A dress that I ordered before Christmas arrived from J.Crew yesterday, after being backordered for over three weeks. I have been looking for a nice, somewhat dressy wool dress in grey and black. I wanted one that was a multitasker, something that I could use for dinners and interviews. Unfortunately, I had to return the dress just after putting it on for 10 minutes. While the design was flawless and the cut was flattering, the material made me feel like I had been tossed in in a forest of bramble and poison ivy. It was so itchy I wondered how anyone who actually designed the dress could think it was worth $198 and expect people to buy it without breaking out into hives.
This particular episode with J.Crew and my overall experience with plenty of "trusted" brands over the past few years have left me a quite bitter. A lot of brands that I once deemed to be of high quality and trustworthy has consistently shocked me with items that seem to be produced on parallel with Forever 21. While I may be more neurotic and picky about my clothing than the average person, I don't think it's just an overblown, sequestered conclusion on my part that the quality of a lot of clothing has deteriorated over the last 20 years. I used to buy basic t-shirts from Banana Republic because they were made of dense woven cotton but over the last few years, I haven't found a single piece that didn't shrink in the wash or wasn't see-through.
Most retailers, from the lowest end of the spectrum to the highest end are guilty of producing clothes that are shockingly bad. It's an unfortunate combination of companies looking for a quick (and oversized) profit and the onset of the fast fashion business model that has given rise to clothing that just aren't cut out to withstand more than 6 months of wear. At the lower end of the spectrum (think trendy labels), cutting costs to push clothing prices down is the key objective. It's virtually impossible to expect a cotton t-shirt today that you buy at Target for $6.99 to last as long as something that you bought for $6.99 twenty years ago. A quick punch of numbers into an inflation calculator will tell you that if you paid $6.99 in 1985, that very same item today should cost you $13.98. And yet, as consumers, we expect clothes to remain as cheap as possible and suppliers and retailers keep feeding into this crazed perception that it's possible to produce clothing at such a low price point. Well, it is possible I guess, except that something has got to give - be it at the expense of the environment, sweatshop labor, horrendous fabric and material or a combination of all the above.
The mid-range and higher-end labels are no less guilty of this trend. The problem with maximizing profits and moving manufacturing to labor camps is that it dilutes craftmanship. While machines have allowed garments to be manufactured on massive scales, low-paid workers are similarly tasked with mundane and repetitive tasks that require little to no skill. Materials are also now obtained from globally diverse sources and quality control varies within each country of manufacture. Lucy Siegle's excellent and well-researched book expands more on the dynamics of why quality of clothing has declined rapidly and I strongly recommend picking the book up even if you're not concerned about the environmental or ethical aspect of bad quality clothing. There's also a rather interesting individual economic angle to it all. Nothing annoys and riles me up more than having spent quite a few dollars only to find that the purported "luxury" item I bought won't last for more than a year (Proenza Schouler SHAME on you!).
I received a hand-me down Pringle of Scotland cardigan about 15 years ago from a well-travelled aunt. She bought it way back in the 1970s when cashmere sweaters were still Scottish-made. The sweater lasted me quite a few years before it developed an unsalvageable hole. So when I visited the UK for the first time in 1998, I was determined to find an identical sweater. I couldn't afford anything from Pringle of Scotland at that point, and instead, settled for a William Lockie lambswool sweater (£65) that I found at a family-owned Scottish purveyor in Oxford which has lasted till this day. Whenever I think about picking up a new sweater now, I hold the its quality against those two very sentimental pieces and I can safely attest that nothing below the $300 mark has ever measured up.
In 1999, The New Yorker ran an excellent article on the decline of cashmere. I think it holds true then as it does now, but on an even larger scale, traversing all materials and all garment trades. The writer wrote, "... the democratization of the [cashmere] industry means only what the democratization of any controlled system always means - that the responsibility for making choices falls to the people, which is to say the consumers."