This post has been brewing in the deep, dark recesses of my brain for ages. I’d like to say all that brewing means it’s now fully fermented, but that is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, I wanted to open a discussion about consumer expectations and market reality because I hear many of the same complaints and questions from readers, clients, friends, and family. And I’m betting many of you do, too, and have opinions and insights to share! Here are the main concerns I hear voiced:
- It frustrates me that many of the stores I love don’t make or stock my sizes.
- The stuff is gorgeous, but it’s just too expensive.
- So many clothing companies use shady labor and production practices.
- I want to support my local economy, but it can be so hard to find items that are made in my home country, state, or city.
- I love how cheap this is, but it falls apart after a few wears.
All valid complaints aligned with certain needs, wants, values, and expectations. And yet the current fashion marketplace cannot deliver on all of them. Not with current economic conditions, not for all of us, not all the time, and especially not if you want more than one of those concerns to be addressed simultaneously. I’ve put together the Venn Diagram that floats through my mind when I hear folks registering these concerns in multiples. I’m using my own knowledge and research to back this up, but will also set you up with some links to helpful resources at the end of this post. Now let’s dig in.
Low price: No one WANTS to pay bales of money for clothing. But the fact is that low price rarely overlaps with other consumer preferences. If it’s made locally, ethically, or extremely well you must expect to pay more. If you shop at big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, you can expect to find inexpensive clothing in a fairly large range of sizes although petites, talls, and petite plus sizes are rare in these environments.
Available in a variety of sizes: A few mid-market brands – most notably Land’s End and Talbots here in the U.S. – offer a true variety of sizes and relatively low prices. These two manage to offer standard, plus, petite plus, petite, and tall sizes to their shoppers, and very few garments cost more than $200. Most brands cannot or do not follow suit. Although plenty of brands will do petites and talls, these specialty sizes aren’t always available in stores. Some brands like Old Navy create plus sized garments but sell them online only. Although this can be viewed as discrimination – and sometimes it is – there are many factors at play. Brands must balance consumer demand, market segment concerns, stock floor availability, trends, the economic climate, cost of materials, marketing and advertising budgets, and many other factors. And they must choose their market, focus on a specific customer with specific needs and buying power. Aside from department stores, most clothing manufacturers are aiming for a defined group of consumers. You may not be in there. And while it’s true that the company in question could be making money off you if they’d just go to the trouble of including you, they may have determined that expanding their reach into your market segment isn’t a safe enough bet. It’s not fair in the least, but economic systems based on profit margins seldom are.
So how do two retailers manage what all the others fail to accomplish? Actually, I’d love to find that out myself, so I’ll work on getting reps from those two brands to chat with me. My educated guesses are that both are legacy brands with large, loyal followings wielding significant income and buying power. Likely Talbots and Land’s End chose to branch out into specialty size runs after years of building their brands on standard sizes. Somebody has to offer the specialties, and the ones who do it properly will get loads of business. But most retailers choose not to for reasons they may never divulge.
Quality construction: Again, Land’s End and Talbots both deliver well-made garments that are also available in a variety of sizes for relatively cheap. But quality construction doesn’t come cheap terribly often, since design, manufacturing, and materials all play a part and if you want good design, expert manufacturing, and high-quality materials you must expect to pay for them. All of them. Separately, as they exist at separate levels on the production chain. And that means costs will compound as a garment is made better and better. Garments that are made well from great materials may sometimes come in a variety of sizes, and can sometimes be made locally using ethical manufacturing processes. But they will very, VERY seldom be truly cheap for the end consumer to purchase.
Ethical manufacturing processes: Peek at that diagram again. See how “ethical manufacturing processes” has no overlap with “low price” or “available in a variety of sizes”? Current market forces make it virtually impossible for designers and manufacturers who monitor ethical practices all along the supply chain to charge low prices. This is especially true if they start with ethically harvested/created fibers and materials, but even if they compromise there and focus on worker rights, wages, and treatment the garments they produce will just plain cost more than fast fashion sweatshop duds.
I recently worked with Article 23, a tiny emerging company that was transparent and ethical throughout the entire production process. (Post here.) The garments weren’t available in many sizes, but they were darling and relatively affordable with a simple skirt at $46 and a dress at $90. As of this posting, the company appears to have gone under, though, potentially unable to keep up with their own low prices or admirably stringent policies.
In my experience, items that are made locally are frequently made ethically, too, though this is not always the case. If you are local to a major industrial town that houses sweatshops, all bets are off.
Made locally: Local is relative, of course, and finding clothing, shoes, and accessories that are made in your hometown can be virtually impossible unless you live in a large metropolis or seat of industry. But many people who can’t buy at city or state level still prefer to support manufacturers who produce within the borders of their home country. If your home country is the United States, Australia, or most of Europe that means you might be able to get quality construction and/or ethical practices alongside your local production, but you are very unlikely to get low prices or a variety of sizes. Here in the U.S., Karen Kane serves as a fabulous example. This company scores pretty high size wise, as they do stock some plus sizes, but they cannot support petites, talls, or petite plus. The garments are all made in the U.S. and they’re fabulous in quality, but they are relatively expensive based on comparable designs sold at big box stores.
Are there exceptions? OF COURSE. And there are also companies that strive to hit more than three marks at a time, and are working hard to get there. But most brands can’t or won’t. While it would be fabulous to live in a world where ethically made clothing could be obtained cheaply, or where local vendors offered their wares in a huge variety of sizes, we’re not there yet. And may never be.
As shoppers, it is important to understand the forces that drive merchant choices for a number of reasons. For one, it can help make those choices feel less personal. Imogen once told me that one of the most important things she’s learned in all her years working in the fashion industry is that clothing companies just want to make money. That’s it. That’s what’s driving everything they do. You could argue that some brands hint at aspirational marketing, but the cold hard bottom line is that they really couldn’t care less how you feel or who you are or what you want. They are in it for the cash, and will do what they believe is necessary to make that cash consistently.
Understanding these factors can also help manage disappointment and expectation. You may want that talented local designer to make her darling dresses in size 34, and she might do so someday. But to be instantly angry and disappointed and decide that she’s discriminating against and excluding you is discounting her business model, her expenses, and potentially her expertise in sizing/grading garments outside the standard. You may want all of your clothing to have been created ethically, and you may have access to that market someday. But to be incensed that an organic cotton dress made using fair labor practices costs five times as much as a similar dress made from lower quality materials in a sweatshop for Wal-mart is discounting important information about materials, labor, manufacturing, and economics. Again, I’m not saying this is fair or just, and I’m not saying it’s futile to work toward changing market forces and manufacturer policies. Just want the frustrations we feel to be based on relatively complete information.
Supporting materials and recommended reading:
- Out of Shape: Debunking Myths About Fashion and Fit by Mel Campbell
- “Get Smart About Manufacturing” by Wendy Brandes
- “Get Smart About Quality” by Wendy Brandes
- “Get Smart About Quantity” by Wendy Brandes
- “Elegance for All: Can ModCloth Change Plus Size Fashion For Good?” by Erin at Zero Style
- “Attention, Shoppers” – NYT interview with author of Overdressed
- “Why is Eco-Fashion So Expensive?” by Eviana Hartman
- “With Plus Size Options Comes Better Segmentation: An Explanation” by Marie Denee
- “How Would You Like Your Graphic Design?” by Colin Harman (the true inspiration behind this post)
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