Buy and Hold: Shopping now for the long-term

A new McKinsey Report, "The State of Fashion 2021: In Search of Promise in Perilous Times" (summary here), estimated a 93% drop in 2020 profit in the global industry—that's Depression-era loss. You have probably seen this yourself; unable to weather the misery, firms from Chico's to J. Crew struggle; small houses like the adored Elizabeth Suzann have closed for good. 

The authors propose paths to survival, but not once in the summary do they recommend that brands devote themselves to maintaining quality. Companies still standing will be investing heavily in "the online experience and channel mix", and looking for every way possible to recover. I promise they will cut some corners.  

From this spring's deliveries on, expect to see mid-priced and bridge lines made with shallower hems, cheaper findings, more cropped cuts, more synthetics. A pocket removed from a top's design translates into tens of thousands of dollars for a major manufacturer.

For luxury and upscale niche brands, collections will shrink, and pieces in less-popular sizes will be harder to find. A silk scarf might be printed with cheaper ink, more cashmere be sold as 'featherweight', the ample straps on a handbag will be replaced by pencil-width.  These brands may well raise prices to maintain quality, because consumers are not as price-conscious.

Women who buy fast fashion are unconcerned, because they never expected longevity. 

Some strategies:

1. If you can afford to do so, shop now to replace your blue-chip brand's "musts"—they aren't going to make them like they used to. (Blue-chip brands are not necessarily pricey, but are the bedrock of your wardrobe.) 

A Susanfriend e-mailed last month to say she was on a mission to find the particular Eileen Fisher trousers that she calls, "my security blanket". Sue now has two more pairs (new stock bought on eBay for about half price of retail).

2. Set up alerts on sites like TheRealReal and eBay or, if open where you live, scout resale shops for high-quality pieces. Expect to pay more for as-new secondhand than you might expect, because we're not the only ones anticipating erosion.

DKNY wool-blend trench, The Outnet

Check discount sites like TheOutnet. The DKNY coat above was reduced from $360 to $169— an example of what to look for. (DKNY, already losing money when sold to a private equity firm in 2016, is in big trouble.) There is a lot of dead stock around, because starting in spring 2020, stores cancelled orders.

3. If you have regularly shopped popular brands (for Canadians, RW&Co, their parent company, Reitmans, Tristan and the like), aim higher; mall brands are nearly all fighting for survival and will use even cheaper fabric and flimsy findings. 

RW&Co long cardigan

Marlene can't wear pure wool, so bought two acrylic sweaters on sale on RW&Co's site, but was dismayed to see how shreddy and sad her new long cardi looked after a few wears. One cause was light abrasion against her coat, but who wants a sweater you can only wear indoors?

She contacted the company (with photos) and negotiated a full refund on return. After we chatted about brands that were more durable, she began to look at Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and others who make better-quality blends or synthetics with solid construction. 

She likes a bright Tommy Hilfiger Fair Isle cardigan in a 70% nylon/30% wool blend. She would spend about $50 more for this than the acrylic shredder.

Tommy Hilfiger oversized cardi, $US 130


She was also taken by this black Joan Vass cotton/silk/cashmere sweater cardigan, and happy to see it was on sale in her size; it was $425, now about $128. It's an entirely different vibe than the Hilfiger, so she is imagining when she would wear each piece.  

Joan Vass sweater cardigan

What Would Warren Do?

You could sit out the pandemic pause, buying nothing as so many women are now. The related approach of taking care of what you have, very smart.

But we have adopted Warren Buffet as our shopping financial advisor.  He reminds us of his foundational principle: when high-value stocks are underpriced, buy. That approach can be applied to blue-chip brands now stuck with a glut of inventory.

In investment language, you are taking a long position. Granted, this is an imperfect metaphor—you are not buying your clothes to re-sell them, as you would shares—but bear with me: their value to you will rise. You may face opportunity costs, aka shipping and applicable tax/duties for imports. But as Mr. Buffet would say, that's the price of poker. Factor those in to your decision, and check return policies, which can be different for sale and full-price purchases.

While it is a natural response to lock down your wallet (and if your priority is to reduce debt, that's another story) canny investors will sometimes move counter-intuitively. Not every piece has to give exceptional returns, but on balance, be worth the cost.

Photo: RueLaLa.com

Sue of the Eileen Fisher trousers also bought her favourite boots, hugely reduced at Rue La La. She said, "If the quality drops for clothes, same happens for shoes." She permitted me to mention her Aquatalia "Rory" booties only after they arrived and fit. 

Yes, there are some pointy elbows in the shopping world, but for the moment, there's more than enough to go around.





 

 





Comments

Pat said…
I agree with your comments. My husband went to his favourite clothier to exchange Christmas gift. The shop had been in lock down since December 26. He was told that two supplier had gone bankrupt and owner was concerned about orders from several other companies.
Your comments further my observation about cropped pants. Less fabric but same price.




LauraH said…
Interesting take on what's coming up. Thanks for the heads up.

