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The High Price of Fashion

Why should a dress cost more than a car?


$33,905
Organdy ruffled gown with embroidery and jabot details at Yves Saint Laurent, 3 E. 57th St., at Fifth Ave.; 212-980-2970.

$595
Silk satin sandal at Christian Louboutin, 941 Madison Ave., nr. 74th St.; 212-396-1884.

$38
Tights at Wolford, 619 Madison Ave., nr. 58th St.; 212-688-4850.

$32
Ruffled bikini at Victoria’s Secret, 1328 Broadway, at 34th St.; 212-356-8380.

Fashion has never been more expensive, but conversations about that sort of thing take on far greater urgency outside fashion circles than they do inside the gilded bubble. The Yves Saint Laurent gown on this page is $33,905; a bank teller makes $20,000 a year. Louis Vuitton makes a handbag that costs $20,000; the average car is, like, $30,000. Luxury retailers say prices have risen 25 to 50 percent over the past five years. Is the price of being fashionable out of control?

The prices quoted above are not from the invitation-only haute couture; they are ready-to-wear prices from the best department stores and boutiques. It’s hard for most people to fathom such outlandish excess; it’s become hard for the excessive spender to feel the full glory of her excess when the status barometer is forever on the rise. The Economist reports that time-shares in private jets are in demand. The New York Times, in an editorial hammering executive pampering excesses, says that “flaunting your affluence now requires a megayacht at least 80 feet long, with its own helipad, gym and antique furniture.”

But which of us mortals walks into the megayacht department looking for the one they can afford? We do, however, shop for clothes, and so the question is unavoidable: Why does a dinky little slip of a cocktail dress cost $2,300? The question is reasonable. The answer, not particularly so. Clothes are functional; fashion’s most vital charge is to press beyond reason, to play on dreams in the midst of the everyday. Less-lavish minds see things differently. Here is Thoreau, from Walden: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?”

When these worlds collide—how do you explain a $33,905 dress to a man asking for insider tips on finding bargain-price shoes?—voices rise in lieu of conversation. (“That price is immoral!”) Pronouncements are made. (Here’s one from me: Vibrant fashion exists outside of morality.) But even for those who love clothes, who accept fashion’s inevitable follies, the question persists: Is it still worth the money? The cost-value ratio of being fashionable remains spidery. There is no one reason why fancy clothes cost what they cost. Most “luxury” goods are European exports, and so steep duties and the weak position of the dollar against the euro contribute to exorbitant prices. Globalization of status brands is another contributor. The regionally unique fashion find is a long-gone memory from the luxury-liner age. That means that to some people, no price is too high for a hard-to-find, limited-edition dress or handbag.

Not very satisfying answers. The frustrated fashion fanatic who loves to shop for a few new things each season is right to be frustrated. But even hard numbers add up to no easy explanation. Take, for instance, the estimated line-item costs that go into making that $2,300 black lace cocktail dress:

Outer fabric = 3 yards @ $50 . . . . . . . . . $150
Lining = 3 yards @ $10 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $30
Buttons, zipper, hooks, etc. . . . . . . . . . . . . $15
Misc. (label, shipping, etc.) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $5
Labor (cutting, sewing, pressing) . . . . . . $200

Manufacturer’s total first cost . . . . . . . . . $400

At a normal keystone (Seventh Avenue lingo for a doubled markup), the manufacturer’s wholesale cost for the dress would be $800, the retailer’s $1,600. But it doesn’t usually work that way. “The dirty little secret of pricing,” says a 25-year garment-center veteran, “is how much of a margin is made at both the wholesale and retail level. Some designers charge more than double and some stores charge more than double, and everyone makes money along the way.” Designers sometimes increase their price if they think a garment looks worth the money, while retailers use their own markup formulas to cover overhead expenses, satisfy shareholders, and pad the profitability of sales. All of which means the $1,600 dress can be yours for $2,300.

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