If you aren’t in the habit of buying designer clothes, you’re still probably aware they’re expensive — but you may not realize just how expensive. Run a quick search on “designer clothing,” and the results are likely to make your eyes pop.
Looking at these price tags, you can’t help wondering what’s so special about these designer duds that makes them worth this kind of money. Does splurging on designer brands really buy you better quality or superior style, or are you just paying for the label? The answer is more complicated than most people think.
How to Know if Designer Clothes Are Worth the Price
To figure out whether designer clothing is worth the high prices, it’s crucial to understand how much it actually costs compared to mainstream clothes. There haven’t been many studies on this subject, but Datafiniti did one in 2016 focusing on designer shoes.
Datafiniti compared over 25,000 prices for shoes from 379 brands, including shoes with and without designer labels. It found that the average price for all non-luxury brands was $100 per pair. By contrast, the average prices for designer brands ranged from around $215 to nearly $1,400 — between twice as much and 14 times as much as ordinary shoes.
Another piece of data comes from a 2019 article published in Fast Company about Stitch Fix, a clothing subscription box. According to the article, regular Stitch Fix subscribers pay an average of $55 per garment. But Stitch Fix also offers a higher-end subscription box featuring premium designer labels. Garments in these boxes cost $100 to $600 — roughly two to 11 times as much.
You can also get an idea of how much more designer clothing costs by checking prices for specific apparel at department stores. For example, at Nordstrom, designer jeans range in price from $220 to $1,850.
By contrast, L.L. Bean — a brand generally known for quality but not status — charges $45 to $89 for adult jeans. So designer jeans cost anywhere from two and a half to 37 times as much as reasonably well-made jeans without the designer label.
What’s Behind the Cost
You pay significantly more for designer clothes than non-designer brands. But the next thing to figure out is what’s responsible for the price difference. A 2018 article published in HuffPost investigated this question for one specific garment: a plain white T-shirt.
HuffPost fashion reporter Julia Brucculieri consulted several experts to find out what accounts for the difference between a $5 white T-shirt from a fast-fashion brand and a designer T-shirt costing $300 or more. These experts identified several factors involved in the cost of each.
Most T-shirts are made from the same type of fabric: cotton. But according to design professors Margaret Bishop and Preeti Gopinath, two experts Brucculieri consulted for her article, there are different types of cotton. The cotton used in a T-shirt can vary in several ways that affect the price, including:
- Grade. Cotton fabric is graded based on the length of the “staple” — the tiny individual fibers in the yarn. The longer these fibers are, the smoother and stronger the fabric is. Higher-grade cotton costs more, which means clothes made from them will have a higher price tag.
- Variety. There are many cotton varieties grown in different parts of the world, and some cost more than others. For instance, pima cotton, which clothiers prize for its extra-long staple, can only grow in warm, dry climates. That makes pima cotton rarer and more expensive than most other varieties.
- Brand. Some cotton varieties have patented brand names. For instance, Supima is a particular brand of pima cotton that’s grown exclusively in the U.S. These brand names also add to the price of the material because of the marketing costs built into them.
- Processing. Manufacturers process cotton fibers in several ways. For example, most cotton is carded, meaning they brush the fibers before twisting them into yarn. But after carding, some cotton goes through a second process, called combing, to remove the short fibers. Combed cotton produces a smoother, higher-quality yarn that costs more than uncombed cotton.
- Sustainability. Organically grown cotton costs more to produce. And ultimately, retailers pass that cost on to the consumer. But blending synthetic fibers like polyester with the cotton tends to make it cheaper. HuffPost notes that designer T-shirts aren’t necessarily made with the highest-quality fabric. So you can’t assume a designer T-shirt contains pima or organic cotton unless the label says so. However, the very cheapest T-shirts — like the $5 ones from H&M — are almost certainly made with cheaper, lower-quality cotton.
Labor costs vary considerably among countries. Garment workers in the United States — even if they only make the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour — earn far more than workers in India and Bangladesh.
