My family knows a number of people who run dry cleaning businesses here in the U.S. My dad recently spoke with a dry cleaner owner who had to pay out a $2,000 claim to a customer, after the cleaning didn’t go well for her Dolce & Gabbana dress.
How did this happen? Shouldn’t professional dry cleaners know how to clean clothing properly? Why didn’t they look at the care instruction label?
Of course, the answer’s not so simple.
The thing is, it’s often impossible to know how to clean and take care of designer clothes properly. Luxury clothes aren’t made with lasting quality in mind; for better or for worse, artistry and aesthetics are the main concerns. Fabric performance, testing, and quality control aren’t a high priority, and the clothes that get made reflect that. Unlike mass-manufactured clothing, care instructions aren’t developed and tested to see if they’re appropriate. Designer clothes aren’t made with practical concerns, like cleaning, related to actual wearing of clothing in mind.
In contrast, mass-produced garments have to go through many rounds of decisions and inspections before they reach the market. Fabrics are carefully developed and created to ensure they hold up under wear and tear. Inspectors review every step of the garment-making process for quality control. Then additional performance testing is done by a third party lab, which test sample garments to develop care instructions that are appropriate for the items. All of these steps work together to create clothes that meet various standards for consistency, and ensure adherence to industry standards and the ordering company’s specifications for mass-market garments.
Let’s learn more about the contrasting approaches to garment making between large producers and small-lot production for high-end designers. You’ll see they’re almost entirely different industries, even though the end product is similar in the form of clothing. You might see how the operations are so different, that they might as well be considered different industries altogether. Read on to find out more.
How high-end designer clothing is made
When a high-end designer wants to create a garment, he goes to the fabric market to pick out fabric. He runs his hands along some fabric, and if he likes how a fabric feels between his fingertips, it’s picked out. Little thought is given to how the fabric will hold up under construction, wear, and cleaning, even though these are critical considerations for garments. Clothes have to perform a lot of work to keep us covered and stay intact while doing it, including through cleaning. But these practical issues are largely ignored by high-end designers, whose focus is solely on design. And that’s simply the business–the designer focuses on aesthetics, and it’s someone else’s job to make it work in real life.
After the designer makes his fabric choice, a small batch of fabric is purchased to make about 50 pieces of a style–and that’s a generous estimate. High end pieces are never made in large lots, because there isn’t much demand for them. To make their clothes, designers use in-house sewers or contract out to very small manufacturers, which can include grandmothers working from their living rooms. While this may evoke craftsmanship and tradition, it doesn’t allow for very good quality control throughout the construction process, with minimal inspections being done, if any.
Now, the care instruction label. Most garments sold in the U.S. are legally required to have care instruction labels. But, there aren’t a lot of specific requirements about how the instructions should be made–like if a garment has to be actually tested following the instructions to see if they’re appropriate. Basically a company can come up with any care instruction based on things like “experience.” As long as they can provide some kind of rationale to justify the instructions they included, manufacturers have a lot of legal freedom regarding the care label.
As a result of all of these factors, there are zero guarantees on how a high-end designer’s garment will perform on your body or in real life.
More recently, there has been a trend in luxury fashion to shift the business focus away from clothing to accessories that likely contributes to a drop in quality. For many high-end fashion companies, the garment production side creates a net business loss. For many of them, most profits come from non-clothing items like bags and perfumes. Some even view creating a ready-to-wear line and producing an elaborate runway as a marketing cost to drum up buzz about the brand, to create a fantasy that is used to sell wallets. While there are still high-end brands that rely on clothing for revenues, the trend for high-end design companies has long been to focus on accessories. So you can see why there’s even less care put into the garment production side by these designers.
All this to emphasize that garment quality is generally not a high priority for high-end designers. What they put out on the market could be seen as shells of clothing–costumes that may look good but aren’t meant for the daily wear-and-tear of actual clothes worn outside on bodies, by humans who tug and snag and sweat.
Let’s contrast all of this with how a mass market producer like Old Navy makes garments.
How mass-produced clothes are made
As a TLDR, the overarching reason large producers make better quality clothing that because there is an extremely large potential business loss at stake with industrial scale producers; as a result, mass producers implement many quality control measures that result in more consistent, better quality clothing reaching the market.
