NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Have you ever looked at a pair of high-end jeans and wondered what you're getting for the money? Or peered into an Armani store front and wondered why those suits cost so much more than what's on offer at Men’s Wearhouse? Why exactly do Louis Vuitton knockoffs cost so much less than the real thing? In short -- when it comes to fashion, do you get what you pay for?
What We Buy When We Buy from a Brand
Kyle Vucko, CEO and founder of made-to-measure suit company Indochino, explains that "every brand has a unique story they’re trying to tell and a unique look." To that end, he says, "I don’t mind paying a couple hundred dollars for a pair of jeans if I like the cut and the style."
He compares buying clothes to a bit like buying furniture.
"Ikea is good for some things, but I’m willing to spend a lot of money on a single chair," Vucko says.
Rick Cottle, an assistant professor of textiles, merchandising and design at Middle Tennessee State University, notes that a large part of what you’re buying when you buy brands is an identity.
"A lot of times you’re buying an idea," he said. "Some people are aware of that and some people aren't."
Are You Just Buying a Name?
"A lot of times, with high-end Italian labels, you're paying for the name rather than the quality of the product," says Vucko. "That's not necessarily bad, it's just not worth the price."
This is because, a lot of times those high-end companies are using the same Asian manufacturers as smaller companies. The other side of the equation is that Asian manufacturing might even be better than its Italian or North American counterparts.
"We've looked at moving our facilities but what we keep coming back to is that the best facilities are in China," Vucko said.
Barring fringe examples of 80-year-old tailors making suits by hand, Vucko believes this is the rule rather than the exception.
Cottle believes that when you pay more money, you get a superior product -- up to a point.
"A cashmere coat in the $2,000 range is going to be really nice and probably last about as long as one that costs four times as much," he says.
As a negative example, Cottle cites "fast fashion." A lot of people are familiar with the phrase, but don’t really know what it means. This refers to down market, highly inexpensive items aimed at fashion forward individuals in the lower-income brackets.
"My students are often surprised to hear that a lot of these clothing items are meant to be worn no more than six times," he says.
So What Are You Buying When You Pay More?
"It’s a bit like food," says Cottle. "If you're halfway educated about what you eat, you’re going to spend a little more on staples."
For example, Cottle only wants local milk and decent bread -- or the fashion equivalent of, say, slacks, button-downs. Extraneous items matter less to him.
"When it comes to spices you don’t use very much, you’re happy to buy something a little more down market," he says.
You can see the difference between higher-end and lower-end clothes even at the workwear level.
"Carhartts aren't cheap, but guys who work outside know that they’ll keep you warm," Cottle said. Thus, people spend a little more on a staple item, like a heavy winter jacket, while they skimp on items like underwear or even socks.
Vucko, whose company only recently has moved off of the Internet and into its own retail space, notes that a lot of times what you’re paying for is advertising and retail stores that lose money.
"They have these huge stores and ad campaigns that tug on your heartstrings and make you want to buy," he said. Many times, Vucko points out, higher end brands keep stores in fancy neighborhoods even though they lose money. This helps them maintain the image of an up-market brand.
How to Evaluate Higher End Goods
"Most people would probably spend $300 on a pair of jeans if they knew they were getting better quality," says Cottle. He notes that people are more than happy to spend that kind of money on a pair of shoes, yet balk at the idea of spending it on a pair of jeans, even if the jeans might be of a higher quality and last longer.
Cottle's department teaches an entire class on that wrinkle in consumer dynamics, because it's so complex.
Ultimately, the smart consumer is looking for things like thread counts, quality of materials and how much detail.
"Stitches per inch on the seams is one of the best ways to tell," Cottle said. "How far are they spread out?"
At the end of the day, however, the best thing to do is just try items on. Just like sitting in a car, Cottle says that you can begin to instantly get a feel about whether you’re paying for quality or name.
-- Written for MainStreet by Nicholas Pell