“Last season, this thing was not a thing,” says trend spotter, a freelance expert. “But just look at Hollywood. From the runway to the real way, now this thing is definitely a thing.”
If you grew up with suburban mooks universally wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, and headed to a high school today, you might be in for a surprise. The company has struggled in the recession years, and young people are turning towards brands like H&M. A&F is responding by taking their logos off their clothes, and presenting themselves as laid-back and sophisticated, rather than hyper-branded and luxuriously aspirational.
In fact, some are saying that young people are defining their social groups through clothing less than ever. Not sure if I’m buying it, but this is what Piper-Jaffrey analyst Steff Wissink told The New Yorker:
“Ten years ago, I could walk into an auditorium of two hundred kids, I could turn my back and tell them to switch seats and scramble.” Then, she said, she would turn around and guess which kids belonged to the same social groups according to what they were wearing—usually with great success. “Today,” she said, “it’s next to impossible.”
The real question: where are these auditoriums of 200 kids that are subject to the coldly capitalistic social experiments of retail analysts?
Anyway, it’s nice that Abercrombie is struggling.
It now appears… that jeans savaged by wild animals are a trend in designer sportswear. A Japanese denim brand had the bright idea, at least for raising its profile, of sewing indigo-dyed cotton fabric around rimless tires, sausage-shaped bolsters, and fat rubber balls, and throwing the objects to the inmates of the Kamine Zoo, in Hitachi City. In an accompanying video, the beasts bound from their cages and fall upon their novel chew toys with such relish that you have to wonder if there isn’t a little catnip involved. The scene reminded me of toddlers on Christmas morning, tumbling down the stairs, unable to contain their excitement, and tearing into the neatly wrapped parcels under the tree.When the fabric has been properly “distressed” — i.e., mauled — it is retrieved from the enclosures and made into trousers that are sold under the label Zoo Jeans.
The End of Brands?
It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its “most important asset,” more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. “Absolute Value,” a new book by Itamar Simonson, a marketing professor at Stanford, and Emanuel Rosen, a former software executive, shows that, historically, the rise of brands was a response to an information-poor environment. When consumers had to rely on advertisements and their past experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality; if a car was made by G.M., or a ketchup by Heinz, you assumed that it was pretty good. It was hard to figure out if a new product from an unfamiliar company was reliable or not, so brand loyalty was a way of reducing risk. As recently as the nineteen-eighties, nearly four-fifths of American car buyers stayed loyal to a brand.
Today, consumers can read reams of research about whatever they want to buy. This started back with Consumer Reports, which did objective studies of products, and with J. D. Power’s quality rankings, which revealed what ordinary customers thought of the cars they’d bought. But what’s really weakened the power of brands is the Internet, which has given ordinary consumers easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data, in an array of categories. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study found that eighty per cent of consumers look at online reviews before making major purchases, and a host of studies have logged the strong influence those reviews have on the decisions people make. The rise of social media has accelerated the trend to an astonishing degree: a dud product can become a laughingstock in a matter of hours. In the old days, you might buy a Sony television set because you’d owned one before, or because you trusted the brand. Today, such considerations matter much less than reviews on Amazon and Engadget and CNET. As Simonson told me, “each product now has to prove itself on its own.”
And this has made customer loyalty pretty much a thing of the past. Only twenty-five per cent of American respondents in a recent Ernst & Young study said that brand loyalty affected how they shopped.
You can read the rest of the article here.
Some of this strikes me as too much like the techno-optimism found in politics, where people used to think (and some still do) that the internet will help spread democracy, “rationality,” and whatever else they think is good. A lot of that has proved to be very debatable.
In menswear, I think it’s fair to say that an increasing number of men have become interested in buying well-made things, but exactly how many of us are able to accurately assess quality is an open question. For example, beyond looking for full canvassing, can anyone really determine the quality of a suit? We obviously know how a jacket fits us, and how it makes us feel, but these aren’t judgements that easily exist outside of branding.
In the last ten years or so, the “heritage movement” in menswear promised to bring quality back to clothing. Some of that promise has been fulfilled - the trend has encouraged more men to buy Goodyear welted shoes instead of glue jobs, for example. However, much of the movement has also been about the emotional appeal of anti-modernism - where modern, machine made things are “bad” and old-timey, handmade things are “good.” Of course, many of the things marketed today as “old timey,” “artisanal,” and “handmade” aren’t even so. The things we take to be indicators of quality are often just themes brands have come up with to help market their products - themes that aren’t any less superficial than the sex appeals used in the 1980s and ’90s.
To be sure, things such as online clothing forums and (hopefully) blogs such as this one have helped give men more information about clothes and how they’re made. But to say that this has led to a meaningful decline in brand loyalty seems to me like saying the internet has helped us choose better restaurants. Few us really do serious research when it comes to finding a place to eat, just as few of us will really do exhaustive research when it comes to shopping for a shirt. Most of the time, our selection is boiled down to three or four brands we believe in (a priori), and we do our “research” from there. And, in doing that research, we’re just as likely to find bad information online as we are to find good information.
