Jim did. FOOEY on that, but YAY if Noah want’s to date me dad say’s !!!!

      • Anon in KC :

        Conversation topics:
        1) Royals are in the world series! eeeee!
        2) KC Barbeque is better than all other BBQ. They will love you if you say this.

      • Anonymous :

        Anon in KC is right on both counts.
        Remember, the mother is going to be more nervous than you.
        Focus on making sure she feels at ease.
        Go Royals.

  4. I didn’t even know there was a difference between stuff in Bucket 4 and 5.

  5. My first job, I was in Bucket 1 or 2, but I was pretty young and didn’t really think much about “professional clothes.” After grad school and realizing that the clothes do matter, I’m now usually in Buckets 4 or 5 for more permanent pieces (staple suits, handbags) and Buckets 2 or 3 for things that I have to change frequently (shells, shirts, colorful skirts).

    Also, there’s a bunch of smaller non-department store brands that open up in Bucket 5 that have beautiful, not “fashiony” suits.

  6. Must be Tuesday :

    Interesting post. I tend to do most of my shopping in buckets 1 or 2. I only have a few items from the brands in the higher buckets, and most of those I bought on extreme clearance at places like Rack or TJ Marshall, etc. or second hand at consignment or thrift stores.

    The general divisions are pretty accurate, but Limited tends to be less expensive for full suits than Loft or Express. Also agree that Zara is not exactly budget fashion, unless it’s being compared to designer brands.

  7. This is a fantastic post. I think one of the things that could be most helpful is to see the designer pieces, and then see how the more budget brands interpret the style. Sometimes designer pieces can be a little too…out there…for everyday style, but the brands that are more accessible can sometimes interpret a particular style characteristic in a way that makes more sense to the everyday consumer.

    Consider the “Cerulean Sweater” scene from TDWP.

    • I like the Cap Hill Style posts where she does this — the three price points for a similar item.

  8. As someone else who has strong questions about exceeding level 2-3. At what point is it worth engaging someone with great sewing skills and saying “I had it made” or just plain altering something – from replacing the buttons, changing the hemline, etc. – so you are happy?

    I do consignment and thrift as well, but I have to like it. A name/brand isn’t enough to move me.

    • Wildkitten :

      I’m a SOLID bucket 2, and I get things tailored, including switching the buttons, without a second thought. Tailoring is cheaper than buying new pieces of bucket 2.

    • I think having something made is worth considering for something timeless. I had my prom dress made (a basic black c*cktail dress) and a decade later I still wear it to all sorts of formal events nearly every year! So if you cannot find a suit/dress/whatever that doesn’t fit you correctly or isn’t quite what you are looking for, perhaps the cost per wear of something custom would make it worthwhile to you.

    • I tailor almost everything, even stuff from Target.

      • Same here – although I try to buy/alter only stuff that I think will last 2 – 3 years with careful laundering.

    • anon-oh-no :

      What does that even mean, “has strong questions about exceeding level 2-3”??

      I regularly buy and wear stuff in all 5 buckets. And I have items I have had made. I generally think buying items and then tailoring is better, because the style tends to be better.

  9. SuziStockbroker :

    I would add my favourite to Bucket 3: Judith & Charles

  10. BigLaw Anon :

    I’m a solid bucket 2/3 buyer with some bucket 5 and no bucket 4. I think the key is that bucket 2 + tailoring = bucket 5 looks (but my bucket 5 pieces are a stretch and if I ruin them, I will be sad and probably not rebuy; with bucket 2/3 + tailoring, things are pricey but I love them enough to wear them all the time and know that I could rebuy if if needed).

  11. I would also throw in Anne Fontaine for bucket 3? 4? Maybe.

  12. Mary Ann Singleton :

    Interesting. I’ve gone in the opposite direction – when I was a newly minted associate I didn’t know where to shop, thought I had to spend lots of money on work clothing, worked at a pretty formal place, and acted generally out of desperation (“I have nothing to wear to work!”) so I would buy items from the more expensive buckets (3/4) (even a Hugo Boss suit, sigh, because I just couldn’t find any other suits that fit). Now that I’m a few years in and avoiding the golden handcuffs as much as I can, it’s Old Navy and Target all the way. Maybe Zara if I’m getting fancy. It also helps that I’m at a more casual firm these days.

