14 July 2011

What's In A Name?

Brand names are a tricky beast. In America, we live in a culture obsessed with them, so obsessed, in fact, that grown men and women now wilfully walk the streets in cheaply made t-shirts emblazoned with nothing more than a large brand name advertisement. It is, I suppose, easier to try and impress another person with a big bad logo, rather than the vagaries of quality and style. Why tell a person who you are and who you'd like to be in conversation when you can just cut to the chase and wear a t-shirt with the name of the beer you like?

In fairness, though, I'm just as label conscious as the next guy, in my way. In my various adventures in the world of other people's junk, I have my favorite things to look for. But the last thing I want is to have my brands written in large silkscreen on the outside of the clothes. No, I look for certain brands as a benchmark of quality and a guarantee of style. Take Brooks Brothers, for example. I know how an old suit from them will be cut, how well it will be made. I know that they're aesthetic is one I gravitate toward, and that the quality will be good, in an old piece. But brand name isn't everything, because I also know that they haven't turned out much of  anything worth a damn in years. So what's in a name, really? The answer is everything, or nothing, or something in between. Like so many things in life, a healthy knowledge of brands and what they are can be a helpful guide, but a total unbending allegiance to them will be your death knell.
There are times when no brand at all will do just fine, as is the case with this pair of shoes. Plain toe pebble grain leather bluchers in what might be called English Tan...you know, that light orange tinted shade of brown. Always a favorite of mine, no matter how against the rules it may be, with a navy suit. If you happen to be a grown up, such a pair of shoes is hard to beat with jeans, too.

Big bad gunboats, with big bad leather double soles. As I was paying for some other things at a thrift shop the other day, I spied these behind the counter on the floor. Someone else had decided against them at the last minute, so I asked "those brown shoes, are you just going to put them back out? What size are they? How much?" My size,$7.99, less my 30% off coupon= $5.59. Sold, American.

These shoes have no discernible brand name. I suspect it has worn off the insole liner at the heel. However, my experience with trusted old brands like Florsheim's and Allen Edmond's has taught me to recognize the quality of these shoes. The leather is top quality, inside and out. The style is classic, and combined with the double thick soles, leads me to believe they are likely made in USA. Beyond this, it's clear that the previous owner cared for them well, probably kept them on shoe trees. In a case like this, a lack of any brand name was hardly an issue for me, nor should it be for you.  Get to know quality. True, a brand name can help you skip forward a few steps, but it takes a back seat to real quality every time.

 Another kind of extreme is exemplified by my purchase of this sweater. A nice cotton crew neck in wide navy and white stripes, just the thing with Nantucket reds, boat shoes, and a tennis shirt for al fresco rum cocktails on a deck behind a seaside restaurant. We've got a family vacation planned in Maine in a few weeks...hopefully kid brother will come up for a night of two, so me and the Mrs. can do just such a thing one night...we'll see.
 Nicely woven, heavy weight cotton. As old as it is, the white is still white and the navy still vibrant. I'd say this piece was $1.00 well spent,but...
it's from the Gap? and it was made in England? How old is this thing, then? 1970s? When did the Gap ever have English made sweaters? I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I find the Gap repulsive, mostly. It's a crummy chain store in the mall, largely responsible for our current reliance on cheap sweatshop labor overseas, and largely responsible for our collective love of the big store logo sweatshirt. True, there may have been something very bad-ass about the first Gap in 1969 selling only Levi's and vinyl records, but that's long gone. What can I say, though, this is a nice sweater, and for a buck, I'm willing to ignore the brand and go with it. I wouldn't wear a Gap logo hoodie for a buck, not even for free, likely not even if you paid me, but this sweater...sure, why not? True, I have no idea what the phrase "100% authentic guaranteed fit" means on a size "Medium" store bought sweater, but who cares? No one has to know, and my dollar went to charity anyway.