Of course, none of this touches on how clothing is a way for us to signal that we’re part of an “in crowd.” Whether that’s a selvedge stripe on a pair of jeans, a “properly” designed button down collar, or the tri-color stripe that we pretend isn’t a logo on Thom Browne’s accessories, a lot of clothing is inherently about branding simply because they’re a way for us to brand ourselves to others. The snobby “avoid logos” adage is … in itself … a way to signal that you’re just part of a “better brand.”
Like much techno-optimism, Surowiecki’s thesis seems to take one small good thing about the internet and overstate it’s effect. Many of us have become more discerning customers, it’s true, but whether that’s really led to a decline in brand loyalty - at least in clothing - is highly questionable. It’s possible that fluctuations in sales have nothing to do with a decline in brand power at all, but rather with a speeding up of trends.
My Father’s Closet
From a March 16th, 1998 article of The New Yorker, John Seabrook pens this amazing piece titled "My Father’s Closet." It’s partly about his father’s closet, partly about his personality, and partly about how he - John Seabrook - came to find that he inherited his father’s penchant for clothing (if not his style). An excerpt:
As with most bespoke suits, each jacket has the exact day, month, and year it was ordered marked on the inside pocket. You can stand in the doorway, press a button, and watch as the history of my father, in the form of suits from all the different eras of his life, moves slowly past you. Drape suits, lounge suits, and sack suits, in worsted, serge, and gabardine; white linen suits for Palm Beach and Jamaica before the invention of air-conditioning; Glen plaids and knee-length loden coats for brisk Princeton-Harvard football games and a raccoon coat for Princeton-Dartmouth, which was later in the season. Suits for a variety of business occasions, from wowing prospective underwriters with a new offering (flashy pinstripes) to mollifying angry shareholders whose stock was diluted by the offering (humble sharkskin). Then, as the life-is-clothes approach succeeded at the office, suits for increasingly rarefied social events, from weddings at eleven and open-casket “viewings” at seven, to christenings, confirmations, and commencements, culminating in the outfits needed for four-in-hand driving, in which four horses are harnessed to a carriage—a sport that presents one with a daunting range of wardrobe challenges, determined by what time of day the driving event is taking place, whether it’s in the country or in town, whether one is a spectator or a participant, or a member or a guest of the club putting it on. Three-quarter-length cutaway coats, striped trousers, fancy waistcoats, top hats: his four-in-hand outfits are the part of his closet that verge on pure costume.
In a nearby closet are his shirts, made by Sulka or Lesserson or Turnbull & Asser; another closet contains a silken waterfall of neckties of every imaginable hue; still another holds shoe racks, starting at the bottom with canvas-and-leather newmarket boots and then rising in layers of elegance, through brown ankle-high turf shoes, reversed calf-quarter brogues, medallion toe-capped shoes with thick crêpe soles, and black wingtips with curved vamp borders, to the patent-leather dancing pumps at the top.
When he wasn’t dressed up, my father was either in pajamas (sensible cotton pajamas like the ones Jimmy Stewart wears in “Rear Window”) or naked. He was often naked. He embarrassed not a few of my friends by insisting on swimming naked in the pool when they were using it. But his nakedness was also a form of clothes, in the sense that it was a spectacle. Dressing without regard to clothes at all, occupying that great middle ground between dressed and undressed—dressing just to be warm or comfortable, which is the way most people wear clothes—did not seem to make sense to him.
Read the whole piece here.
March 16, 1960. This suit built by the Republic Aviation Corporation solved the problem of what “the well-dressed man” would “wear for a stroll over the airless moonscape.” An article in the New York Times promised that the outfit would have its own oxygen supply and that its tripod legs would “enable its wearer to rest by sitting on a perch inside.” The wrench hands were presumably for securing loose screws.
EFFECTIVE suit style via The New Yorker's Currency blog, which recently highlighted ads targeting the high earners of the 1920s. For reference, $55 in 1926 is roughly equivalent to $725 in 2013, and Finchley was a well-regarded men’s shop in the same league as Brooks Brothers.
"In 1951, when I was fourteen, I landed a job in an Oklahoma City laundromat. The pay was respectable—fifty cents and hour, up from forty-five. In a swampy, bunkerlike back room with a large concrete center drain, I had to mix bleach and water together in brown glass bottles for the customers to use. It was sweaty and dank, but I got to listen to a faraway radio, faint but distinct, playing music by the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Faron Young.
One day, I saw a news item about the murder of a nurse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A photograph of one of the teenage killers showed him in handcuffs, being escorted by police. He was wearing what looked to me like white Levi’s. White Levi’s! What style! I was overcome by an immediate urge to get a pair for myself, but after looking around I was told that no such product existed—at least, not in Oklahoma.
Then it came to me: I would make my own. I brought a pair of bluejeans from home, doused them in undiluted Clorox bleach, and placed them in a washing machine. I let them sit for half an hour, the mystery and suspense building. When I finally opened the door, I found, to my astonishment, a pair of pure-white, radiantly glowing Levi’s. A triumph.
Or so I thought. Reaching in to grab them, I felt my hand sweep through a puffy lump of dead white fibres, softer than cotton candy. The rivets and the buttons were the only parts that survived.
At the time, I was banking on white Levi’s coming into fashion. I had to wait twenty years to buy a pair off the rack.”
-Ed Ruscha in The New Yorker
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?
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.)
Amy Merrick of The New Yorker asks how luxury shopping has changed in the post-recession, post-outlet, post-internet shopping world.