Are you the brands you wear?
I've never been a particularly brand-conscious consumer of clothing. If it fits and looks okay, that's good enough for me. A recent engagement into the world of retail clothing brought me back to the world of branding and the questions that I had about it all.
A department store I worked for briefly had a Polo shop for toddlers. Toddlers? They don't care if their shirts have the Polo bear on them. I imagine they'd rather have a princess or an astronaut. Polo is more for mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, for status purposes.
Status. Individuality. Style. Those are the things people around the planet are always searching for- even in the most remote and poverty-stricken areas. Designer brands are an easy way to show status and taste, and they have taken over the world of fashion, regardless of the quality of the garment or the sweatshops that put them together.
Up until the 19th century, designer clothing was not a thing. People either made their own clothing or bought it locally from tailors and seamstresses. In 1818 the first big designer, Brooks Brothers launched their store and brand in the world of men's clothing, and many more followed in the even more lucrative field of women's clothing.
As near as I can tell, there are four different levels of designer clothing. First, there are the European luxury brands. London, Paris, and Milan all host fashion weeks where the best of the best showcase expensive outfits that are meant to dazzle and impress. The folks on the tv show Project Runway all aspire to these heights. These are the ones that are most tempting to the $460 Billion fashion counterfeit industry, and have the highest snob appeal. We're talking companies like Gucci, Louis Vitton, Chanel, Hermes, Dior and Versace.
The second tier is the American superbrands of fashion designers. Headquartered in the US but made in Asia and Mexico, these well-known brands are everywhere. You can get them in department stores, online, and at outlet malls all over the country. The big cheese is Nike, with sales of over $36 Billion per year, with Adidas a distant second at $24 Billion. While known for shoes, these two brands sell branded clothing to match their footwear. Levis are one of the best-known American superbrands, with sales around $6 Billion, and they are the leaders throughout history in denim and blue jeans. And then there are the American brands that were started by single designers that have become institutions- Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, and Calvin Klein. One thing that all of these brands have in common is that they advertise their name on both the front and inside the garment. The name (or in Nike's case, the swoosh), and how it's displayed is a big part of the appeal.
The third tier is the retail store designer brands. These clothes can generally only be bought in a store owned and operated by the brand itself. In their own store, the designers behind each of these brands can create their own little world. The clothes themselves don't always have the brand name on the outside,(which lowers the snob appeal) but there is a theme and feel to each brand that they try to convey. These brands include Victoria's Secret, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, LL Bean, American Eagle and Aeropostale. This is the segment of clothing stores that's been struggling the most with the decline of in-person shopping. Many of these stores have closed locations in the past decade and have to re-think their brand strategy.
The final tier is my favorite- the private label brands. These are brands that are made up by retailing giants like Wal-Mart and Target to appear like they're prestigious designer brands. Stores love these types of brands the most because the profit margins are much better than if they sell other people's clothing like Hanes or North Face. Most of the public has no idea what the brand names mean or who designed them, but they like the lower prices. The quality? I have no clue. Macy's has Charter Club and Alfani, Target has Prologue and A New Day, Penneys has St. John's Bay and Liz Claiborne, and Wal-Mart has George and Time and Tru. Retailing giant Amazon has even been getting into the private label business with brands like Goodthreads and Spotted Zebra.
All this begs the question- are designer clothes worth the extra money? I'm probably one of the last persons to answer that question, as I have zero designer clothes in my wardrobe intentionally. Clothing is one of the main ways we present ourselves to the world, and if a name or symbol on the front makes someone feel better about themselves, I have no problem with that. Just remember you are not your clothing. You can't judge a book by its cover and all that. I generally don't judge people whether or not they have a penguin, alligator or polo pony on their shirt, and neither should you.
People go insane over designer clothes. It's the number one shoplifted item from retail stores, and there's a term called "wardrobing" that describes people who buy designer clothes, wear them for a bit, and then return them for full price. Russians went crazy over Levi's 501 jeans during the days of the Soviet Union, and brand obsession is more important in some third world countries than it is in America. But does anybody really need a Nike Air Mag pair of shoes (now valued at $26,000)?
A better question would be are designer clothes better made and longer lasting? Maybe. You generally get what you pay for, even from a resale shop. From what I can find, the basics apply here- metal zippers, matching patterns, strong stitching, good threads and natural fabrics. Unless you are a fashionista, you want clothes that will look good and last a long time doing it.
The best question regarding designer clothes is are they more ethical than other clothing brands? Do they treat their workers better and use more sustainable processes? From what I can tell, the answer so far is no. The fashion industry is a very competitive one with small profit margins, and the workers and factories get squeezed for the lowest costs available worldwide. Part of that is our fault for providing the market for cheaper clothes.
Things may be changing, though, in part because of the tragic Bangladesh clothing factory collapse in 2013. Over 1100 people died in that accident, tied to unsafe conditions in a garment factory, and it galvanized attention on the ongoing problems of garment workers. Since then, many new companies have emerged claiming to be sustainable, ethical or both. Google ethical clothing brands and you will come up with a whole new batch of designers who are going for something different than the folks mentioned above. Hopefully the big companies will catch up if consumers insist on it.
For more information, check out the Clean Clothes Campaign at Cleanclothes.org and be more aware of what you put on your and your family's bodies. Clothes can carry karma just like anything else. And for goodness sake don't waste your money on designer dog clothing like this: