Isaac, Karl and quality

Mizrahi coat from the show
Isaac Mizrahi was quoted in Rebecca Mead's recent New Yorker article about his retrospective, "Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly Life", which recently opened at NYC's The Jewish Museum:

"'They don't print fabrics like this anymore'", he said, looking at swatches of fabric he used early in his career".

"'... now everything is Xeroxed onto fabric. But I don't want this (the show) to be about the decline of quality—the steep decline of quality.'"

A fewer days later I was in The Bay, the Canadian department store owned by Lord & Taylor, and saw his new casual-wear line, IM NYC. (It's relegated to the lower-priced area of the women's department.)

I beetled right over, but soon wanted to turn Mr. M. over my knee. The quality was horrid: flimsy blouses cut in one flat piece, without set-in sleeves. The example below is poly-viscose, dry clean only: say no more.

IM NYC blouse

Across the corridor, I saw Karl Lagerfeld's name applied to an entry-level collection, and (I believe Karl left this world at least a decade ago, leaving a wax facsimile for appearances) he must be rolling in his grave. Huge, lumpy exposed zippers formed the back closing on tops; I tried to photograph those but was asked to stow my iPad. If I owned a department store, I'd ban such photos too!  

This cotton/nylon acrylic fringed sweater will look like it was fed through a leaf-blower after one season:

Karl Lagarfeld fringed cardi
Once, my issue was affording the quality I could find easily in American brands— Perry Ellis, Anne Klein, Evan Picone—and Donna Karan or Calvin Klein if I hit a sale.

The challenge in a department store today is finding quality, period, at "bridge" level. It can show up at Pink Tartan, MaxMara Weekend, and less consistently Vince, Tahari, Vince Camuto, Diane von Furstenberg, but they are inconsistent. Ralph Lauren's bridge line has slipped, using too many cardboardy fabrics, and the once covetable Anne Klein is probably beyond reviving.

Pink Tartan shirt

Pink Tartan's grosgrain trim fly-front shirt is nearly $225 (in US dollars, Canadian readers can easily do the dismal math), three times the price of the Mizrahi poly, and they too specify dry cleaning the white cotton-elastane blend. OK, I know how to ignore that, but why won't they direct you to wash in warm water, hold the bleach, and hang to dry?

I don't expect miracles at the lower end, but when a dress bumps $700, why is the hem overstitched in plastic thread?

A parallel reality is that my senior status has not come with an automatic price adjustment. Things seem weirdly expensive. Sometimes I bite the budget bullet and think, That's what it costs to have the fabric and construction I want.

But more often, when I notice, for instance, a tulip-print spring Stella McCartney scarf, at $420 (at Nordstrom) for modal, I wonder, What is this? The fabric (a second-generation rayon) is made from reconstituted cellulose, cheap and abundant.

Stella McCartney modal scarf

Despite Mizrahi's hopes, his show will spotlight the decline of quality, because it's his own damn fault. In the last decade he's produced shoddy goods under the IM NYC and Isaac Mizrahi Live! (on QVC) labels—and you may recall the failed Jones New York partnership, with clothes that looked so witty in the ads, so limp on the racks. If you don't want to pay for quality, you'll find better choices at Zara.

I plan to visit this show next weekend, and would like to ask him, What would it cost now for a bridge line made with your bygone-days' fabric and construction?

Plenty of quality-loving but price-conscious women are still knocking about, wise as ever, women who know tailoring and fabric and a good button from a sad hunk of plastic, and we're wondering what to do, after we've visited the museum to look at his once-great clothes.


OH, I feel your pain... I still remember a sweater that I bought at Eddie Bauer (!!!) back in the late '80s. It was purple, nominally, but in reality it was 20 shades of purple and lavender and violet and mauve, all subtly woven together into a yarn that had luster and depth. And it was NOT an expensive garment, by anybody's definition.

The only reasonable response, for those of us who can do it, is to refuse to buy these cheap things, and hold out for the very best that is available. Only when we vote with our dollars (Canadian or US) will there be any incentive for designers to do things well and properly!

