“Learning to move elegantly through the world is one of the great pleasures of manhood. No longer do you have to stomp and clomp and speak with your jaw first. At a certain point, the body knows what it is, knows how it is received — and those around respond accordingly. Manhood is grace and certainty. Confidence. Ease.”

Jon Caramanica on dressing like a grownup (sort of) in The New York Times.

-Pete

The Problem with Labeling
Pete posted a great excerpt yesterday from a recent New Yorker article about the relevancy of country-of-origin labels in the modern world. For clothing production these days, wool can be sourced from Australia, and then sent to Scotland to be spun into yarn, Ireland to be woven into fabric, and Italy to be “finished.” And that’s just for the fabric. The trimmings, such as felts and canvassing, can have their own global production chains, and all these “ingredients” can then be sent to one country (say, China) for most of the assembly, and then another (say, England) for the rest. The companies who do such work, by the way, can be Japanese-owned British firms with Chinese workers. In the end, does a “made in England” label really mean anything?
Consumer Prejudices
The article made me think of a rich area of research about the effects of such labels on consumer behavior. The most famous (or at least the most cited) study was done in 1965 by Robert Schooler. He took a sample of 200 students and had them evaluate several products, all of which were identical except in one way: they had (fictitious) country-of-origin labels. So, for example, some of the things he had students evaluate were swatches of the same beige fabric - medium weave, 80% cotton and 20% linen. Again, all identical, except one was labeled “made in Guatemala,” one “made in Mexico,” one “made in Costa Rica,” and one “made in El Salvador.” As you can probably guess, the students were biased by their own prejudices and saw differences in the fabrics that weren’t actually there. In this case, fabrics believed to be from Guatemala and Mexico were evaluated as being higher-quality than those from Costa Rica and El Salvador.
Schooler’s study launched an entire field of research, one that has been on-going for over forty years. All basically confirm his finding: that country-of-origin labels often bias people’s evaluations and are loaded with national stereotypes. There have been some refinements to the theory (mostly on issues regarding direction, strength, and generalizability of such biases), but they more or less say the same thing. Folks interested in reading more about these findings can check out this literature review by Keith Dinnie.
Do Country-of-Origin Labels Tell You About Quality?
Here’s the problem: many stereotypes have at their center a kernel of truth. That’s what makes them so socially “sticky.” It’s true that there are a ton of low-quality clothes produced in China and that many high-end ones produced in Western Europe. At the same time, I have many Chinese-made garments - such as sweaters by RRL and Phillip Lim, as well as outerwear by Nanamica - that are much nicer than many Western-European-made things. Country-of-origin tags are sometimes helpful in determining quality, but one shouldn’t read the whole story off of a label (especially when the garment is right there in front of you, and you can look at much more real and reliable dimensions of quality). Just because something was made in China doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad (or, frankly, if it says it was made in Italy, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t made in China). 
The cynic in me wants to believe that such labels are just ways retailers seek a competitive edge and manufacturers look for protection. Maybe so, maybe not, but with the kind of highly-fragmented, complex, global production chains that exist nowadays,* the New Yorker article asks a good question: do these labels even mean anything anymore?
* The New York Times had a good article many years ago about the fragmented production chain involved in the manufacturing of iPods, and it talks about which parts of the chain produce the most value (thus, are most worth trying to keep domestic). Spoiler alert: it’s not manufacturing.
(Note, this controversial post obviously doesn’t reflect the opinion of Jesse or Pete, just my own. For what it’s worth, however, it was made in America.)

The Problem with Labeling

Pete posted a great excerpt yesterday from a recent New Yorker article about the relevancy of country-of-origin labels in the modern world. For clothing production these days, wool can be sourced from Australia, and then sent to Scotland to be spun into yarn, Ireland to be woven into fabric, and Italy to be “finished.” And that’s just for the fabric. The trimmings, such as felts and canvassing, can have their own global production chains, and all these “ingredients” can then be sent to one country (say, China) for most of the assembly, and then another (say, England) for the rest. The companies who do such work, by the way, can be Japanese-owned British firms with Chinese workers. In the end, does a “made in England” label really mean anything?

Consumer Prejudices

The article made me think of a rich area of research about the effects of such labels on consumer behavior. The most famous (or at least the most cited) study was done in 1965 by Robert Schooler. He took a sample of 200 students and had them evaluate several products, all of which were identical except in one way: they had (fictitious) country-of-origin labels. So, for example, some of the things he had students evaluate were swatches of the same beige fabric - medium weave, 80% cotton and 20% linen. Again, all identical, except one was labeled “made in Guatemala,” one “made in Mexico,” one “made in Costa Rica,” and one “made in El Salvador.” As you can probably guess, the students were biased by their own prejudices and saw differences in the fabrics that weren’t actually there. In this case, fabrics believed to be from Guatemala and Mexico were evaluated as being higher-quality than those from Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Schooler’s study launched an entire field of research, one that has been on-going for over forty years. All basically confirm his finding: that country-of-origin labels often bias people’s evaluations and are loaded with national stereotypes. There have been some refinements to the theory (mostly on issues regarding direction, strength, and generalizability of such biases), but they more or less say the same thing. Folks interested in reading more about these findings can check out this literature review by Keith Dinnie.

Do Country-of-Origin Labels Tell You About Quality?

