Can quality make a comeback?
What "better" means depends on a woman's quality standards and means, but also the intersection of her values with her closet. If I had $595 to spend on these Balenciaga jeans, I could not do it.
Quality criteria include materials, construction, durability; could you wear this for at least five years? It also includes consistency in delivering that quality.
It does not consider other factors such as style, size range or access. I began to think of quality in terms of four categories, clockwise from top left:
High quality; you might never buy it, but it represents the best of ready-to-wear
Example: Tomas Maier striped cashmere sweater.
Very good quality; you would buy, or buy on sale/resale
Example: ça va de soi "Bercy" merino tunic
Level Three: Acceptable
Decent quality, at least for some items; may be inconsistent
Example: J. Crew merino sweater-blazer
Level Four: Low
Quality is either deliberately low ("fast fashion"), or has slipped from Acceptable; can look pretty good, especially if you don't plan to wear it long
Example: Zara oversized acrylic-nylon sweater
Grown women fit into a bell-curve distribution, with the majority buying at Levels Two and Three; and a few outliers at the other ends of the quality continuum. Women who depend on Level Three, Acceptable are always asking, What happened to the quality?
Three reasons for the erosion of Acceptable quality:
1. New ownership, often from a family or privately-held firm to private-equity firms. Land's End, now majority-owned by Sear's top shareholder, ESL Partners, and Talbot's, owned by Sycamore Partners are but two examples. This kind of "rescue deal" always presages a quality drop.
2. Financial stress: Look behind the attractive web sites or shops to results, and you will find financial turbulence; last spring, J. Crew's debt was around $2 billion. That translates into more acrylic in your sweater, and ever more goods produced in China and Vietnam.
3. Pressure from the bottom. When Level Four brands H&M or Forever21 remerchandise their stores every three to five weeks, Level Three feels the heat. Short cycles equal cheap manufacturing. Fast Fashion is the bedbug: nipping, causing misery, and not going away.
This means you can't trust brands you once relied on. (Remember when Anne Klein made covetable clothes? When a Coach bag would last for a decade or more?) One of the axioms of Marketing 101 was "A brand is a promise", but some of the best-known now have their fingers crossed.
When a brand renowned for quality slips, it's work to find a substitute, especially if moving up to Level One isn't possible. The high-low thing never really works; a Liberty neckerchief on a badly-cut top that closes with the now-ubiquitous exposed zipper will not elevate the top.
|Liberty of London neckerchief|
One hope is the rise of Level Three e-tailers like Everlane (apparel), Warby Parker (eyewear) and Coclico (shoes). They promise to fuse quality to accountability, and though not every company aiming to hit the sweet spot of ethics and quality will make it, the model appeals to me...and so do these gold booties:
Such brands are aimed at young adults, but often the sizes or cuts are not right for mature bodies. (How to produce a $100 cashmere sweater: cut out the retail presence, but also, crop it very short.)
And many in their target market find their prices out of reach. Becky, a friend's 28-year-old daughter, is unimpressed by Everlane et al. She says she'd rather buy at Level 4: just get something cute, at H&M, don't expect much, bin it after a season.
I am dismayed by that, but Becky's tactics are easier to apply: no navigating web sites, no sending stuff back—and I can't even say to Becky, "But, look at this, the quality is so good!" because the 'this' is so much harder to find. She will borrow her mother's Jaeger coat without a glance at the bound buttonholes, but maybe she will feel the difference.
The quality so long missing from North American sports and casual wear (rarely made there anymore) is making a last stand in small niche brands, but unless the sizes and cuts satisfy older as well as younger buyers, they will be buried under the low-priced manufacturers offering a trend-driven selection of inferior goods.