Unknown said…
You have just articulated one of my constant frustrations. Much of the clothing in department stores insults the intelligence. The fabric and the construction are shoddy. It seems to me that this situation was accelerated by the economic downturn in 2008. Brands like Dana Buchman, that were my staples for work, have completely disappeared.
I can't count how many times I have either ordered online or gone into a mall, and have ended up with nothing.
I suspect this is part of what is behind Nordstrom's recent downturn also.
Cherry said…
Absolutely agree. I am finding far better quality at Uniqlo than some of these so-called designer names. And whatever happened to bust shaping?
Cathy said…
Amen! I'm a long time shopper at Talbots in the US but the merchandise has become so shoddy in construction, I now find very few items I like that are acceptable. This is probably an attempt to hold down prices but I'd pay twice as much if the quality warranted. Another thing is the spread of sizes S-M-L in place of the usual range of number sizes, even in items that are not stretchy knits, so becomes rare to get a good fit without extensive alterations.
Chanterelle said…
Another reason why I've found shopping so depressing lately--I hadn't really thought about it much, blaming myself for fit issues and my resistance to the price points.

Perhaps vintage is the way to go. Not sure I'm up for home sewing anymore.
Unknown said…
Janice: That sweater sounds terrific! They made very good sportswear, I have no idea about it today.

Unknown: 2008 was a bloodbath for department stores; as I recall Saks had a 70% off sale, of even the current season. A number of smaller designers went under then. And in the intervening 7-8 years the department stores seem unwilling to give space to such talent.

Cherry: Beats me, I guess we are supposed to wear boxes or envelopes.

Cathy: I still buy Talbot`s jeans, because they are cut for women and with a sale-which they hold often- are well-priced. But I find the clothing colours have grown shreiky, and the further they stray from preppy bqsics the more they struggle to present a stylish, coherent design. (Someone referred to it as Forever 47). Company is not doing well, many closures of stores.

Chanterelle: I love to look at vintage but it is iffy for women over 50. It can (unless in the hands of an assured aesthete) look like we never updated our wardrobes. But I love those bound buttonholes, tailored blouses and gorgeous tweeds. Secondhand current clothing of high quality is quite hard to find where I live because women wear theirs into the ground more than those in in my former city did.

barbaraq said…
Amen sisters to all of the above! As a woman who sews almost all of her own clothes for the reasons beautifully described by this blogger, I am appalled by most retail clothiers' output these days. But it is getting harder and harder to find even good quality fabric, too. Probably because I am looking at the same shoddy goods that the above-described garments are made from.
It is really frustrating shopping th department stores these days....and I am now living on a fixed income (pension) and so $$$$ price tags are not possible. I opt to shop thrift and consignment for better quality garments. I have not sewn anything for eons but perhaps I need to take a sewing course!
If anyone has a line of clothing that they can suggest I am all ears!
Northmoon said…
One of the reasons I shop consignment these days (not vintage) is at least I'm not paying outrageous prices for poor quality items. Granted the range of choice is more limited and you have to check carefully for holes or stains, but usually I can find good quality well made clothing for reasonable cost. I don't know what will happen in the future though. If the designers are only making crappy clothes eventually that will be all that the consignment stores carry.
John said…
Quality is horrible in the stores. Worse in the plus-size stores, which seem to have presaged the drop in quality. So much black. So much stretch. So little design. So little workmanship.

I've decided to make my own except for the very strict basics of underwear, t-shirts and jeans. At least I'll get the colours I want with a certain amount of quality. I'm not that interested in designers' vision of what I should wear if it's going to look like what you showed in your article.--Louise
Susan B said…
"Dish-raggy" fabrics are a pet peeve of mine, and yes they have infiltrated the bridge lines as well. For those looking for some reasonably-priced basic pieces in quality fabrics, I've had good luck with Everlane, though they don't offer a lot of tailoring in their styles.
Kristien62 said…
It's discouraging because where we live there is limited shopping nearby. Macy's is the local department store and the quality of many things is deplorable. I am curious about some of the lines being advertised in blogs, such as Covered Perfectly. I seem to rely on Nordstrom for almost everything. And it's hit or miss, although I do find Nordstrom easy to deal with.
Fiona said…
How true! Another reason why I have resisted throwing everything out to aspire to a ten-item wardrobe. The idea seems a good one on the face of it, but when you have acquired quality items over the years that there is no hope of ever replacing at an affordable price point, I don’t care if I am only wearing those leather trousers once in a blue moon … I’m keeping them!
Oh, how true!!! Real tailoring with fabrics that have a bit of body is the only way to go for my imperfect "hourglass" curvy petite body.....and it's almost impossible to find, even at very high price points!
Unknown said…
I thrift and have noticed an appalling trend, many designers are shifting to manufacture their lines in China. I compared a pair of shoes made in Italy with a later version by the same designer made in China and the difference was so apparent. Even brands I have loved that were largely made in the USA have begun to do the same. And their quality has suffered. We vote with our dollars and I refuse to settle. My wardrobe may get quite small before I buy anything of quality. A company that doesn't settle could make a mint.
Duchesse said…
barbaraq: Thanks for that reality check; non-sewers imagine sewers can choose the fabrics they cannot find in ready-made.