In those countries, garment workers’ pay in rupees typically works out to less than $1 per hour. A 2019 report from the University of California, Berkeley found that home-based garment workers in India — the people who commonly add finishing touches like buttons or beading — typically earn only $0.15 per hour.
Health and safety standards in these countries are lower too. In 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers. It wasn’t just a fluke, either. The Phuket News, an Andaman region (Indian territory) English-language newspaper, reported in 2016 that garment factories all over Bangladesh were equally unsafe.
Conditions for home-based garment workers are also dangerous. According to the Berkeley report, most of them receive no medical care for on-the-job injuries. Child labor and forced labor are also commonplace.
Cheap T-shirts from H&M or Forever 21 are nearly all made in these countries, so labor costs add just a few cents to their price. By contrast, designer brands are often made in Europe, where labor costs are higher. For example, in 2017, the BBC reported that leather goods from many designer brands, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel, were made in the Spanish town of Ubrique.
But designer brands don’t do all their manufacturing in Europe. In 2007, The New York Times reported that brands like Gucci and Prada often secretly outsource their production to China, hiding the “made in China” label in an inside pocket. Other brands, such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton, openly admit to hiring workers in developing countries.
In short, you can’t assume a designer label means the workers who made your clothes were paid or treated well.
The manufacturing location doesn’t just affect the cost of labor. It also affects the import duties and shipping costs the company pays to get those shirts to buyers in the U.S. If the shirts come from a country that has a free trade deal with the U.S., there’s no import duty on them. If not, the tax could be 20% or more. Retailers include that cost in the final purchase price of the shirts.
Shipping costs also affect the final price tag. Getting shirts to the U.S. market from Mexico, Central America, or Haiti is much cheaper than shipping them from China, India, or Bangladesh. However, because labor costs are so low in these overseas countries, the overall cost to the manufacturer can still be lower, even with shipping factored in.
A final factor in the cost of a garment is marketing. Some companies sell their clothes by focusing on delivering value — a good product at an affordable price.
But as Bishop observes in HuffPost, others focus on creating “brand buzz and status.” They know customers are willing to pay more for a hot label, so they invest money in making their brand one customers will pay extra for.
Charging high prices can often be a deliberate part of a brand’s marketing strategy. One reason people buy luxury brands is to show off their wealth, so selling garments at sky-high prices can be an effective way to attract status-minded buyers.
Designer Clothing Versus Standard Brands
All this explains why designer clothes cost more, but it doesn’t explain why people are willing to pay these higher prices. For some people, it’s all about the status of a designer label. It doesn’t matter if the garments are truly better. For these buyers, the high cost itself is what makes them desirable.
But others choose to spend more for reasons that have nothing to do with showing off. For example, some people believe in paying more for quality clothing and trust designer brands to provide that quality. Some spring for high-end brands because they believe these companies are kinder to their workers or the environment. And others are devoted to high fashion and are prepared to pay whatever it costs to get the latest look.
These are all perfectly good reasons to spend more on clothing. But it’s not as clear that people who splurge on designer clothes are getting what they pay for. Academic and journalistic research suggests that if you’re seeking quality, sustainability, or even style, relying on a designer label isn’t the only way — or even the best way — to get it.
As the experts in the HuffPost article note, designer clothes sometimes cost more because manufacturers make them from higher-quality materials. But that isn’t always the case. According to a 2019 Insider article, cheap clothes from fast-fashion brands are often more durable than pricey designer pieces.
The article discusses a 2018 study at the U.K.’s University of Leeds that tested T-shirts and jeans from several different brands across the price spectrum. Researchers measured the strength of each garment’s seams, how well it held its color, and how long the fabric stood up to wear and tear.
According to Mark Sumner, the lead scientist on the project, the pieces that held up the best were more likely to be fast-fashion apparel than designer garments. Jeans from one fast-fashion brand lasted twice as long as designer jeans costing 10 times as much.
