Friday, October 7, 2011

Textile Friday: China's Hidden Manufacturing Cost

Today I'm going to talk about a frequently discussed topic in design circles that often does not make it to consumers. This is not about the jobs being lost to China or the bleed of manufactured goods. It's about the 30 Percent Rule.

This rule states that goods that come from China have a 30% failure rate in 1 year of use. This compares to an average 1 or 1 1/2% for almost any other country on the market. In practical terms, this means that almost anything you buy out of China is designed to fail in 3 years. It is a consumable good..period. This contrasts with the rest of the world where goods are designed to last decades or in some cases a lifetime, well over a century. The average is 15-20 years under daily use. The outside is 50-60. Designers like Ralph Lauren brag about wearing the same pair of their jeans for 30 years.

Buying good clothing means you only need to buy one piece every 6 months vs. the current trend of a new piece every week. This saves you thousands of dollars a year directly, and indirectly more space in your closet and life.

In practical terms China has taken clothing and fabric from a durable good to a consumer good. The wedding dress that used to last generations, now is designed to last a day. Clothing is now designed to last 3 years or less. This frankly drives me nuts and I try to fight it because I see it as a money drain out of my customer's pockets. I also see it as a tax on stores, business, and customer service in general. When most stores have an 8-10% profit margin, a 30% return rate means that any initial profit created will be eaten in the long-run from poor customer service and returns. Not a pretty thought.

And none of us have extra money to throw around, especially in this economy. So how do we fight it as consumers?

There's a couple of good ways to do this, but before you get started on the details, you should stand back and look at the garment you are getting ready to buy. Is it clean? Do the sides/pattern match up? Run the cloth through your fingers. Overall, what is your impression of the garment? Good clothing makes often makes a person look 30 lbs. lighter.

Good designers don't have to pull tricks to make their look good. Simple clean lines, solid colors, and small prints (they make you look slimmer) are all trademarks of quality clothing. Dark clothes and vertical lines will all make you look taller and slimmer, but they go in and out of fashion. I was obsessed with wearing black for a while, but you get the nicknames like Johnny Cash.

When you put it on, clothing should be a visual hug to make you feel better about your day.

I will list specific things I look for as follows beyond overall impression:

1. Good Quality Thread/Seams - Look for reinforced stitching, especially European and to a lesser degree American clothing tends to have at least 3+ threads running through each seam. This can either be a multi-ply heavier duty industrial thread, use of a serger to bind multiple threads together in 3, 4, 5, or 6 threads, or the more traditional 3 thread seams such as French, Hong Kong, etc. Good quality thread is the huge difference in the life of a piece of clothing. If you are standing back from a piece look at it overall. Good quality thread should not be easy to break or have loose threads hanging from the work. If you see a loose thread and you can easily break it off, you probably don't have good quality thread. Besides making you look sloppy, the piece is likely to wear apart more quickly.

2. Good Fabric-

Good quality fabric is
normally 100%. Mixing different types of fabric or fiber content greatly reduces the life of your garment by 3 or 4 times. A good fabric manufacturer applies an extra qualities as washes at the end vs. part of the garment itself.

Natural fabrics tend to outlast synthetic ones. Leather shoes outlast composites by 3-4 times. Even Nike struggles with this. Invest in things like cotton, linen, and leather. You may pay slightly more up front, but your wallet will thank you in the long run.

3. Solid Metal Hardware/Bone,metal, or resin buttons- This last one is harder to qualify, but painted metal is cheap and tends to wear off. Look for any marks, checks, or imperfections in the clasps, zipper, or hooks. Cheap finishes will wear off in daily use and rust your clothing or bag. Ehhhh. Bone or resin buttons are also designed to resist a lot more wear and tear than cheap buttons. Good quality buttons are often cooler in your hands and feel dense.

4. Branding/Price- Yes, this seems shallow, but branding and prices are a sign of quality. A maker's mark has value as it gives the customer a way to find and track down a company/return product. Companies known for value normally get that reputation through a lot of time and hard work. And they deserve respect for that. The difference between a $2 and $25,000k pair of sunglasses may be unrealistic for most of us. But you can pick up a fairly good pair in the $30-200 range and be the better for it.

This then is the things I look for in my clothing. What do you look for in good clothing?

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