  13. Need to Improve :

    I love BCBG but it is not bucket 2. More like bucket 3.
    And Ralph Lauren can be really cheap, both in price and quality, compared to the rest of bucket 4. It has different lines, I think, and I do not associate it with luxury.

    I occasionally buy some bucket 2 things but mostly hang out in the bucket 3 camp with pieces from 4 and 5.

    When I started working out of college I was in bucket 1, occasionally 2.

    When I graduated from law school I moved almost exclusively to bucket 2.

    Then as I made and saved money over the past 8 years as a lawyer, I felt more comfortable buying in bucket 3 and occasionally beyond. But it took me a while to get to this point. I saw first and second year associates diving into buckets 4 and 5 and never understood that. My ramp up to fanciness was more conservative.

    • Ralph Lauren has several different lines – some of which are extremely luxurious and others which are not.

      • None of Ralph Lauren’s size models match up to me.

        I was going to say FOOEY on that line, but in these lists, well, I’ve ignored a lot, and it’s a big world o’ fashion out there!

  14. Does this really matter? If you look good in your clothes, you look good. We don’t want the clothes to be visibly poor quality. I’m wearing Express Columnist pants and a gorgeous cobalt sweater from Target. Suits never fit me right so if I’m really going to spend $ on that, I’d have one custom made. I suppose some of my nicer blouses are from Ann Taylor but I can also make a Forever21 blouse and Loft cardigan look like a million bucks. My nicer looking trousers are also wool and I realize they look better, but they’re not practical.

    • Has anyone ever had custom suits made? I have heard that some Asian cities are great for this, but I’d like to find something that doesn’t come with a >$1000 plane ticket surcharge.

      • I had 3 suits made in Vietnam while I was in law school. They fit me better than any other suit I’ve bought, and were made so they could easily be altered. I’ve fluctuated in weight over the past 5 years, and I’ve been able to have the pants resized. And they’ve held up great!

        I’ve also had dresses made for me in China and Vietnam that I ordered online, I just sent them my measurements. So traveling to Asia isn’t a requirement.

    • Anonymous :

      Sure. It matters to anyone who knows enough about fashion to realize there’s a difference between Express and Armani in quality of construction and fabric, but doesn’t want to invest time into figuring out which other brands she might like based on her budget.

      I’m not sure how wool trousers are impractical for you, but for me a beautiful pair of lines wool trousers only needs to be dry cleaned a handful of times a year if treated carefully, is warm and cozy, and beautiful. Nasty poly blend cheap pants from express have never done me any favors.

    • Works for me too, but not everyone. Based on complaints from a couple of friends, the cheap-but-decent items are slim pickings in plus sizes, for example.

    • I can only speak for myself, but it was frustrating as a college student to see clothes advertised “with stretch” as part of their appeal, when the real message is, “Our company realizes that stretch material is a chep way to get around proper tailoring.” Natural fibers are nice in many ways, as ewll.

  15. as a senior associate, I buy mostly from buckets 2 and 3 (but generally only on significant markdown – e.g., at least one markdown plus an additional 30-40% off). I have a few special pieces from bucket 4.

    I like to look nice, polished, and classic, and do appreciate quality, but also like to have some variety in my wardrobe and not feel guilty if I get bored by a dress after a few years. I’m also trying to actively avoid the golden handcuffs and to get ahead on retirement / future kid education savings with my disposable income, rather than getting used to the ability to waltz into NM and pick something up.

    • Senior associate, same approach. While I wouldn’t be averse to paying more for something of very high quality, it would need to be truly exceptional, versatile, flattering, etc. Also, almost all my favorite pieces are consignment – I’m glad to have this list to be on the lookout!

  16. Interesting, I am solidly in buckets 1-2, and some bucket 3 on sale.

    There are some things I would never consider buying above Bucket 1 though, like t-shirts, camisoles, and a lot of my casual clothing; other stuff I want to never go below bucket 3 again (I’m thinking of Brooks Brothers button ups, Equipment silk shirts, and Theory wool trousers). I would have to make at least double my current salary to consistently purchase from Bucket 3 or consider Bucket 4, when do people make this step (time/authority/salary-wise?)

  17. I am a firm bucket 2 for my work clothes (but aspire to bucket 3!!!!) but rely on bucket 2 for casual weekend clothes (Old Navy, yay!).

    Being plus-sized, it’s tricky to find affordable bucket 2 clothes, but Talbots’ sales are a godsend.

