19 January 2011

The Trouble With Designers (A Tale of Two Jackets)

Fashion designers, like every one else, have their place in the vast scheme of things, I suppose. It's no secret that in the realm of women's clothing they hold a place of great importance. Without them, what be the fun in evening gowns? But an evening gown at its best is a work of art, best conceived by an artist. While it's true that a mans garment at its best is also a work of art, we owe that to tailors more than designers. Given that the typical men's "uniform" of jacket, trousers, shirt and tie has basically changed very little over the course of more than a century, so called men's designers have a nasty habit of creating silly unwearable costumes, or worse, simply attaching their name along with a very high price tag to something old they found. In either case, the price tag is rarely justified. To wit:
Here's an old jacket, vintage early 1960s, that I found today at a thrift shop. All the details are there: 3/2, no darts, two button cuff, trim lapels and a shallow vent.
No brand name, just the label from a long gone, forgotten local haberdashery. That, and a union label from the ACTWU, in general a guarantee of high quality construction.

Back in the Fall/Winter of 2009, our man Thom Browne was offering the same thing as part of the then brand new Brooks Brothers Black Fleece line. Anyone remember this?
These pieces were sold separately, with the jacket retailing for an incredible $2100. Not only that, but you have to deal with Mr. Browne's foolish proprietary sizing system (BB1? BB2? and so forth). The jacket I found today is sized by way of measuring its chest and length in inches, thereby corresponding to a similar measurement taken of the human body itself. Imagine that?

Usually when I bring this up, someone is right there to tell me that its all about beautiful fabrics and quality construction with a guy like Thom Browne. But the older jacket is made of butter soft flannel, probably a woo/cotton blend, that reminds me of the best of the old Viyella stuff. The old jacket is just as well constructed. In fact, it's possibly better.
This photo was lifted from a post on StyleForum. It's a picture of the ladies Black Fleece tattersall jacket from that season. In this case, someone is trying to sell it (unsuccessfully) for $220, after about 1/2 dozen tries at a higher price, and is even entertaining offers. But you know what?
The pattern matching on these pocket flaps is razor sharp, much better than on the Thom Browne jacket. Go figure?

So here we have the common egregious crime of menswear "design" that is a simple remake of a good thing from the past. In much of his other work, Mr. Browne commits the other, sheer unwearable costume. Why pay for that?

My point here is not to start a Thom Browne bashing session. I don't care for what the guy does, but I have friends who do. It's a personal choice. But if you do like this stuff, you don't have to pay for it. Just think creatively. Figure out what it is about this stuff that appeals to you, then shop with a creative eye. If it's Thom Browne you like, you're likely to fine that high quality 1960s vintage, perhaps purchased in a shorter length, is pretty much the same thing. Maybe your tastes lean more toward the luxe flamboyance of Tom Ford. So be it. High quality wool suits from the 1970s are basically what he makes, and there's little to no competition for the real ones, and they're cheap. Buy an old suit, get it altered to fit perfectly and show some chest hair. What's the difference?

The trouble with designers is that rather than bring anything new to the table, they tend to have a good eye for old things that are due for a comeback anyway, then trot them out with a big dog and pony show to go along with it, and of course those huge prices. But there's no reason any well appointed and stylish man can't do the same thing, eschewing of course the dog and pony show, and the prices.

Observe, learn, think and have confidence. Who needs these guys?

p.s. the jackets too small for me, so I'll be offering it for sale in the shop within the next few days. Whoever buys it, please tell someone its Black Fleece and see if they can tell the difference.


Edwin said...

A fantastic take on Thom Browne and Tom Ford. I just saw the video for Thom Browne's collection for Moncler Gamme Bleu and could not stop laughing the entire time, and as for Tom Ford I've never understood his customers. His wardrobe design for A Single Man was so "Tom Ford," yet period appropriate. Go figure.

Old School said...

Style vs. Fashion

Anonymous said...

Nineteen of every 20 designers will happily, greedily put their name on any piece of shit they can scoop a buck from.