Here’s the problem: many stereotypes have at their center a kernel of truth. That’s what makes them so socially “sticky.” It’s true that there are a ton of low-quality clothes produced in China and that many high-end ones produced in Western Europe. At the same time, I have many Chinese-made garments - such as sweaters by RRL and Phillip Lim, as well as outerwear by Nanamica - that are much nicer than many Western-European-made things. Country-of-origin tags are sometimes helpful in determining quality, but one shouldn’t read the whole story off of a label (especially when the garment is right there in front of you, and you can look at much more real and reliable dimensions of quality). Just because something was made in China doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad (or, frankly, if it says it was made in Italy, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t made in China). 

The cynic in me wants to believe that such labels are just ways retailers seek a competitive edge and manufacturers look for protection. Maybe so, maybe not, but with the kind of highly-fragmented, complex, global production chains that exist nowadays,* the New Yorker article asks a good question: do these labels even mean anything anymore?

* The New York Times had a good article many years ago about the fragmented production chain involved in the manufacturing of iPods, and it talks about which parts of the chain produce the most value (thus, are most worth trying to keep domestic). Spoiler alert: it’s not manufacturing.

(Note, this controversial post obviously doesn’t reflect the opinion of Jesse or Pete, just my own. For what it’s worth, however, it was made in America.)

The New York Times’ T Magazine published a guide goofing on Japanese men’s magazines, including Free & Easy, Popeye, Men’s Non no, HUGE, and 2nd. Free & Easy? “It’s like if GQ covered cats.”
-Pete
“I saw a guy in Brooklyn once with a handlebar mustache, pierced ears, a fedora hat and jodhpurs. He was a collage of sartorial attempts at evading himself. It looked as if he were interrupted during a shave in the mid-1850s and had to grab some clothes and dress quickly while being chased through a time tunnel.”

Marc Maron

My friend Marc Maron, whose new TV show Maron just premiered on IFC, wrote this great piece for the Times about finding the perfect pants. And just living your life.

“It is possible to like a look and not crave it, to appreciate it and yet know it’s for someone else. Clothes, like photographs and poems and reality TV shows, work on several levels. Sometimes it’s best to stand back, out of the blast radius.” Jon Caramanica on Lanvin men’s store (link via Breathnaigh). Similarly, I would add, it’s possible to like a look even if it’s not something you would adopt for yourself. It’s good to separate these two concepts. 
How about a counterbalance to the holiday buying frenzy, courtesy of Barbara Kruger and The New York Times? This piece is called “For Sale.”

How about a counterbalance to the holiday buying frenzy, courtesy of Barbara Kruger and The New York Times? This piece is called “For Sale.”

Bill Cunningham New York is out on DVD, and you can also find it on Netflix Instant. It’s a documentary about Bill Cunningham, the On the Street photographer for the New York Times, who also has been shooting society events and fashion shows since the couture era.

The 80-something Cunningham lives a monastic life: he spent fifty years in a studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, the walls of which were lined with filing cabinets full of photographs. Indeed, the apartment had no other features besides filing cabinets of photographs: the bathroom was down the hall, and the bed was simply a bedroll on top of some plywood on top of some filing cabinets.

Cunningham simply lives clothes. Every morning, he puts on his trademark work smock (he buys them in bulk for $20 each at a hardware store in Paris), pulls his bike out of a janitor’s closet in his building, and hits the street, documenting the beauty around him. If you’ve ever watched one of his slideshows for NYTimes.com, you know that his eye is informed and discerning, but also gloriously enthusiastic, democratic and non-judgemental. Follow his work for a month and you’ll see society doyennes, drag queens, Harlem teenagers and everything in between.

Then, at night, he puts on an orange safety vest and pedals to charity benefits - he refuses to look at guest lists and picks solely based on what he thinks of the charity, and he won’t eat or even drink their food. He simply documents, documents, documents.

The film is so filled with inspiration, it almost boils over. Cunningham’s beautiful, half-French, half-English speech as he is inducted into the French Order of Arts & Letters is not to be missed. “Seek beauty, and you’ll find it.”

The movie touches upon Cunningham the man, as well. He is, as he admits, both garrulous and open and fiercely guarded. We tried to book him for season one of our show and were turned down flat - the documentarians, friends of his, worked for years to convince him to participate. He goes to mass every week, and has never had a romantic relationship.

If, like me, you’re turned off by the fashion industry, Cunningham may restore your faith in its possibilities. He’s questioned about whether fashion matters, whether he should have dedicated his life dealing with the “real problems” of the “real world.” Our clothes, he says, are our armor: that which gives us the strength to engage the world instead of shrinking from it. He’s a man who believes, really, in beauty. His sincerity and open heart are absolutely magical.

Seriously: watch the film.

What bothers me about these pieces is the blurring of the line between quality and heritage. Florsheim has a rich heritage, but makes almost exclusively lousy shoes. Their best line is, when it comes to quality, OK. Fair.

There was an article in WWD this week about Eddie Bauer “capitalizing” on their heritage. Perhaps they should try making products that don’t suck. It strikes me as a sick byproduct of the fashion industry’s obsession with marketing over substance.

Bill Cunningham is everything that’s right about fashion. He’s a street photographer. A real street photographer. He doesn’t hang out outside fashion shows and shoot models when they come outside to smoke. He dons his anorak, jumps on his bike and rides it all over New York City, taking pictures of what he notices. He isn’t trying to shape trends, he’s just trying to capture the flavor of what’s On the Street. He isn’t interested in predicting trends or capturing the marketplace. He just returns humane photographs of real people in interesting outfits.

I tried my damndest to interview Cunningham for Season One of PTO, and was rebuffed by the Times’ publicity department, but I still hold out hope for the future. In the meantime, I’m excited about this feature documentary.

If you haven’t read this wonderful first-person piece from 2002, it’s a must-read. So is this New Yorker profile from 2009. What a graceful man.