Manufactured Clothes

I’ve spent many years as a sample pattern maker, helping designers get their ideas off paper and onto people. My job was to stay true to the design, as cheaply and simply as possible. Making something that looks like the sketch is a straightforward process. Getting it made for a particular price can be a frustrating race to the bottom. If a dress needs to be sold at retail for $100, the designer sells it to the store for $50. Of that $50, the designer has $25 to pay the factory. The factory then has a $12.50 budget for materials and labor.

The actual parts and labor of a garment are a very small part of its cost. Clothing manufacturers have developed a beautiful system to move things through the factory and keep prices low. The average garment is patterned to the same set of industry measurements, sewn from the same set of materials that are deemed on trend for a certain season, and constructed with the least number of details. Unsurprisingly, any garment that comes out of this system winds up looking a lot like other garments.

Not for a moment do I doubt the necessity of mass market retailers, specialty shops, and department stores, or the value of commodity clothing. I love my $20 yoga pants, and wear them like a uniform exactly because I can afford to replace them if I am crawling under a table after the cat and rip a hole in them.

But I doubt that commodity clothing is the only clothing a person needs. It’s just that the cost of a garment with complexity and subtlety sends the price beyond reach, once everyone adds their markup. And I know, from personal experience, that no designer intends to create commodity clothing. It’s just what happens when an idea has to pass through the manufacturing process.

Of course, the high end of the fashion market has a much wider range, because it can command prices that permit complexity, novelty, and ingenuity. But damn, those price points.

I just read an article about New Year’s fashion resolutions, where the writer promised that she would buy a perfect blue blazer from a name brand designer in order to have a truly fine piece of clothing in her wardrobe. After viewing the $3,000 price tag, she rightly decided she could get better fit and more control over the final look, and a lower price, if she just had the blazer made by a local tailor.

I don’t think it dawns on most women to even consider that option.

It has been a long time since people thought of clothing as something made by actual humans instead of factories For years it has been a product, like a refrigerator, made by them, over there. If you don’t have the kind of money that lets you buy $3,000 blazers, you’re forced to settle for whatever’s available.

Thankfully, people have begun to take control over many of the design details of their lives. Being directly involved with the people who make your things introduces a very personal form of beauty to life. This level of interaction feels like a very modern response to the loss of control that comes from purchasing manufactured goods. But this movement is, at it’s heart, remarkably old fashioned. Your grandmother went to a dressmaker. So can you.

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