  18. Bucket 2/3: Hobbs London
    Bucket 3: Ted Baker
    Bucket 4: Number 35 London

  19. Anonymous :

    Even though I am 5 years out of law school and work at a big firm, I am solidly in Buckets 1 and 2. I buy work staples from The Limited, Jones NY and Talbots and trendier pieces/casual wear from Target, Old Navy and H&M. I used to buy Ann Taylor/BR but I have found that The Limited etc are better quality for the price. I’m not sure I would ever buy from Buckets 4/5 no matter how high my salary was because I just don’t think clothes are worth that much. No matter how well made something is it will eventually wear out/get stained. If I made double my current salary I’d probably start buying regularly from Bucket 3.

    • Totally with you. I feel like I’m splurging buying Ann Taylor or Limited staple work pants with a coupon, even 8 years out of college. Maybe my attitude will change if/when I get to the executive+ level, but I just can’t make myself want to spend that much on clothes, even if I can afford it.

  20. Somewhat amused to find Tory Burch in bucket 3. $300-$400 a dress is a lot to pay for clothes that are alpha-sizes ( SML as opposes to 246 ect.)

    • The entire concept of Tory Burch as a fashion brand confounds me. However I am sure that Tory, from the top of her Money Mountain, isn’t concerned about my opinion of her line’s style / pricing / quality, so joke’s on me!

      • Right? I’m sorry to everyone who has those flats, but my lord I hate them. I hated them before I knew how much they cost, and then I hated them more.

        • Anonymous :

          I feel like its a good way to weed out people who are obsessed with status. if you buy tory flats you care about labels and that’s it.

      • PrettyLawBelle :

        I have been wondering forever how a designer produces a brand-new product and charges such high prices for them?! I believe Tory Burch flats were $200-300 from jump, which is not a lot for an established designer’s shoe, but for a newbie… Idk.

        • I think being married to an extremely wealthy brandmaster with deep connections in the fashion and marketing world may have given her a bit of a head start (and a safety net in case the master plan to bilk prepsters out of their money failed).

          • PrettyLawBelle :

            This makes sense. I knew she was married to a wealthy man but didn’t realize he was in the fashion and marketing arena as well. Thanks!

      • Brunette Elle Woods :

        I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand Tory Burch. It’s like you are just paying for that symbol! I also have some cardigans from Target and some from Banana Republic and like the Target ones more!

        • He was the brains behinder a line from the 80″s, J. Christopher: preppy sportswear, dresses and sleepwear. He is also behind C. Wonder. Their daughters have a lone too, can’t remember the name.

    • I’ll just be a snob and admit that I find Tory Burch to be highly arriviste.

      • LeLe in DC :

        Second the negative Tory Burch comments and avoiding logos. Once upon a time I carried a Vuitton bag when few else did. Now I wouldn’t be caught dead with anything but the non-LV leathers. Second the Levenger comments – terrific briefcase/bag for working lawyers. Great quality. Go everywhere, holding everything.

  21. I moved up to bucket 3 about 2-3 years ago from over a decade in bucket 2. It was a lot of money but the quality made it so worth it. I no longer had to replace everything every year or so.

    But with weight fluctuations, I am firmly back it bucket 2. It just doesn’t make sense to invest in quality when I don’t know if it will still fit a year later.

  22. I honestly buy most of my suits from Kasper, which is not mentioned in any bucket. They can be found next to Calvin Klein suits at Macy’s/Dillard’s. They typically are in the $100-200 range, but are on sale with some frequency. They also have outlet stores, which is where I tend to buy them. You can find suits, dresses, separates, shells, shirts, etc. for a very good deal. They have a variety of styles and colors and have both Petites and Misses. I’ve been known to spend hundreds of dollars at one time, but left with 3-4 suits or separates as well as layering pieces that work with the rest of my closet. I also buy Jones separates, including jackets, pants, skirts, and dresses which can be found at Dress Barn. I’ve also bought shells/shirts from Worthington (JC Penneys) and Target.

    I’m a 5’6″, size 16-18 4th year associate in a small rural Midwest firm with little good shopping near me.

  23. A professional woman :

    I was solidly in Bucket 1 as a Jr. Associate, but I am now in Bucket 2. I no longer buy Coach (too many cheap-looking Coach bags out there), I only buy a little bit of LOFT now. For clothing, I mainly buy, Ann Taylor (most represented brand in my closet right now), Banana Republic, WHBM (particularly dresses), The Limited, and some items from Nordtsrom. For handbags, it’s mainly Rebecca Minkoff and Kate Spade.