As for your vintage jacket, please -- what approximate size would it be???

Anonymous said...

vintage beats store-bought i'd say about 99.99% of the time but black fleece really is quality stuff and is comparable in quality with the best union/tailor-made garments. i don't dress up and formal/semi-formal is not my racket, but i do have some BF and it's quality (though not especially better than a vtg red tag brooks bros shirt properly tailored). still, bb quality is comparable just to a needle in a haystack vintage find (which you seem to come across quite often).

that said, we know the true value of this jacket is not 2100. maybe 10% of that is for the jacket, maybe less or more - i don't know, i don't work in fashion. but of the 2100, the better part is likely for the men and women who work in the store and the home office, who drive the trucks and sign the papers and so on and so forth. once it doesn't sell they'll take $1,000. still, i'd wager the minority of the buyers knew they could get a comparable/better product for pennies on the dollar. then again, they might just not have the time, inclination or soft skills.


Karena said...

Nothing like finding a fine classic piece at a great price. Keep a sharp eye out always!

Art by Karena

Roger v.d. Velde said...

Bravo! What an excellent post. "trot them out with a big dog and pony.." classic line.
It's actually quite ominous how they've managed to brand themselves into this position, but it appears that idiot clientele with too much pocket money and desire for "fashion" are fair game to the likes of Thom Browne.

What galls me about Browne and co. is that they hike up their prices. but get half their stuff stiched overseas for a few pennies.

Wrenkin said...

The women's jacket is probably darted, which could affect pattern matching at the pocket. Yours appears to be a sack, so there's no issue. I don't think it says much about quality.

Giuseppe said...


The piece of cloth isn't even cut straight along the pattern in the expensive piece. Forr two grand, I would expect better.


If they don't get $1000, then they'll ask $500. The point is, the price is inflated, and Brooks Brothers existed before all this. So I ask again, what is the customer really paying for?

As per quality, in the days when garments like the older one were made in American union shops, things like this were more widely accesible to the average person. My grandfather was an uneducated construction worker, and he had stuff this nice that he bought in local shops. Now they're made by Chinese children, and they're considered a posh luxury?

All this might even be arguable if Mr. Browne were giving us any innovation, but he's only selling 1960s style clothing. It all existed before. His only trick is to hock it to a generation young enough not to be aware of the 1960s beyond what they see on Mad Men.

Zach said...

"Who needs these guys?"
We need them so in 50 years, future Giuseppes can talk about how much better the clothing design contemporaneous to us is than the clothing contemporaneous to them.

I am simultaneously a compulsive thrifter and vintage collector, a fan of Thom Browne, and an owner of 2 Black Fleece suits, 4 shirts, two ties and 1 pair of shoes. That tattersall suit is from the debut of Black Fleece back in 2006 and was made by Rafaele Caruso in Parma (you know those Italian artisans you are always championing?). It is top top quality by the maker of Ralph Lauren Black Label at about the same price point. The level of handwork on the suit is very high. I scored one and liked it so much I went back for a second, albeit lower-quality, Southwick-made Black Fleece suit.

Of course Thom Browne's designs are heavily based in vintage styles, and if I put on a size 40S in a 1960s suit it approximates the look, and I do this often, but if you like a designer occasionally you can permit yourself to buy the actual article. I can buy a cheap facsimile of an Eames chair at Target. This does not decrease the value of the actual Eames chair. I can thrift a 1960s flannel sack suit, hem the pants high, and look like you're wearing a TB suit. This does not decrease the satisfaction I feel when wearing my Black Fleece suits, impractical super 200s fabrics and all.

There is a theory that saving for something and being able to buy it makes the buyer more satisfied than if he were to have unlimited funds and be able to drop any sum whenever. I saved and saved to have my BF suits and I saved and saved for my two pairs of Alden shell cordovan shoes, even though I have thrifted and ebay'd shell cordovan shoes before. Not gonna lie, 'twas satisfying. This is why designers can charge high prices and why rich people are often bored.

those tricks said...

