Shopping on a Budget: An Updated Men’s Style Starter Kit, Part 2

This week on Siblings with Style, we’ll tackle Part 2 in the somewhat extensive process of building a starter wardrobe on a tight budget. Last year’s post tackled how to revamp a wardrobe for under $250, while Part 1 of the new series last week took a look at the basics you need on your legs — affordable, stylish jeans, chinos and shoes. But, style isn’t just one portion of the ensemble — looking your best is about tying in many separate parts across different seasons, different trends and different situations. Consider these picks as a starting point (or a restocking point) for both casual knits and shirts, as well as sweaters. In the next post, we’ll tackle dressier essentials on a budget. For now, let’s keep it casual — look below for (almost) everything you need up top.

Casual Knits/Shirts: Old Navy

In a wide spectrum of colors and styles, Old Navy's your go-to for casual shirting.

In a wide spectrum of colors and styles, Old Navy’s your go-to for casual shirting.

The world of casual T-shirts and other items can actually get pretty extensive, between the different  variations on laidback stylings (V-neck? Crewneck? Pocket tee? Henley?). And it’s no use spending hundreds of dollars on a simple T-shirt. But, no need to skimp on style, either. One location is a tremendous starting point for all of these various essentials — that’s right, Old Navy. As covered on this blog in a Starter Style Review earlier this year, the store is a veritable outpost of affordable knits in all of the variations listed above. Need some basic v-necks that you can wear on their own or underneath other items?  Want a slim henley in a fall-appropriate color? Fancy a casual polo for the warmer months? Old Navy’s the spot. And with several variations on colors for polos, shirts and henleys alike, the store could (and should) become a one-stop shop for various layering needs. The best part is undoubtedly the price — it seems many of these styles retail for, at the most, roughly $20. Assuming you pick up three to start (say, a long-sleeve henley for cold weather-layering, a V-neck T-shirt and a crewneck T-shirt for casual wear), those purchases wouldn’t set you back more than $45 when bought on sale.

TOTAL: $45 (For three shirts)

Casual Buttondown Shirts: Uniqlo

For about $50, you can get the above two shirts right now. Not a bad deal at all.

For about $50, you can get the above two shirts right now. Not a bad deal at all.

There’s a plethora of options out there when it comes to shirting — in this particular roundup, we’re looking at shirts that aren’t designed to be worn with a suit (while that’s broad, think Oxford cloth button-downs and other styles). Many brands are now making terrific-looking casual shirts, but in this case, one brand offers a great mix of pricing and slim, modern styles — Uniqlo. They offer a wide selection of slim-fit Oxford shirts (as seen above) in a wide variety of colors, and frequently run deals on 2 shirts, for example. In fact, 2 Oxford shirts will set you back roughly $50 — a pretty neat discount when you consider the wearability of a classic white OCBD. If you had to start with two picks, you could absolutely find them at the mainstay Japanese brand. A pretty thorough selection of denim and flannel shirts in a diverse color spectrum rounds out their casual shirting selection quite nicely. The one area they appear to be lacking in would be colorful, playful patterns — in that case, searching J. Crew Factory can offer some deviation from the typical solids or checks offered by Uniqlo, at about the same price point.

TOTAL: $50 (For two shirts)

Sweaters: Uniqlo

From extra fine merino to lambswool and cashmere, Uniqlo delivers.

From extra fine merino to lambswool and cashmere, Uniqlo delivers.

Moving up to sweaters (another versatile outer layer as it gets chilly), sticking with Uniqlo is actually a wise choice here. While sweaters from comparable budget brands like J. Crew Factory definitely stack up favorably when it comes to quality, saving money wherever possible is definitely recommended when going through a wardrobe revamp. Although, if you can afford to shell out a few extra bucks per sweater, go for it. Just like their selection of casual shirts, Uniqlo offers excellent variety when it comes to sweaters. From extra fine merino crewnecks in bright shades to striped cardigans that mix things up just enough, the selection is on-point. Plus, a sweater can act as a neutral base to richer color combinations, particularly in fall and winter. More importantly, Uniqlo’s offerings even include cashmere (likely not the best, but worth a mention) and thicker lambswool knits. The cashmere sweaters do creep up towards the triple-digit mark in terms of price, but the extra fine merino wool seems to strike a nice balance in terms of fabric and price. As to those with quality concerns, while it’s clearly not the highest-quality sweater on the market, personal purchases from Uniqlo have held up more than fine with regular wear and proper care. Pick up two extra fine merino sweaters in versatile colors to start, and you’ll be well on your way for about $80.

TOTAL: About $80

So, for today’s entry, the total is roughly $175 — again, substantially larger when compared proportionally to the casual shirts portion of last year’s budget recap, but when considering that this round-up accounts for multiple styles from multiple sites, it’s really not that bad of a deal. Additionally, items from these categories can be mixed and matched — wear a V-neck T-shirt under a cardigan, or a casual buttondown shirt with a V-neck sweater. On the bottom, reach for any of the essentials in last week’s post, and you have a sharp and stellar combination.