  24. I love this topic! Though I love anything that involves organizing things into groups and making lists:)

    Club Monaco probably does fit best in Bucket 2, but it is an over-performer for that group I think, both in terms of stylishness / design and quality. Also, you will rarely get their stuff for the same 30%-40% off you can get from a lot of the other stores, so overall the price point is higher. I aspire to have a little more CM in my wardrobe.

    Also think that J. Crew and BCBG are above the median for Bucket 2, at least at their top end, though I will not defend J Crew’s quality.

  25. Bucket 2 Fancy :

    I’m only three years out of law school and still plugging away at loans but I’ve made some nice strides in salary and have recently been working on upgrading my older clothes (that are starting to get worn out) and I feel pretty good when I buy from stores in Bucket 2 (on sale)! I’d probably only move into the higher buckets to buy things like bags, shoes, or jewelry/watches down the road. I agree with some of the other readers that clothes for me aren’t worth that much money. My weight fluctuates too much and I get sick of my clothes too often to invest that much money. If you pay attention to what you’re buying, you can have a nice looking wardrobe from Bucket 2 (and even some things thrown in from Bucket 1).

    Also, I personally see LOFT and Zara as more Bucket 2 stores. Loft and The Limited are comparable stores to me.

    • gingersnap :

      I agree that LOFT is a Bucket 2 store!
      Fresh out of college, pretty much all my work clothes were from Bucket 0.5 stores ( Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, Catos, TJ Maxx). I worked in a lab, so it really didn’t matter what I wore (it was covered by a lab coat anyway).
      Starting grad school meant transitioning to research/teaching with human beings without the safety of a lab coat, so I moved on to Bucket 1 (Victoria’s Secret goes here too, I think).
      After a couple years, my Bucket 1 staples have started falling apart (my day-to-day uniform is a cardigan over a solid-colored t-shirt or button down, with slacks/jeans/pencil skirt as the occasion demands), so I’ve been upgrading to Bucket 2 mostly via sales, thrift stores, and Ebay. I’d put Eddie Bauer in as a Bucket 2 store- I’ve pretty much lived in their t-shirts the past couple of years, and they’ve far outlasted my Target/Victoria’s Secret t-shirts.

  26. Aspire to buckets 3-4, but until the loans are paid off firmly in buckets 1-2. I have completely stopped buying at BR, though, for quality reasons and have started leaning more on H&M because I find it more fashionable and definitely not worse in quality. My new strategy is to identify the best thing that each of the bucket 1-2 brands do and get those items on discount. So I’ve decided that Loft does pretty good dresses but terrible sweaters and OK skirts but not worth even $30-40 for me. So when I get a good dress on sale from Loft, I feel like it is money well spent.

  27. Bucket 3 for me – Jigsaw and Hobbs. Marc O’Polo, too, though only on sale. Cos is a good bucket 2 option, I find. Zero, S.Oliver and Esprit as 1.5 for more casual things and work basics. (Am in Europe.) David Lawrence and Sportscraft when I’m shopping back in Oz – also 3, I think.

    I’m short, busty and have a minor disability, so I will pay more for clothes that fit, make me feel good and allow others to take me seriously. Luckily, my nice stuff has generally lasted well.

    My shoes are nearly all Think!, Ecco and similar – that’s where the prices get painful. (€250 for boots makes me twitch even when I can afford it.)

    • I have never heard of Marc O’Polo but I already love it. Why aren’t there more Pun-y fashion labels?

      • Oops – I actually reported the post this replies to. Nothing wrong with it though!

        A friend introduced me to Marc O’Polo, and I thought the name must indicate fast fashion, but the clothes are really lovely. (And the name does make me smile.) All my blazers are either from there or Jigsaw, and I’m increasingly getting my shirts from there too. (Thomas Pink prices have gone through the roof for no reason I can discern.) Sportscraft shirts fit me best, but I only need so many medium-loud patterns.

  28. Little Red :

    I’m a solid Bucket 2/3 shopper. Those Brooks Bros No-Iron dress shirts are perfection. Clothing from Bucket 4/5 are unnecessary since I work in a business casual office.