Yep - many designers rest on their branding laurels and churn out overpriced, under-detailed items.
Matching pattern makes me happy.
very happy.

Cyclo2000 said...

We have to accept that designer gear is dear cos they market it like fury and that costs dosh. Ergo expensive threads.

Similarly Vintage is great if you can find it in yer approx size and at a reasonable price but here in the UK the best stuff ends up in Saratoga Trunk et al and costs almost as much as new gear and at 6 foot three I don't find much long enough.

So - I buy from Ralph

That said, I struggle with RLs latest pricing. They have jackets in the Glasgow store at £1200! That's Saville Row pricing for off the peg clothing. I don't care how nice the fabric is, folk don't have that kind of money round here.

Giuseppe said...

Zach, I knew we'd here from you on this one. I want to thank you for presenting the other end of this argument so thoughtfully.

But still, for $2000, why not have something made instead of buying something in some weird nonsense size that is irrelevant to measurements? Hell, even the suits at the Andover Shop clock in at 1200-2000, pants included.

As for furniture, that's another kettle of fish, because the difference in quality of construction is so high.

Future Giuseppes don't need this. They need clothing companies that turn out consistently quality goods that are made to last and are affordable to a lrger swath of the public, in order that it maight all get donated in half a century. That "super 200s" fabric simply won;t hold that long, unless you hardly wear it and never sit down in it. To wit, you rarely see "designer" goods in my shop, you see well made factroy items, lasting, well tailored classic stuff. Unfortunately, we may already have witnessed the end of that. We'll wait and see.

Zach said...

To clarify, I didn't pay anywhere NEAR the MSRP for my BF suits. I scored the first one from StyleForum for under $500 and the second direct from BB at a deep discount. I wouldn't pay 2700 for the older made in Italy ones and I wouldn't pay 1600 for the newer Southwick ones, but on deep discount they are a good value I think. Also neither of them are super 200s; I was embellishing.

Secondly, current BBBF and Andover Shop MTM are made by the same manufacturer, possibly to the same specs, so I don't think either TB or Brooks Brothers should be criticized for sending more work to American manufacturers.

I think there is a bit of a myth amongst us vintage aficionados that things were not only better made back in the day, they were more affordable. A sort of sartorial paradise where any ordinary man could have a closet full of fully-canvassed, buttery flannel bliss. The better-made part is certainly true, but the second not so much.

I checked out a Brooks catalog from 1968 and plugged the numbers into an inflation calculator. Starting price for a 2-piece, Dacron-wool blend suit is around $1000 in today's currency. A Donegal tweed jacket from J.Press from the same time period would have cost the equivalent of $795 today. No small chunk of change there.

Also, I don't think the distinction between "designer" goods and "factory" goods holds much weight, especially when we are talking about Thom Browne. TB, BBBF and normal Brooks all make their shirts in the same factory, Gitman. New England Shirt Co. in Fall River makes for Andover and Press, but also for Sid Mashburn (who sells Kiton sportcoats for twice the price of BBBF). They are probably all sewn together on the same machine by the same people.

As for the loss of local shops, I too think it would be awesome to have a resurgence in privately owned men's shops, but the loss of them is a reflection of a fundamental change in the way people shop. There aren't any local private mom n' pop grocery stores or pharmacies or movie theaters either. At least we still have Andover.

Giuseppe said...

Now that's what I call a discussion. Thanks, Zach.

Zach said...

Thanks Joe.
Apologies if I sounded snarky in the first comment. For some reason when I write blog comments I always sound more worked up than I actually am.

Zach said...

pps One of these just went for 235 on eBay.

Pattern matching looks pretty good on those patch pockets.

Roger v.d. Velde said...

There are one or two remaining problems though Zack...according to the shift in economics, retail and shopping power,almost everything else has split into the two broad categories of custom made expensive, or moderately priced mass production.

Whichever way the words arranged, Thom Browne is not making custom clothes. but he's often charging custom clothes prices. On a good sale week, or a quiet few months, at Savile Row you can get a bespoke suit for 650 pounds, so shopping around is not always a bargain that shouts Thom Browne.