Any recommendations for brands you would include? Favorite stops for casual shirts and sweaters? 

Starter Style Review: Express

Editor’s note: Building great style on a budget can be difficult and expensive. This is the fourth part in an occasional series chronicling great locations to start a wardrobe and buy affordable, good-looking style staples. Catch the first, second and third parts in the series here . Look for more in the coming weeks!

There are a couple things pretty apparent upon first entering Express. First: It’s bright. Everything from the clothes themselves to that lighting to the bright red 40% sale signs. And it’s kind of loud. The music is often a mix of strange techno-electronic beats, which makes for one interesting shopping experience.

And there it is. That notorious lion logo.

There it is. That notorious lion logo.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s that lion logo. That thing is everywhere — on T-shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, polos, jackets, graphic tees —you name it, that logo’s on it. Since many are now heading in the anti-logo direction, that’s a definite hit against the clothing. Granted, it could be layered over if it’s on a T-shirt, but not so with a sweater. There’s a few stacks of shirts and sweaters without that logo, but a good chunk of the clothing is emblazoned with that large lion. Even items that would be perfectly good on their own seem to have it.

So that’s upon entering the store. When digging around, there are actually some alright finds. The Photographer chino (as pictured below) fits about like a Dockers Alpha Khaki (although it’s more expensive). But in a light khaki shade, a grey and even a darker amber color, it’s a good buy. Generally, anything without a logo is actually quite solid in terms of fit and quality. Outerwear looks to be a good buy from here, as the pieces are often cut slim and in neutral colors.

Actually a decent buy at the right price.

A decent buy at the right price.

The store’s suit separates actually aren’t half-bad either — the trick would be to catch them on a sale. And since suit separates are becoming more ubiquitous this year, it’s a good idea to get into that market at a lower price. The color selection is surprisingly nice, with a few patterns thrown in there, too. The quality and construction isn’t up there with anything from a nicer department store, but in some solid shades (like navy or charcoal), a blazer or pants could be a good buy when on sale. The dressier department is also where the pitfalls keep popping up, unfortunately.

A light shade of khaki that wouldn't look out of place in the summer.

A light shade of khaki that wouldn’t look out of place in the summer.

Certainly most of us remember (and probably wore) the middle school or high school dance-esque bright solid shirt and bold patterned tie combo. It’s not inherently bad, but if it’s ill-fitting (likely the case), it’s a recipe for disaster. In the dress shirt area, that’s what Express seems to specialize in. Granted, the fit of the Express 1MX shirt is a personal favorite, but only makes a ton of fashion sense with a white or light blue shade – not highlighter yellow, bright purple or dark maroon.

Lots of silk ties, not a lot of winter-weight texture.

Lots of silk ties, not a lot of winter-weight texture.

The ties themselves actually have some half-decent patterns to them, but again, harken back to the solid shirt-patterned tie combo. And the lack of winter-weight fabrics or knit ties (at least on the shelves in this store) is somewhat disconcerting.

Other dress shirts are hit or miss, as well. A green checked shirt hanging on one of the racks wouldn’t look out of place under a khaki summer suit with a grey knit tie, but then there are anomalies like an odd shirt fading from one color into another (see below). There was also what looked to be a newer ‘soft wash’ shirt (the phrase on the tag), which felt much more forgiving to the touch than a starchy, bright dress shirt.

This shirt seems to be a miss.

This shirt seems to be a miss.

Neutral basics like crew neck and v-neck tees, along with briefs and boxers, are available in typically bright shades but also dark solid colors — while a bit overpriced, these are likely a decent purchase. Patterned socks from Express are actually a personal favorite, but like much of the rest of the store, wait until a sale to snag two or three pairs at once.

Jeans are another area where Express seems to have some misses. Although they introduced the ‘super skinny’ Alec jean last year, the store still offers (and tries to push, no less) bootcut jeans (for more than $60 on-sale, more than $100 full price). Dark blue denim, free of distressing, is in short supply here, unfortunately.

Accessories from Express (like a belt or a watch) could work on a budget — a reversible leather belt takes care of 2 things at once, for example — but there are certainly better (and less pricier) places to go than Express for, say, a good watch.

The ultimate takeaway from the store would be this: stay away (if it’s your preference) from those large, garish lion logos. Look for solid basics including outerwear and slim suit separates, but steer clear of those neon dress shirts and patterned ties. Keep an eye out for solid buys like crew neck or v-neck tees or a collared shirt with a colorful, understated pattern. Buy on-sale and in pairs with most items like briefs or socks. And maybe pick up some chinos if needed. Again (and this is important) watch out for those lions. Happy shopping!