In short, know your brand names, but don't let them fool you. At best, they will guide you towards quality, at worst they will lead you to sacrifice in exchange for an easy out. Often, the best stuff is unbranded or simply unknown. Let quality be your guide rather than mass appeal.  Know the difference and tread lightly, and good luck.

p.s if shoes are your bag, a  whole raft of them just went up for sale in the shop, along with other new items, of special note, some great beach-worthy vintage windbreakers. Have a look, and thanks for supporting my brand name.

12 comments:

Marc said...

Yes indeed. Brands were always a proud advertisement of quality (or your money back), but somewhere down the line - maybe the '60s, maybe earlier) only the actual names started to be sold.
I once worked for a coffee chain many years ago when it wasn't yet a chain, and the most important rule staff had to remember was: "we're not selling coffee, we're selling a brand!"

When it reaches that point, when the product is secondary to the logos and the names, it's time to look elsewhere for your needs.

Ent said...

$5.59?? for that shoes?? damn i envy you arrgghh

Sean said...

Does no one in Boston send size 13 shoes to the thrift store for you to tell and me to buy?!? Argh!

Last weekend the wife and I cleaned out a mountain of clothes to take to Goodwill, so it made me wonder how often you need to purge out your clothes?

David V said...

On the flip side of the obsession with brands is that the folks at thrift stores know who Ralph, Tommy and the Cole boy are. They are clueless to Alden's, A&E, Hardy Ames and even the Brothers Brooks. They price accordingly.

gentleman mac said...

Cut off the Gap tag and leave the "made in England" part on. If anyone should ever see it inside of the collar. . .

Anonymous said...

I thought this blog was about clothes : it os all about philosophy and life. 'Chapeau bas"

Anonymous said...

I'll 2nd the sentiments of David V. Here in the Philadelphia area the premium prices at the thrifts are on Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers and Tommy Hilfager. I can pick up all the Paul Stuart, Brioni, Turnbull & Asser and Gitman Bros. shirts I desire at 1/2 the price of these so called prestige brands,

Philip said...

David, I don't know where you've been thrifting, but my experience is that the sort of thrift stores that get BB et al in stock are also the ones where the volunteers know what's what and price accordingly.

David V said...

I shop at stores with staff that is paid a minimum wage. They do not know the difference between a quality maker and a licensed designer name. They only recognize the "famous" designer.

Pigtown-Design said...

I agree about the workers at the larger thrift shops not knowing brand-names. Some of the smaller shops I frequent have taken to checking ebay for items, but most don't have the time/manpower to do that. At one of the posh episcopal church thrift shops, i found two hermes scarves for $2/each. these gals should have known better.

I collect kitchen copper, which I pick up for a song, because it's not shiny and new. it's mostly a bit tarnished and brown, hence cheap. i just found a gorgeous late 1880's silver teapot with ivory handle and finial, tarnished to black for $15. shiny is what sells for these people.

Young Fogey said...

I always appreciate the thrift shops with uniform pricing. There's one near me that charges $15 for suits, $10 for jackets, $3 for ties, etc. You never have to worry about how much they'll charge for something.

Having said that, some thrifts have an idea of what something is worth, and will sell, for example, a silk tuxedo for $100. More than I want to pay, but I would have gladly paid that much for a silk tuxedo that fit me (it didn't).

JRM said...

Finding the Gap repulsive is kind of a reductionist take on the history of apparel manufacturing. They may have been part of the pack that led the way towards overseas production, but they were also part of the very, very tiny minority that took on the responsibility of establishing standards and practices for those facilities that actually treated workers like human beings.

On a stylistic level, Gap's cool started to fade in the 90s - they had a solid three decade stretch when they were producing really great pieces. That sweater is most likely from the late 70s or early 80s, and is one of quite a few similar items I've seen from Gap that were manufactured in England -- bear in mind that Gap's push for overseas production facilities didn't only apply to Asia, as many would assume.

Largely responsible for the logo sweatshirt? No more guilty than Ralph Lauren or just the American love of logos period-- what's a varsity jacket or sweater if not a big fat logo?

Overall, ripping on Gap kind of twists the wonderful point in this post: a great item can come from the most unlikely source and make you rethink what you believe you know about where quality can come from.