The High Price of Fashion

Photo: Griffin Christensen

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

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

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

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.

And perhaps one reason the dress costs $2,300 is because that’s what shoppers want to pay for it. Some people’s search for identity goes no further than wanting that expensive bag on that movie star in that issue of InStyle. Shoppers who have to imitate Kate Moss to express themselves are a retailer’s dream; they’ll pay any price if you clock them wearing that Dior Saddle bag.

It is too easy to see fashion as the devil. The truth of the matter is that as prices have risen, they have also fallen, and great fashion has never been more democratic. While Fendi CEO Michael Burke says unapologetically, “We have gone back to our elitist roots; our definition of luxury is the result of the human hand,” Coach’s president and executive creative director, Reed Krakoff, believes the opposite. “Accessible luxury in no way means that it’s less luxurious. In terms of things you can quantify—quality, workmanship, materials—we are on par with the best bags out there.”

Walk into Rugby, Ralph Lauren’s new collegiate shop on University Place and 12th Street, and you might think you’d crossed the threshold into the Polo mansion at Madison and 72nd Street. The woodwork has the same luster, the rugs are piled just as deep, but a well-cut tweed blazer is $298 rather than $895. A $178 Coach handbag brings top-notch design to women previously priced out of the status-handbag wars. Zara, the Spanish-owned interpreter of runway style, delivers a fresh collection of designer look-alikes to some 626 stores worldwide nearly every three weeks, selling for less than the tax on the original. Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney have designed collections for H&M, the Swedish retailer geared toward trendy teenagers and young adults, that have pieces priced below $100.

Agitation over the high price of being fashionable seems misguided when style, in fact, knows no price tag. High price is no guarantee of high style. Anyone who knows clothes will tell you that fashion is not what you wear, but how you wear it.

Consider the evolution of the word luxury. It has paradoxically come to mean “style that everyone can afford.” Christian Dior recognized early on that marketing was everything when people actually need very little; luxury, for him, was anything more than food and a bed. Dior poured luxury over rich women’s bodies as though it were champagne and then grew rich himself, selling champagne dreams bottled as department-store perfume. Such magic was to be expected from a man who revived glamour after the Second World War. These days, using the word has become an indulgence in itself.

To read this ad from Bloomingdale’s is to begin pondering luxury’s ascendant subsets: “Indulge in the ultimate luxury … a breathtaking mink, now at irresistible savings.” Tory Burch, who is Martha Stewart–ing her own luxurious Fifth Avenue life into a retail success, says she began with the idea of “a luxury collection at a good price.” Even Abercrombie & Fitch, makers of $90 blue jeans and $158 sweatshirts, calls its scandalous nudie catalogue “Casual Luxury.”

Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs International, says, “Luxury is something you don’t need, it’s something you want. The bag of potato chips I ate for lunch today was a luxury.” It seems that today, when people are worn out from bad news and broken promises, the promise of indulgence is one worth believing in. “How can I say this Abercrombie sweater is luxury?” asks Sam Shahid, who developed the company’s image. “It’s easy. You put the word on there. You tell them it’s luxury. Luxury is the best you can buy. Luxury touches you. I feel safe. I have the best of it.”

The best of it. Luxury is what you want. Fashion has never been more expensive. Fashion has never been more democratic. The handbag that costs as much as a car. The bank teller’s salary. Department-store perfume. The bargain-basement shoes. Does any of this even make any sense?

It does. Prices are not out of control, but these are the kinds of questions that always come up when people talk about fashion. What, exactly, would fashion that is in control look like? His-and-hers Mao suits? The bank teller has dreams, too; a $33,905 dress may never be hers, but why shouldn’t she—and we—dream of it? Fashion is like art. Even if we can’t afford the painting in the museum, we love looking at it.

No debate about fashion can exclude the priceless value of joy. The tender heart feels safely revealed in a Swiss organdy dress; the burning heart set free when the dress is silk charmeuse. The alchemy is real when a visionary designer, skilled craftsmen’s hands, and the most beautiful materials on this Earth come together. You can see the magic. But if you feel like a million bucks carrying your $178 bag, you see the magic, too.

Styled by John Vertin

The High Price of Fashion