hostess: I don't see anyone stepping up, perhaps "quality" and "department store" are mutually exclusive. Pseu likes Everlane, sold by mail. For excellent quality (mostly knots) in wool and cotton, I like ça va de soi, who ship throughout Canada. Quite pricey but lasts. But yes, maybe sewing, and you could also make things for your adorable grandchildren!

Louise: What I showed from IM is not from the "designer" floor, there you will find better-looking clothes, with very significant price tags (but often skirts too short for grown women!) But Pink Tartan is from the designer section and their fabric is much better, though the skirts are too short for me and for many grown women. You have to look and look, and honestly I am not that interested in putting in the work.

Psue: I like Everlane's clothes but wish they ventured a bit more out of navy, grey and putty. They remind me of what the Gap used to be before their own quality slipped to the bottom. (I bought the most beautiful Irish linen shirt there, once.)

Kristien: Why not order and see? Nordstrom does give exceptional service but if the clothes are not there, we need to cast a wider net.

Fiona: Oh, Fiona! I too have a pair at the back, agnès b., must be 25 years old, navy stovepipes. Cannot give up.

Jeannette: Do you know the site Halsbrook? They offer good clothes, some of which are tailored. But yes, that is a daunting search. Perhaps Georges Rech, Aquascutum, Marni if you wear more avant-garde designs? Vivienne Westwood can stil turn in deft tailoring but the clothes are cut narrow.

Kathy Niederkorn: Agree! And don;t get me started on what happened to hems, real hems that you could alter. Yet, Mizrahi's high end boutique in NYC went under, as the world flocks to TJ Maxx.

It is true that it is becoming more and more difficult to find good quality fabrics. Our best fabric shop, Marshalls, closed several years ago, and I fear that Madeleine soie et laine may no longer be open. I did see some authentic William Morris prints that were very well printed at Effiloché, but their fabric choice is limited and mostly cottons - they are above all a yarn and knitting supplies shop (I was in there buying some Dylon dye). And even some of the inferior fabric shops sell less and less fabric and more "craft kits" - craft in a most negative, faux and tacky sense; I don't mean knitting, weaving or carpentry.
Beth said…
Agreed, ten times over. When we moved here, more than ten years ago, I could often find knits I liked at locally-made Jacob and a few other Canadian brands - no longer the case. The move to offshore manufacturing in order to compete with H&M, Forever 21, etc, not only resulted in a big decline in quality and fabric, but actually put many Canadian clothing manufacturers under. As someone who sews, the quality falloff is especially obvious to me. I want nice style AND good construction and natural fabric, and I don't want to pay ridiculous prices - in the U.S., Land's End and L.L. Bean made their reputations on this, but the cuts are boxy, colors garish or boring, and I don't want to look like everyone else in New England. In Montreal, I sometimes find things I can afford and bear to wear next to my skin at H&M, and definitely at Zara, and I do check a few thrift stores, but I'm being driven back to sewing. As Lagatta points out, though, it's harder and harder to find beautiful fabrics and wen you do, they're pricey. Some stores on St. Hubert have nice woolens, but cotton is more difficult; I patronize Effiloche but it's small. I use Etsy and mail order more and more for my fabric purchases.
Sisty said…
The garment industry has taken a dive in every conceivable way. A friend of mine made a great documentary about the garment industry in New York called "Schmatta," which ran on HBO a while back. But be prepared to get depressed watching it. Ditto to reading "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion." I'm old enough to remember the quality fabrics used by American manufacturers in the sixties and seventies, but that's all a thing of the past, as "Schmatta" points out: "n 1965, 95% of American clothing was made in the U.S.A.; as of 2009, only 5% is manufactured here."