  29. I would add Lela Rose in for dresses in – I guess – bucket 4. And Dries van Noten – occasionally – for dresses in bucket 5. And otherwise, um GAP UNIQLO in bucket 2 and J. Crew I’d put up a notch. e

  30. I’m definitely in Bucket 2. And I try to buy my bucket 2 things on sale. Boden at full price? Not for me. I’d have to live in a much lower COL area to get into Bucket 3, unless it’s a lucky find at a thrift or a TJ Maxx.

  31. I’ve been shopping in Bucket 3 since I found my personal shopper. As a well endowed woman, I’d like to recommend Lafayette 148, Boss Hugo Boss and Classiques Entier. I asked about Theory (since I’ve read about it here) and was told it wouldn’t be a good fit. It’s nice to see what else is in the tier.

    I will continue to buy the Gap pants on occasion, and for more fun shells/tanks I like to go with the Wearever line from J. Jill in a size down. On sale preferably.

  32. I’m a solid bucket 3-4, but my question is about bucket 5. Kat, is that really supposed to be “pricey workwear” or just “pricey”? Because a lot of those brands (The Row and McQueen really jump out at me) are not really known for making clothes for the a business casual or business formal environment…

    • Since my goal in life is to look exactly like Claire Underwood, I will say that she often wears Zac Posen and The Row on the show, and looks fresh to death professional

  33. Super post, Kat. Really interesting to see some brands in different buckets than I would have thought (i.e. the Limited). Good inspiration for new sources!

  34. I would love to have a survey on this–title, years of practice, bucket preferences

  35. Hello everyone! Long time lurker here. I was just wondering what everyone thought about the Petra bag from Everlane as a work bag.

    • Wildkitten :

      I saw this Everlane $40 twill tote in the wild this weekend, and it was stunning. So I think their actual leather bags are probably incredible.

  36. Jamaican Law Student :

    I’m 21 and just started law school, where we’re expected to dress professionally. During college, I mostly wore jeans and T-shirts, with the occasional ‘fancier’ blouse every now and again. I also had two MICHAEL Michael Kors handbags ($200-$400 range) that I would switch between (no ostentatious logos, ew). I now have to revamp my wardrobe for law school and found this post very helpful. Obviously I’m in Tier 1 at this point. I never considered Dorothy Perkins because it’s a UK store, but I just found some great options at great prices – a classic pair of black bootcut pants, a shift dress and a set of belts.

    Ann Taylor was having a sale recently and I got 50% off the Gallery Tote, so now I have a new school bag. It’s not real leather like my MK ones, but it seems like it will hold up.

    I do love H&M and Old Navy, but I find Loft to be just a tad bit expensive. I stopped shopping at Forever 21 quite some time ago, but in a pinch I can find professional clothing there. But of course the quality leaves much to be desired.

  37. The sure sign that you’re poor: “Oh cool, let’s check this out! Let’s see, Bucket 1. Oh. Yeah, only buy from there, there, and there on those 3-day weekends where the sale is 50% off+.”

    • Wildkitten :

      I read this yesterday and thought the OP was talking about other people, but now I realize she is talking about herself, and my reply was rude. I apologize.

    • LOL right? Public interest lawyer = forever in bucket 1. :)

  38. ‘Brands’ are a sensible way to look at fashion if your interest is design and a nice experience in their store, or their website, because the core concerns of a modern fashion business are design, marketing and distribution. Perhaps the brand’s design ethos chimes with you (say you like Jcrew’s ‘preppie with a twist’) or you are indeed its target customer (say Banana Republic for a young-ish urban professional or Oscar de la Renta for a lady who lunches) – good for you.

    But brands are not a sensible way to look at clothing if your interest is quality, since most brands outsource manufacturing, that critical link between design and distribution. Virtually all brands bid out the manufacturing of their product to factories in hubs like China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, using different factories for different items, or the same item in different years, or even different factories for the same season, depending on where the costs are lowest. This includes brands in Kat’s group 4 and 5. On top of this, many brands outsource purchasing of their fabric, selection of their manufacturers, and their inspection and quality control functions, to specialist companies like HK’s Li & Fung who work with literally hundreds of ‘brands’. It would be entirely unsurprising for a garment from Kat’s group 1 to be made in the same workshop as a one from group 2 or 3, before being shipped to the same warehouses, and eventually delivered to the same mall or department store.

    A far more helpful approach would be to teach yourself to assess a garment as a product ie. look at content and care labels, assess fabric and construction, and ignore what its vendor wants you to think about ‘what the brand stands for’.