One major difference is that a large producer like Old Navy does not buy pre-made fabric–in fact, it works backwards by developing a fabric specifically for a specific style. Because styles are made in large batches of one million pieces of a style for such large producers, it makes more economic sense for the contractor to make its own fabric.This also allows the companies to develop fabrics that meet their own highly exacting standards to hold up to construction, performance, and other customizable details.
After Old Navy’s in-house designers come with a new style, a team of designers, vendors and manufacturers work together over months to develop an appropriate fabric for the style. Factors for an appropriate fabric include feel, density/opacity, stretch, ability to maintain dye through washes, and other performance measures. Multiple rounds of review and testing are completed to develop a fabric. Fabric testing and specs are created to exacting detail: weight, feel, color stubs, flexibility, all to make sure it can withstand construction. and can be washed, and to make sure fabric doesn’t stretch or shrink too much. In contrast to the focus on artistry and aesthetics for high-end designers, for large producers the emphasis is on practicality and performance.
Fabric-making is the most technically difficult part of large-scale garment production, involving precise, unforgiving chemistry for dyeing, potential for errors involving shrinkage, and not much room for error because of the specifications of the retailer ordering the garments. A lot can go wrong, so quality control is extremely strict for large manufacturers–you can imagine the massive losses they would sustain if an order for 1 million shirts turned out to be made improperly and shrank a great deal. Not only would the manufacturer have to eat the production costs, they’ll be asked to pay the retailer’s lost profits, costs for the salaries for the retailer’s employees who had to spend time that turned out to be a waste, and other related costs. Let alone the loss of trust that may result in the manufacturer losing a large and valuable customer in the retailer.
There are additional testing requirements for mass-produced, imported goods that make up most of the styles sold by large retailers like Old Navy. Because of the very high potential liability for errors in production, large manufacturers usually farm out testing to third party laboratories that specialize in garment testing. These labs take completed garments and test them to the breaking point, basically shredding up clothes to see how well they perform. Care instructions are developed from the testing performed by labs. This way, manufacturers can share the blame with labs in case something does go wrong.
So you can see how much testing and quality control work goes into mass-produced clothing. Because of the scale at which production takes place, even small errors can result in huge business losses. Therefore a lot of quality control precautions are implemented to ensure production meets a number of standards. Of course, it can and does happen where these steps are skipped or not executed properly and quality can suffer, but good manufacturers will make sure they do happen.
This is how it can end up that a $30 dress from Old Navy can hold up better than a $2,000 Dolce and Gabbana. Price is not necessarily correlated with quality, and you don’t always get what you pay for.
Should I not bother with luxury brands, then?
My opinion is no, though it’s not the most informed. To be perfectly honest, I don’t own a lot of clothes from high-end brands. I’ve flirted with buying some in the past, but I found most of the designs are pretty impractical for my lifestyle, and I’ve never been that interested in fashion and trends per se. And also, if I were going to spend this much money on clothes, I’d get everything custom made. Tailors can copy any style out there, it would fit me perfectly, and it’d be cheaper. Even in an expensive city like New York you can get custom-made pants for $400-500, and that’s a fraction of what you’d pay for pretty simple styles from Louis Vuitton or whatnot.
I do think there’s some correlation between price and quality, though, where mid-range brands seem to have the best quality. Sort of a bell curve:
These would be brands that are produced at an industrial scale (though not quite Old Navy levels), with adequate quality control measures, but made using better fabrics and construction. For example, Max Mara has the smoothest wool I’ve touched–the next time I need a wool coat, I plan to get one from there. And I have a trench from Moncler that I love and will wear forever. There’s other brands in this price range like Elie Tahari, Eileen Fisher, or Milly, which make wearable, well-made clothing that aren’t thousands of dollars per piece.
I’m not taking anything away from women who buy designer clothes simply because they love the design and have the finances to do so. But if you don’t have the money to spend a lot on clothing, there’s no need to spend a lot on investment pieces in order to build a lasting wardrobe. It’s definitely possible to find pretty decent quality pieces at H&M and other budget mass-market retailers, if you shop judiciously and with care. Simply things like preferring wovens over knits (a weaker fabric) and buying thicker fabrics that are more durable and hold shape better help. More expensive doesn’t always mean better, and there’s no need to feel like you can’t wear nice, well-made clothes just because you don’t have a lot of money to spend.