I agree with Janice: refuse to buy cheap! And, I'd add another caveat: inspect not-so-cheap clothing very carefully, and know what you're looking for -- finished, smooth seams, good (natural) fabric, minimal trimming, etc.
Unknown said…
Hah. I hear you. I;m disappointed to snoop shop except at the most exclusive and cost prohibitive level. That is why I sew.
Mardel said…
I agree that quality and workmanship has gotten terrible. I would pay more for better quality. As you point out, quality can be inconsistent in bridge lines, and sometimes even in designer offerings. I haven't tried Everlane yet, but have considered it. Even LL Bean's quality isn't what it used to be. I suppose manufacturers are trying to keep the ubiquity of cheap clothes affects our expectation of what clothes should cost even as we decry the very cheapness of the product. But it is possible it is also difficult for manufacturers to find decent fabrics at a reasonable price, as not only has manufacturing moved to China, so have many of the mills that make the fabric itself, with the same quality issues.

I am probably moving back to making my own clothes, and am grateful that I have a stash of some quality fabrics because finding good fabric is becoming difficult. It is probably impossible for the average seamstress in the average city to source good quality materials locally.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Madeleine retired and closed her shop at least four years ago.

Beth: Oh, you don't like electric lemon or seafoam pastel? I only buy neutrals for my occasional purchases from LE or Bean, it's hard to wreck denim blue. The Internet is a good way to source interesting or fine fabrics; if I still sewed I'd do that too but would miss the pleasure of being able to see and feel the bolt while standing in the store.

Sisty: Thank for these sources; another very good doc is "The True Cost", available on Netflix.

Kathleen: Sewers have an edge but sometimes one needs jeans or a down puffer jacket. When I tour the high end I sometimes judge things are overpriced, so my current approach is to buy from small, local designers- but they too tell me of problems sourcing their fabrics.

Mardel: Read this!
That "Made in Italy" label increasingly means by Chinese-owned companies, with Chinese labour and sometimes fabric smuggled in from China.
Annie M said…
Unfortunately, and depressingly, its the same here in the UK. Everything seems to be "designer" but fabric quality, cut and finishing is awful and at a price point which is just not justified. Years ago you could get good quality, nicely cut basics from good old Marks & Spencer but they have now joined the general trend of substandard, trying to appeal to the youngsters with ever changing "collections" - the youngsters wouldn't be seen dead shopping there however! So where should we go now to get the quality we want? Lots of people suggesting making your own which is a great idea if you have the skills - there's a wonderful fabric shop in New York - Mood Fabrics - huge range, excellent prices, fantastic quality and they do mail order if you want to risk it. My needlework skills don't quite have the finesse I'm after though, sadly.
Duchesse said…
Anna Mapp: Thank you for your note about Mood Fabrics, which will be of interest to the sewers on the site. I sewed avidly for over a decade, but then my need for tailoring outweighed my skills (and no longer wanted to run up a little miniskirt to wear that evening. Result: a series of costly wadders.

Besides the fine manual skills, the sewer needs what I call "the geometry mind", the ability to think in three dimensions. This is a refined visual skill. When I made pull-on pants, they were really two-dimensional (as are many beginner patterns). But once you essay pleats on a coat, or are setting the shoulder on a tailored jacket, you have to think, intervene, and produce quite a daunting construction.

I have enormous respect for sewers! These days I think I could muster an apron.
Moushka said…
I'm so glad that I live a very quiet life; no need for fancy clothes or tailoring. Even good wool fabrics have disappeared from our local fabric shops and good cotton is in the $20-$30/m. range. I'm not a great seamstress but thankfully I can come up with a decent dress or pair of pants if desperate enough. My mom sewed all my clothes for me until I was in my late thirties and she was a perfectionist. Hand-stitched hems, hand-padded lapels, immaculately tailored and steamed shoulders graced all my suits, always made of 100% wool because synthetics just didn't mould well. Everything could have been worn inside out. Now I rely on Land's End and L.L.Bean for basics, my own handmade jewellery and scarves to dress things up, and bite the bullet for family weddings. I still have two gorgeously tailored classic blazers my mom made me in the 'eighties (minus the shoulder pads, of course) one black and one navy blue, that work almost everywhere else. Vive Inès de Fressange! I'm also a strong believer in a good alterationist and lots of brushing and airing vs. too much dry cleaning. After all, the Queen doesn't use a dry cleaner ;)

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