Designer-label T-shirts were consistently rated the worst-performing of all the brands tested.
Even the fashion blogger at The Luxe Strategist, who argues in favor of buying expensive clothes because of how “thoughtful and detailed” they are, says you shouldn’t expect them to last longer. Spending five times more on a T-shirt doesn’t mean it will last five times as long. In fact, based on Sumner’s research, it could wear out faster than the other shirts in your drawer.
Sustainable Fabrics and Methods
Although fast-fashion brands can be surprisingly durable, many people argue the entire concept of fast fashion is inherently unsustainable. It depends on people buying new garments and tossing out the old ones regularly, creating vast amounts of waste and pollution.
Cheap clothes have a particularly high carbon footprint. Retailers typically import them from developing countries, where coal power is common. Shipping those clothes to the U.S. from overseas creates still more greenhouse gas emissions.
But designer brands aren’t always models of sustainability, either. For instance, the BBC reported in 2018 that Burberry had deliberately burned more than $117.7 million worth of unsold clothing, bags, and perfume over the previous five years. It could have just sold these goods at a reduced price (or given them to charity), but that would have diluted the value of its reputation as a high-end brand.
Sustainable clothing made with eco-friendly fabrics and dyes in worker-friendly factories costs more than most fast-fashion brands. In 2016, Refinery29’s Alden Wicker looked into the cost of making jeans sustainably and found you’d have to pay around $100 for them.
But that doesn’t mean a high price tag guarantees a more sustainable product. According to the experts interviewed by HuffPost, factories in India or Bangladesh could make a T-shirt with a $100 or $200 price tag for $5. To figure out whether a product is genuinely eco-friendly, you need to look at the fabric content and the country of origin — not just the brand name.
Clothing Style and Trends
It’s safe to say that anyone willing to pay $400 for designer jeans or $150 for a designer T-shirt is a fashion maven. These people care a lot about how their clothes look and feel, and they’re willing to pay for the styles they want.
But in most cases, shelling out for a designer brand isn’t the only way to get the latest look. Popular styles quickly give rise to knockoffs — copies of designer styles that are often hard to tell apart from the originals without scrutiny.
Some design houses even create knockoffs of their own products for sale at lower-end retailers. These cheaper products are known as bridge lines or diffusion lines. For instance, H&M has offered pieces by top designers such as Versace and Stella McCartney since 2004, as Vogue reports.
Fashion knockoffs can offer the same high-style looks mimicking genuine designer pieces for much less. In 2018, New York magazine’s The Cut reported that the designer brand Diesel was selling knockoffs bearing the label “Deisel” (a common misspelling of its designer label name) out of a market stall in New York City for about one-fifth of Diesel’s typical cost.
Some fashion enthusiasts argue against buying knockoffs because they don’t have the same quality as the original. But as we’ve seen, designer clothes — particularly jeans and T-shirts — aren’t always high-quality anyway.
Moreover, if you’re trying to stay on the forefront of fashion, your looks will be outdated by next year anyway. It makes little sense to pay three to 10 times as much for a better-made product if you’re just going to discard it after a season of wear.
Of course, there’s one thing no knockoff can ever provide: the prestige associated with wearing “the real thing.” If you’re paying more to show others you can afford to pay more, getting the same look for less would ultimately defeat the purpose.
The idea that luxury brands affect the way others see you is backed by science. A 2011 study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior found that when people interacted with researchers wearing shirts with Lacoste or Tommy Hilfiger logos, they perceived them as higher-status individuals. They were more likely to cooperate with these researchers than with others who were wearing plain shirts.
However, responses to designer labels aren’t uniformly positive. A 2014 study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology found that when women viewed a scene of a woman buying a luxury brand, they were more likely to see her as young, attractive, wealthy, and ambitious. But they were less likely to see her as smart, loyal, or mature or as someone they’d want for a friend.
