The real value of couture

In honor of NY Fashion Week, I’ll tell you what I really think about couturiers. In light of yesterday’s post on Project Runway, my views are bound to surprise many of my visitors but I assure you my views are not contradictory. Before I forget, if you’re interested in all the excitement of NY Fashion Week, you really need to visit Pajamas Media. They’re aggregating the postings of all the people blogging the event. For the inside scoop on the event, you’ll need to pop over there for a (probably lengthy) visit.

In my opinion, anyone manufacturing apparel no matter how mundane, should be grateful and thank (insert your deity of preference) for the exclusive and even sometimes whacko couturiers. In my opinion, the press and consumer interest they generate amounts to the closest thing to an industry marketing group as we’re ever likely to get. I don’t even think that the controversy they generate is necessarily bad (just spell my name right); if it weren’t for couturiers, I think consumers would have given up on fashion long ago. Couturiers are the closest thing to a “Got Milk?” campaign as we’re ever going to get and it doesn’t cost us a dime.

In fact, one of the greatest benefits that the sometimes strange couturiers generate is maintaining perceived value -the retail price levels of apparel. As the haute designers charge ever more obscene prices, it makes our prices seem much more reasonable in comparison. If we didn’t have couturiers to maintain perceived consumer value, I can’t imagine how the value of apparel would fall particularly when you consider the effects of Asian outsourcing and consequent lowering costs of production. While apparel prices have continued to fall -as they have in everything from computers to cars- I believe the price deflation we’ve seen in apparel would be even greater if not for their influence in stimulating value in the minds of the average consumer.

For example, according to the article Falling Retail Prices in WWD (sub required) on Jan 19, 2006, US apparel retail prices have fallen for the eighth consecutive year. In 2005, prices fell 1.1 % below 2004 levels.

From 1998 through 2004, apparel retail prices fell each 12-month period as follows: 0.7 percent, 0.5 percent, 1.8 percent, 3.2 percent, 1.8 percent, 2.1 percent and 0.2 percent.

Similarly, discounting is not even across price categories. It is higher priced goods -designer level- which have retained their margins.

There are items that are hot: a $300 to $400 handbag is hot and a $40 handbag is not, and a $150 pair of jeans is hot, while a $40 pair of jeans is not.

Still, I’m not sure that apparel continues to provide the same or greater value as before -at least not commensurate with advances in the technology of cars, computers and medicine. All of these products are superior to what we had 20 years ago but our clothing is worse which brings me to the dilution effect related to the plethora of commodities like t-shirts masquerading as “fashion”. I’m disturbed by the idea that all other areas of human endeavor continue to improve but our clothing is worse. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, in 2132 we won’t be wearing those cool clothes and uniforms you see in science fiction movies; we’ll all be dressed in sweats and tee-shirts. A more accurate depiction of Star Trek cast members on the bridge would be the wearing of tee shirts reading “Beam me up Scotty!”. Now, were clothing priced appropriately to the overall level of quality goods in the marketplace, I’d argue that real prices should have fallen even further than they have. My argument is that apparel prices have maintained relative stability due to intangible factors of which we can only speculate; that of the influence of haute couturiers.

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  1. Malcolm Brooks says:

    Wow is right, I love the way you put the words together so that it is visual.(The Star Trek comment) What you are saying is very true, and that is way I want to indulge in the fashion world. Like the site!

  2. christy fisher says:

    A comment I just read from Daniel V. (Project Runway’s latest season’s superstar) is encouraging:
    “I say if you can sleep comfortably in it, I don’t want to see it on the street,” Vosovic said in a phone interview from his native New York City. “It’s too easy.”

    I have faith in the young designers (even though I’m tough on ’em)…

    BTW..I do not own a pair of sweats, nor a “hoodie”, nor a pair of $200 jeans..

  3. mc says:

    “apparel prices have maintained relative stability due to intangible factors of which we can only speculate”–KF

    I have a theory on this as well. I kind of think that a lot of consumers want to assert that they’re unaffected by recession rates. Part of it is businesses knowing this and part of it is businesses pushing this idea. $100 is the new $20.

    I don’t mind haute. I like the idea of it: an artist with free reign and profit being of no consequence. If I could design anything I wanted, w/o concern if it would actually sell or not, a few pieces would be… strange.

    I loathe the tee shirt-thing too. There’s safety in numbers… but “I am unique b/c the graphics on my tee shirt are different from that other guy’s”.

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