    • NotLawFinance :

      Thank you for this post. So tired of the rape factor of many so-called “quality” brands. When I buy an acrylic sweater, it truly doesn’t matter whose logo is slapped onto it. I don’t expect it to survive more than a year with very gentle treatment and good air out time between wears. It does get more complicated with BR, JC, and BCBG type items where they SAY there is wool & nylon involved but you can see that the sweater is already starting to pill just from being folded onto itself at the store. You really have to look and trust your brain and experience. They keep screwing us with brand bait and quality switch and we opt to close our eyes. It is often quite maddening.

      • …the WHAT factor? I’m really hoping that was an autocorrect for something else, and that your garments aren’t committing heinous assaults on people.

  39. Anyone else think that the quality of clothing at stores has gone downhill in general? The only reason I have items from buckets 3 & 4 is from some aggressive thrifting. I am always on the lookout for merino wool, cashmere, silk, or silk/cotton blends. Oh to find lined dresses and clothes with no threads hanging off the seams… It’s a shame that’s the new normal at the mall.

    I can’t stand longchamp, I always see college girls with dirty worn out corners on those bags. I have a Tumi I used almost every day for 2 years with almost 0 wear whatsoever.

    Whatever peoples opinions regarding brands, take care of your belongings! Shoddy looking attire or accessories makes even expensive luxury items look cheap.

    My tip is to make sure any clothing that has any piling gets tossed or gets the razor treatment. It makes a HUGE difference and easy to do.

  40. I think The Limited belongs in Tier 1 with Loft and Express and also GAP could be added to Tier 1 as well.

  41. NotLawFinance :

    How do the rest of you feel about Tier 3 quality over Tier 2? I’m so often disappointed after I bring a more expensive item home and take a good look. Skipped stitches, hanging threads, poor fabrics, lining shaped differently from the actual garment. I have a pair of wonderfully fitting Trina Turk pants sitting in their original bag waiting to be returned because the fabric turned out to be half rayon (and half other synthetic), which, as we know, stretches out of shape and snags easily. The inner seams are poorly finished and are already shedding long shaggy threads onto the lining just from trying them on. I expect rayon pants from Express for $40 but not from Nordstrom’s for $150. No matter my paycheck, I hate feeling taken advantage of. Just me?

  42. Stephanie :

    I treated myself to a Kate Spade bag this weekend. I’m firmly in the “tired of those huge logos” camp and wanted something polished and high quality.

    I’d love to get more Banana Republic suits, but in petite sizes they only make two colors of suits – both of which I have. The quality at Ann Taylor has decreased, and I need to find somewhere else that makes a perfectly-sized-for-me size 8P curvy!

    My shells under suits, my cardigans, and accessories tend to come from Target and its ilk. I saw a lovely scarf the other day, but FFS who spends $80 on a piece of fabric??

  43. I am definitely a solid bucket 2/3 shopper.
    Preschool tuition does not bode well for my shopping budget :)
    I hit the consignment and thrift stores alot, I like the hunt for a great deal. I also shop a lot online and at outlet stores. For bucket 4, I find local boutiques or shop when I travel to Europe.
    I think I am all over the place for casual/after work/weekend wear to soccer games and ballet class. I feel guilty for buying Bucket 4 and 5 clothes though. This might be a factor of growing up poor. I don’t know. Maybe because I feel that I can get good, quality, last forever pieces in Bucket 2 or 3.

    I do have a Kate Spade Black Leather Briefcase that I bought 3 years ago for a good bit of money but it’s classic, easy to carry, fits everything for work and kids, and still looks good.

  44. Elizabeth :

    For non-logo bags, try Gigi – it’s made in the USA, is less in cost than Coach and is made of a wonderful, durable pebbled leather!
    I bought their Taylor tote last year (full size) and LOVE it. Numerous friends have purchased this bag and it’s big enough for legal files and lots of letter-size paper. I throw a wristlet in it daily (as a wallet) and use the Taylor tote every day as a purse, and don’t hesitate to take it with me to court – I’m an associate at a boutique firm in a large Southern city. I splurged and had Gigi stamp my initials in gold foil on the bag (it’s unobtrusive) and elegant…and it’s MY BRAND. :) They offer monogrammed initials on all of their bags.
    I second an earlier comment regarding quality…natural fibers and items that are well made stand the test of time.
    I have learned so much from this post and appreciate everyone’s time and thoughts!