It's true that men in the past weren't wearing the same clothes due to affordability, but in the UK men were buying adjusted pattern suits at places like Burtons for thirty or forty shillings, which is less than 100 pounds today.
And a look at any old Burtons OTP suit will show you they were using better materials for so-called cheaper suits. A cheap tweed suit - known as a gump suit - cost rock-bottom 25 shillings, less than fifty pounds today.

Thom Browne et al mark up their prices in relation to the lowering of quality at the cheaper end. Again that's a fact of mass-manufacturing economics, but the opposite logic isn't that Thom Browne is offering value.

Old School said...

In the summer of 1965, I bought an off-the-peg dirt-cheap tweed jacket at Burtons in London. Upon my return to NY, on a whim, I went to Brooks Brothers to look at ties (the only item I could even think of affording). An old-time, experienced salesman approached me and complimented me on the quality of the tailoring of what he thought was a custom-made jacket.

Zach said...

Thom Browne does do custom clothing, indeed he got his starting doing exclusively custom clothing before he ever expanded into OTR. His custom stuff is still made by Rocco Cicarelli in Long Island City, Queens, who is arguably one of the best manufacturers in the US, right up there with Greenfield and Oxxford.

I get what you mean about Burton suits being a good value in terms of quality for the money. I owned a charcoal Burton "director" suit that was bulletproof and fully canvassed. I don't see how this discredits any sort of statement about the "value" of TB suits. Yes, for the price of an OTR Thom suit, you could get a custom made or possibly even a bespoke suit. But you could say the same thing about Oxxford, Brioni, Kiton, Brunello Cuccinelli,Domenico Vacca, etc etc, and I don't see too many people making vague, discrediting statements about the quality of their construction.

Is a TB suit marked up because it bears a reputable and desirable name? Sure it is, from a business standpoint that name is seen as part of the "value" of the suit. Oxxford does the same thing though. There is no such thing as an "honest" or "true" cost, there is only the cost of production+whatever the maker thinks he can get for it. Oxxford suits cost $4000 because 1. they are very very well made (and cost a lot to make) and 2. because people want an Oxxford suit specifically and are willing to pay more the name. I don't see how this is any different that what Browne or Ford does.

It's not rocket science. Tailoring quality (unlike style) can be evaluated objectively. Is the suit fully canvassed? If so, is the lapel canvas padded by hand or by blindstitch machine? Is the collar attached by hand? Do the sleeve hems have mitered cuffs or is the hem simply folded under? Are the buttonholes sewn by hand? etc etc there are hundred of small details that add to the tailoring cost.

It's true on the Row too. Why does a Huntsman cost $8000 when there are other tailors on the same street who charge far less?

Anonymous said...

i'm not sure if it's a question of need. some people who buy TB stuff are people who don't have time to thrift or knowledge about labels. (i bought one shirt for that reason - didn't have the time to make my thrifty rounds.)

the fact is that your prime vintage heaters may be as underpriced as browne's gear is overpriced.
you're just getting there first. if some bozo from NY finds it, he flips it at a fake flea market for $100 or - hell - maybe browne or an employee found it and that cheap thrift is making revenue in 2012.

seems like if people want to pay, then good for browne for giving them what they want.

though better on you for getting the effectively same thing for extremely little $. there's a finite supply of natty 60s junk. and a finite number of picky, intelligent customers. and an infinite amount of people who wanna stay dipped


Ben said...

Funny, right when I came across "...so called men's designers have a nasty habit of creating silly unwearable costumes..." I immediately thought of the Black Fleece line.

Being involved in the NYC fashion world, my ex used to try to push me to wear suits that looked like they'd been put through the wash on hot. Perhaps that's part of the reason she's now an ex.

I can't believe Brooks keeps greenlighting this shit year after year.

Anonymous said...

Great post and even greater discussion.

When is this magic time of 650 pound bespoke suits on Savile Row?

Lacroix said...

That is a hell of a nice pattern matching!!!