Monday, November 5, 2012

Untrueisms

The first of an occasional series of examinations of unreliable clothing clichés that through repetition without reflection have become received wisdom, and for which I have thus coined the needless neologism above.

“Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten."

This quality trope is commonly used to justify expensive classic clothing. I’ve alluded to this in past posts and noted that, contra a modern style icon, the best quality is not the cheapest: the real quality stuff is many times more expensive than dross of middling quality that will either last a tolerable length of time or be much cheaper to replace than the good stuff is to maintain and repair. Of course, there are other reasons to pursue the highest quality: esthetics, heritage, the strangely romantic thrill of personal meaning, the electronic approval of one’s claque of fellow Internet Gentlemen. More recently, this summer the clothing blogosphere, including some e-penners I think highly of, seized on a New York Times blog piece suggesting (as if it were a new idea) that we purchase something slightly more expensive that will last longer instead of cheap impulse purchases. The bloggers neglected to quote the later paragraphs of the original piece that advised readers to “buy the $20 shirt you will actually wear” instead of a $10 shirt they won’t. These figures and increments are less than the amount of the sales tax on the items the style bloggers are trying to justify purchasing with this exercise. And the value calculation in question is absolutely not scalable. A $200 shirt will likely not last 10 times longer than a $20 shirt, and there’s no objective metric by which we can judge it to be 10 times better. Nor does price necessarily indicate quality – a $200 off-the-peg shirt from Thomas Pink probably costs no more to make and is no better than a $40 or $50 shirt from Banana Republic or on permanent sale at Charles Tyrwhitt, while a custom one at around the same price as Pink from Cego in New York or Courtot in Paris will blow it out of the water in every way.

No, it is poor quality that is remembered long after price is forgotten. For some reason I seem to remember how much I’ve paid for every item I’ve had made that fit well, was well cut and carefully stitched, whether expensive or relatively reasonable, such as my mystery anonymous bespoke trousermaker’s magnificent Lumb’s Golden Bale wool creations pictured. Instead, what I can’t quite remember is (sticking with trousers) how much the trousers I’ve had made by two other tailors who turned out to be bad cost me. Whether Third World or Old World, recommended by the internet or by a friend of usually unimpeachably high standards and knowledge in these matters, the results in both cases were stitching that gave way in places that don’t usually stress, zippers that stuck, waistbands that rolled because the interlining was both flimsy and fused (a great way to discover that fusing can take place in trousers as well as jackets), and a great deal of frustration and disappointment, because all of these flaws didn’t reveal themselves immediately on delivery – just far too early in the lives of these garments to be excusable.

And, based on those experiences, I can note a corollary to the assertion above: the real value bespoke makers, the handmade tailor who takes in a little on the side or the retired bootmaker who makes gorgeous shoes for a tiny fraction of Lobb Paris’ price, are never going to be disclosed in a men’s fashion magazine article promising to name some cheap tailor every bit as good as the prestigious ones, or indeed in any public forum. While a few incredible prodigies like the above may exist, they’re jealously kept secret for good reason by customers who have made their own way through painful trial and error. Recent style history is full of horror stories of formerly reliable small makers who became word-of-internet-mouth phenomena, amassed a lot of orders and ended up compromising their quality or not delivering to their customers. Some of these great value makers on the other hand may not wish to draw the attention of the tax authorities or of their main employers to their lucrative little sideline. Some are kept a secret by customers who don’t want extra demand to drive up prices and push back delivery dates. Some simply are inaccessible to most people, insisting on in-person visits and cash payments and refusing to ship.

This is not to say that those who want to look good and have quality clothing must pay a lot of money. Rather, I think you can look good on almost any budget provided you have an eye for what works for you, a great alterations tailor, a great cobbler and a great dry cleaner. And time, time to search for the best quality you can find at the price you can afford, time to gain experience with what makes for a good and reliable tailor or maker and what makes for bad, time for quality to reveal itself and in so doing make its price justifiable, if not forgotten.

Words and photo by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

4 comments:

Becnal said...

I am blessed to have my tailor, cobbler and dry-cleaner each no more than one block away. And all three are the best I've found in this city.

BDC-NYC said...

Bravo! Another great post from RJ man. Thank you.

Dana Law said...

I think you're spot on with your post. Choosing the best doesn't mean paying the most. I couldn't be informed about what makes the difference in quality without your specific recommendations. The advice about how to use a Tailor makes the whole article worthwhile.
I still have never been able to buy anything. I'm below the line financially. Scraping by. I've been trying to find a Brooks Brothers Blazer at the Goodwill in good shape that I can have tailored. I think it should be my first step. Do you have a recommendation for a Blazer?
Is it a good garment to start with?
Thank you once again for your blog.
Dana
San Diego

rjmanbearpig said...

@Dana:

Whether a blazer is a good garment to "start" with all depends on what you want and need it for. Do you need it more than a suit? Are you at a point in your life where you might wear a blazer reasonably often? Whatever item of clothing you do decide to start with, I'd suggest getting a good sense of your size, which might allow you to hunt for a deal online as well as in goodwill. Thinking about it, I would invest first in a good pair of shoes -- that, above all, fit well -- and economizing on tailored clothing in favor of fit. But a lot depends on where you are in life -- I'd recommend different priorities for a student than for a retiree.