Moreover, some people actually like themselves less when wearing designer brands. A 2020 Guardian article describes a psychological condition called “designer imposter syndrome” — the feeling that you don’t truly deserve to be wearing a high-status brand. It can make wearers feel less confident than they do when wearing mainstream brands.
Designer-Quality Clothing Without the High Price
If the designer label itself is what matters to you, then naturally, there’s no substitute. But if what you really want is well-made clothing — quality materials, the right fit, and a stylish look — you don’t have to pay designer prices to get it. There are ways to identify high-quality garments and places to find them at prices that won’t break your budget.
What to Look for in High-Quality Apparel
The Luxe Strategist advises against relying on prices or brand names as a marker of quality. A brand that sells some extremely well-made garments may cheap out on others. Also, a brand that has consistently delivered excellent quality on apparel in the past can suddenly go downhill.
For example, the author relates that she used to be a loyal fan of Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, which she’d known and loved since middle school. But after the company moved its production to Asia, she says these sneakers changed so much they felt like a completely different shoe.
So instead of looking at the label, you need to look at the garment itself. If possible, handle it in person so you can touch it and see it in detail. There are several features you should pay attention to.
1. The Fabric
Fashion bloggers such as The Luxe Strategist and Roes of Recovering Shopaholic (via BuzzFeed) say to look for natural materials like cotton, wool, and silk. They tend to stand up better to wear and tear than synthetic fabrics, and many people prefer the way they feel against the skin.
Outerwear and exercise clothing are exceptions to this rule. For these garments, high-tech synthetic fabrics can do a better job of keeping out the elements or wicking away sweat.
There are several ways to test the quality of a material. First, run the fabric between your fingers to feel how thick and smooth it is. Then, hold it up against a bright light. The more light it lets through, the thinner and less durable it is.
For knitted fabrics like wool or cotton jersey, grasp a section of the fabric in both hands and pull in opposite directions, then let go. A material that springs back will hold its shape better than one that stays stretched out.
For woven fabrics, crumple up a section in your hand for a few seconds and let it go. If the wrinkles don’t fall out after just a few seconds of scrunching, the fabric probably won’t stand up to everyday wear.
2. The Construction
Turn the garment inside out to examine the seams. They should be straight with closely spaced, even stitches and no loose or mismatched threads. Once again, hold the garment up to the light and pull slightly. If any light comes through between the stitches, that’s a sign of weakness.
Also, look at how the pieces of the garment attach. If the fabric has any pattern, like a stripe or a plaid, it should match up evenly at the seams. For shoes, look for stitches connecting the sole to the upper part. If you can’t find them, the shoe is probably attached with glue, which is less likely to hold up.
Pay attention to finishing touches. Buttons should be securely fastened, and buttonholes should form a neat slit with tight stitching. Zippers should lie flat and be covered with a placket (flap of fabric) unless the exposed zipper is a design feature. If a garment has topstitching (stitching you can see on top of the garment), the thread should be thick and smooth with a hint of shine.
Look at the inside of the garment too. A lining inside a jacket is always a sign of quality. If it has a taped edge holding the lining to the outer fabric, that’s even better. Generous hem allowances on pants and skirts are also a sign of quality, and the extra material can come in handy if the garment needs an alteration.
3. The Country of Origin
While you’re examining the garment, check the tag to see where it was made. A label that says, “made in Thailand” or “made in Bangladesh,” doesn’t necessarily mean the garment is poorly made, but it does mean it was made with cheap labor. That should affect the price you pay for it.
If a $150 shirt was made in the U.S. or Europe, the high price could simply reflect the higher labor cost in these countries. By contrast, if it has a “made in Bangladesh” label, the price is probably a rip-off.
If you’re buying a garment online and the country of origin isn’t listed or is simply listed as “imported,” you can safely assume it was made in a developing country. If it had been made in Italy, France, Spain, or the U.K., the manufacturers would probably be eager to advertise it.
