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Is There Such a Thing as an 'Investment' Piece?

When you spend your hard-earned money on splashy fashion goods, is it ever possible to recoup your losses? Some tips and tricks.

The fashion industry loves to talk about "investment pieces" -- the perfect Burberry trench coach, a Chanel bag, Manolo Blahnik pumps -- in other words, pricey items that can cost more than a month's rent and need to be called "investments" to justify them. 

But isn't it a misnomer? Unlike actual investments, like real estate or index funds, it's very unlikely you'll recoup your "investment" on a pair of stilettos -- let alone make money on them. Still, it must possible to make money buying some kinds of goods or there wouldn't be so many people lining up for high street collaborations to resell on eBay or jumping on waitlists for furry charms.

We reached out to some of the biggest resale websites on the web -- Tradesy, Bib + Tuck and The RealReal -- to get their feedback on what clothes and accessories are worth buying if you're thinking about selling them down the road. While some of what they said was surprising -- more than one source says Etro is a tough sell on the secondhand market -- others make a lot of sense.

We gathered up some of their tricks for recouping your money and tips for what you can buy now that might be worth more later on. 

It's all about the usual suspects -- mostly.

Investing in well-established, high-end brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermès is always a home run. 

"For items specifically, it's a lot of the pieces that are most iconic to that brand," Levesque says. "The Balenciaga leather moto jacket, the Chanel Boy bag or the flap bag, the Celine Trapeze bag, the Louis Vuitton Neverful bag -- those are the styles with the most resale value that we're seeing."

The Real Real just released an iPhone app, RealBook, which gives customers data on how much individual designer items are worth on the resale market. "Our consigner relations department was receiving calls regularly. [Callers] are deciding between the Louis Vuitton Speedy and the Epi leather bag and they want to know which has the better resale value," The RealReal Chief Merchant Rati Levesque says.

If you want to actually make money, go for the special pieces.

You could always go with the classics, but anything waitlisted or limited edition is your best bet -- think the Fendi Karlito charm. "The stuff that's in the middle doesn't have that much resale value," Tradesy CEO Tracy DiNunzio says. She uses the example of Chanel: Either go after the 2.55 or a seasonal item like the graffiti backpack, and skip the totes, which she says have bad return on investment.

Currently, items like the Chanel Lego bag and the Dior Tribal earrings, which are incredibly hard to come by in stores, are selling at or above retail value. Birkins can occasionally sell for higher than retail for the same reason.

One category DiNunzio reports growing: Luxury watches, specifically Rolex or Cartier. "They buy a really good investment watch for $1,500 this year and sell it for $3,000 in two years," she explains. 

Which brings us to the most important point...

Sell as soon as possible.

The trick here is not to wait. Every expert we spoke said to sell the piece as soon as you're done with it. "The sooner you consign it or the sooner you're done with it, the more money you'll get for it," Levesque says. If you can do it within season, especially with those limited pieces, you'll recoup more money.

"I think the way that the fashion industry is set up, it's all about what's new," Bib + Tuck founder Sari Azout says. "If you bought this leather jacket last year, and you want a leather jacket this year, there's a new leather jacket from that same brand which is probably going to be more expensive than the one last year." 

The alternative is to sit on something until it becomes vintage, which takes at least 10 years. "I think it's important to note that vintage pieces do actually invest over time," Bib + Tuck founder Sari Bibliowicz says. "And I think that's because there's more of a story to the pieces, it becomes one of a kind and thus harder to find."

The best return on investment comes from accessories.

Clothing typically has to be deeply discounted to sell. Tradesy estimates it can be as much as 75 percent off retail, even with tags attached. "In fact, we just revamped our pricing recommendations across an entire clothing category," DiNunzio explains. "It was the only category where we were really seeing buyer and seller recommendations not matching up."

Accessories sell the best across all platforms. "That's just by virtue of the fact that they withstand less wear in the fact that they haven't really been worn," Azout explains. 

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"I guess, for us, because we're only doing this online, accessories are size agnostic, so I don't know if that's biased" she adds. "Most secondary platforms don't take returns, so you're really taking a bet on whether something will fit you where with accessories, that's not the case."

Shoes, however, are different.

The nature of the wear and tear we put on shoes means that they're not likely to recoup as much unless you've been incredibly careful or barely worn them. "Shoes have a lesser resale value over the category, I think for the obvious reason that they're worn on your feet, and we tend as women to wear them the most," Levesque says.

Your best bet is pretty much exactly who you'd suspect. "The red sole is always a winner for resale value," DiNunzio says. "As long as we've been operating, which is almost two years now, Louboutins consistently command the highest return on investment in the shoe category."

Keep everything.

The more of the original packaging you have when you resell, the more it sells for. "It's impressive how much, for instance, keeping your dustbag for shoes [increases value]," Azout says. "People want to make sure everything is there so if someone makes a purchase it feels like they're buying new."

Care is key.

"I think it's a lot about your organization and storage skills," Bibliowicz says. "You just have to be careful, because things that are just thrown in a closet for a couple of years tend to get stale."

For shoes, this means making sure they don't get scuffed, stuffing the toes with tissue paper and protecting the soles (especially for Louboutins). Handbags can have slight wear and tear on the bottom; if you want to use it, DiNunzio says it's worth taking them for "yearly checkups," especially if it's leather.

This is especially true for clothing, which can be more delicate. It's important the items look as close to new as possible. "You fold everything [knit], you put your dresses on the hanger, and if it's silk you put a piece of plastic or garment bag over it so it doesn't snag when it's in your closet," Levesque advises.

The jury is out on high-low collaborations.

Is it worth dragging yourself out of bed to make sure you nail down some of those pieces?

"I hate to say yes, because personally I'm not into waking up at 5 a.m. to wait in line to buy a dress," DiNunzio says with a laugh. "But honestly the people who do it, they do make a profit from it. I think when demand outstrips supplies, that's really good, and in most situations it has."

Some collections, like the Missoni for Target or 3.1 Phillip Lim for Target lines, are still selling at a slight profit margin on Tradesy. It helps if the pieces are highly recognizable; the sunglasses from the Peter Pilotto for Target collaboration, for example, sold for over $100 on Bib +Tuck. 

It is possible to make money back on your high street stuff.

DiNunzio says she's surprised by how well lines like Zara and Free People sell. Thanks to a high and rapid turnover rate, you can recoup as much as 70 percent back on your purchases from those brands. "It's a combination of a very trusted brand with a very broad catalog, not all of which you can find locally, and that tends to drive up retail value on those brands," she says.

The key, Azout shares, is to sell that same season. If the item is still in stores -- or sold out -- you can get back a large chunk on an unworn or lightly used garment.

But, Azout cautions, that's not universally the case. "We really quickly found that while people were listing thousands of Forever 21 pieces, the return rate was less than one percent," she notes.

The bottom line.

Unless you're willing to sit on a really special piece and never use it until it becomes vintage, it's not terribly likely you'll make money. Sticking to the essentials does ensure it being more likely you at least recoup more of your money -- but then, why not just keep the piece?

Photo: Caroline McCredie/Getty Images