Guess I'm in the take-care-of-what-I've-got camp. I have plenty of cashmere and scarves for fall/winter and am pretty stocked up on cotton/linen for spring and summer. Bought La Canadienne winter boots last year and I keep my shoes in good repair. My 2020 purchases were jersey tops from Katrin Leblond and my fave 3/4 length t shirts from Talbots in lovely colours. My life is pretty casual, centred around gardening, nephew and friends so no need for anything more. Given your predictions, I'm thankful that I don't need or want new clothes in the foreseeable future!
LauraH said…
Me again. Well I thought about what you said and ended up ordering another pair of La Canadienne booties, very similar to ones I wear now. And just as you predicted, half price.
Laura J said…
A wise prognosis I fear. Cropped pants and 3/4 sleeves (both pretty annoying if the intent is to be warm!) definitely save on fabric but sold at the same price. Like Laurah, I’m generally fine with clothing so I’m not going to buy more just yet. A word of caution re shoes...I did buy ahead and then found my feet had changed...it may be just me but I’m hesitant now.
LauraH said…
Laura J...I was a bit hesitant so tried on my existing booties. La Canadienne confirmed it's the same sizing so should be okay.
Ms. Liz said…
The first big change in the quality of retail clothing that I noticed came after the financial crises in 2008. Fast fashion took a grip on the retail world in the years after and price plus constant renewal of what we have took a foothold with those interested in fashion. Quality and design took a backseat to volume of clothing and the refreshing of stock every two to four weeks. (Are there actually any designers driving any of the main stream or bridge labels anymore?) I can see that what some fashion labels are showing for spring are the same things they were showing last year - just different colour ways or slight tweaks to the design. I think I will be shopping my closet more unless I can actually see the quality of the garment in in person.
Ocd said…
Sounds a bit like the “shortage” game retailers play and quality has already nosedived.
I don’t think there are many women in the US at least who don’t have overfilled closets.
Allison said…
I am wondering if the pandemic will cause the fashion business and the consumers who drive it to ‘correct’ the production, merchandising and purchasing of fashion items. There is so much ‘stuff’out there! I am looking at my own three closets full of clothing, some good, some fast fashion. I too have succumbed to the siren call and fallen down many a rabbit hole by clicking a ‘link’. A retirement project will be to weed the closets out and sell, donate or toss and to ask myself when contemplating a future purchase, do I REALLY need that? Do I already own something that will fill that need? I really appreciate when bloggers like yourself reflect on how to scratch the fashion itch and suggest shopping the closet, thrifting, or looking for sales at better retailers or on line discounters and leaning towards quality vs quantity.
Duchesse said…
Pat: Le Duc was devoted to Brooks Brothers shirts and polos and found the quality since the 2008 recession took such a hit that he was shocked. Once customers feel cheated, it is the kiss of death. Now bankrupt but label bought by private equity so it is a sure thing quality will not be restored.

LauraH: I did the same with Icebug boots, but did not get them on sale. Their sales are super-rare.

LauraJ: I recall your comment about lovely boots that did not fit by time you wore them. Normally I am wary of stockpiling but I have bought 'my' jeans on sale and noticed they are sneaking every more poly into the cotton every year or two.

Ms Liz: I agree; fast fashion had hammered its way into women's lives before that. I love Suzy Menkes' remark that "When your bikini costs less than your latte, something's wrong." The only fast fashion I have ever bought has been at a thrift; I found the quality unsatisfying. Oh I have my vices but fast fashion is something I won't do ;)

Ocd: My favourite local boutique for clothing recently pivoted to books (a glorious bookstore, but still). I learned she still has some pieces and I'm going there to buy a few things while I can. She even had the fabric milled locally, and paid sewers well. But the pandemic made production impossible and you don't have to stock sizes in books.

Allison: Oh how I wish your theory would come true! There is a shakeout happening but mostly it is in the wrong direction, with private equity firms buying once-coveted brands, aggregating manufacturing and distribution, and only focused on profit. Doubters need only look at an Anne Klein blouse made in the late '90s versus one now with its plastic buttons.

Some consumers will have to cut their spending but those who have just sat on their money will, I think, go on a bit of a spree. (And that is not bad for a battered economy.) I just wish fast fashion would go belly up.

Good for you for deciding to pare your three closets. You'll be surprised that the things you divest will not enter your mind again. When I did a similar reduction (driven by move from large house to small condo): twelve large trash bags (the huge yard work ones) to Goodwill, three to a consignment store and two bags of accessories to a church charity sale. I don't miss a thing.

Whenever I consider buying a new piece of clothing my first question is "What do I already have that is essentially just like this?"


Laura J said…
The interesting thing about retirement + lockdown is that I could live with a rotation of 2 basic ensembles for home, activity dress up for each type of weather frigid, cold, cool, warm). Maybe 40 items? Lol

Am never relinquishing the cashmere sweater cache !
What a valuable post! Thanks. Makes me rethink some of my decisions about spring. I may go for that trench coat I don't REALLY need after all. :)
Jane said…
My pet peeve is the raw hem, a labor (money) saving device sold to a gullible consumer as in-style. Same goes for feather weight anything. While I'm on a rant, remember when athletic shoes were leather? Next came vinyl and now they're made out of fabric. Personally, I would be happy to buy fewer, more expensive items, made of natural materials if I knew they would last.

-Lily
Carolpres said…
Thank you for this - a fascinating read. I'm in the throes of downsizing for our upcoming move to Portugal, and last week did another pass on my wardrobe, really drilling down as to what I anticipate wearing there. Wound up getting rid of 25% (I counted). At the same time I have stocked up on some favorites (a second pair of my beloved Liverpool jeans, for instance) that I'm not sure I'll be able to find overseas. And another pair of Aquatalia booties, at 70% off. I don't *think* I have any holes in my wardrobe, but this post makes me want to go double-check while I can still find quality at reasonable prices.

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