Where to Buy High-Quality Clothes on a Budget
One way to find high-quality clothes at an affordable price is to shop at thrift stores. You probably won’t find the latest fashions there, but it’s an excellent place to look for classic pieces you can wear year after year. The quality of thrift-store clothes varies, so you need to check it, but any well-made pieces you find will cost only a fraction of what you’d pay new.
Another shopping trick for women is to buy some of your clothes in the menswear department. In a BuzzFeed interview, fashion blogger Debbie Roes notes that many women’s tops are made from “super thin, gauzy” material you can practically see through. Men’s T-shirts and button-ups tend to be made of thicker, sturdier fabric, and they’re often less expensive.
Finally, look at specific brands that offer significant value, such as
- Everlane. For affordable clothes made without sweatshop labor, check out Everlane. It charges a much lower markup than most retailers — say, $15 rather than $55 for a garment that costs $6 to produce. It also provides information for each garment about the factory that made it. Adult T-shirts from Everlane range from $18 to $50. Jeans sell for $68 to $98, and women’s trench coats cost $148.
- Grana. The Australian retailer Grana aims to keep markups down by selling clothes directly from the manufacturer. Its clothes sell for two to three times the cost of production rather than six to eight times as much. It focuses on high-quality fabrics made from pima cotton, silk, linen, merino wool, Mongolian cashmere, alpaca, and Tencel. Grana’s organic pima T-shirts cost around $35 for both women and men. Other options include $75 tailored Tencel pants and $112 cashmere crew-neck sweaters for women and $199 Tencel zip-front jackets for men.
- Kotn. Another brand that offers sustainable fashion at an affordable price is Kotn. This company sells only clothes made of high-quality, sustainably grown pima and Egyptian cotton. The company charges $30 to $43 for a T-shirt, $76 for a pair of sweatpants, and $69 to $82 for a simple dress.
- L.L. Bean. You can find a wide selection of durable basics and outdoor apparel at L.L. Bean. Every garment comes with an unconditional guarantee, so you can return them for a full refund if you’re ever unsatisfied with their performance — even after years of use. The company sells jeans for adults for $45 to $89 and T-shirts for $20 to $47.
- Uniqlo. The Japanese chain Uniqlo has built a reputation for offering basics, such as T-shirts and jeans, with a level of fit and quality you’d typically expect from much more expensive brands. It charges $15 to $20 for T-shirts, $40 to $70 for jeans, and $50 to $200 for men’s blazers.
- Madewell. Lovers of high fashion can satisfy their tastes for a reasonable price at Madewell. A 2018 Vogue article praises this company for its “increasingly whimsical” take on basics, with pieces that are interesting without feeling “contrived or even particularly trendy.” You can get a basic white T-shirt for as little as $20, while jeans for adults range from $75 to $198.
- Reformation. Women who want both trendy looks and sustainability should consider Reformation. This brand produces new limited-edition collections every week, then adds the most popular looks to its permanent collection. It also follows sustainable and ethical practices like using renewable energy, composting, recycling textile waste, and providing health care for all employees. T-shirts from Reformation start at $28, and jeans start at $98. It also sells a wide assortment of dresses, from a tiny $78 slip dress to a full-length lace bridal gown for $698.
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If you’re a Hollywood star with a glamorous image to maintain, maybe shelling out the big bucks for designer fashion makes sense — though even the celebs don’t always do so. But most of us just want clothes that look good and are made to last, and there’s absolutely no need to pay designer prices for that.
The key is to spend a little extra time, rather than a lot of extra money, on clothes shopping. Check out different stores and learn what they have to offer so you’ll know which retailers have the styles that appeal to you. As you shop, look over each garment carefully, feeling the fabric and testing the seams to evaluate its quality.
Finally, since a big part of looking good is finding the right fit, take the time to try clothes on and examine them from all angles — both sitting and standing. Pay attention to every aspect of the fit, from the overall length to where the seams hit your body.
By knowing where to shop and scrutinizing every garment before you buy, you can look just as good as your neighbor in the $400 designer jeans — without needing to earn a Hollywood star’s salary to pay for it.
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