Why do clothes cost what they do?

Everyone who knits, or sews, or makes jewellery, or maybe, I don’t know, bakes macaroons, at some point is told by a well-meaning friend ‘This is so good you could sell it!’.

Obviously this is meant to be a huge compliment. But if you’ve ever spent 6 months knitting a shawl out of overpriced German yarn that costs £30 a ball, only to be told by a friend that they’d pay ‘at LEAST 25 quid for that!’, the market has long ago moved on from the cost of totally hand-made labour.

There are always threads on Ravelry about this, advising people to pay themselves minimum wage, to price their work fairly, not to be undercut by people selling baby socks for £2 a pair. But the problem is that pricing is not actually a straightforward equation, like ‘time + materials + mark-up = cost’. It’s more of a dark art, shrouded in mystery and illusion and resulting in bog-standard looking handbags that cost £25,000 (this is not a typo).

For example, the designer Olympia Le Tan. She makes these beautiful clutches, embroidered to look like vintage book covers. They open up just like a book too, so you can store your Tom Ford lipstick and possibly a single tissue. Sadly there’s not enough room in there for an actual book.

They’re made in limited editions of 16, and they cost about a grand each. The press around them seems to imply that they’re all hand-stitched by Olympic herself, although information on her website is a bit thin on the ground.

Now these things probably do take hours to make (whoever actually makes them). But the reason they’re so popular is that Olympia has hit on the sweet spot between design, craft, high fashion and literary pretension. Hollywood starlets can carry one of these (which after all cost a lot less than a new Burberry bag) and look intellectual, quirky, and cutting-edge all at the same time. Her background in the fashion world and famous illustrator father obviously help a bit with the PR as well. That all adds up to £££££.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I find the pricing of designer clothing utterly puzzling. At some point a human being has been involved in their construction (as Polka Dot Overload points out in this post), but that’s probably the least important aspect in how much they cost.

If you go to Selfridges and get close to some designer clothes in the flesh, you can see that they use nicer fabrics, and better construction methods, but they aren’t sprinkled with gold-dust or guaranteed to make you look stunning. They’re nicer than high-street clothes, but not 200 times nicer. I guess the idea is that you’re paying more for cutting edge design and fit, rather than quality.

Some labels are clearly taking the piss though. Or to put it more politely, establishing themselves as Veblen goods. I give you the £1,225 Lanvin top:

At least it’s lined.

One nice thing about home-sewing is that you can invest where it shows – in materials and equipment that make your clothes look better, rather than having to spend money on marketing, distribution, and staff Christmas nights out.

What do you reckon? Any insights into clothes pricing? With the price of cotton going up drastically, all fashion retailers are going to be affected, and this may be an issue that becomes more interesting to the general public.

(If you’re interested in this there’s an amusing old thread on  The FashionSpot debating the most overpriced designers.)


28 thoughts on “Why do clothes cost what they do?

  1. thesecretlifeofseams October 18, 2012 / 3:50 PM

    I do sometimes try and have that conversation and run through why A) I wouldn’t want to turn a hobby into something I have to work my arse off at and B) it would be very hard to make any kind of money at it. This never seems to work so I figure it’s more about someone trying to pay a compliment rather than pitch a business plan. Plus C) my seams suck.
    Totally agree, our concept of the value of clothes is worryingly skewed. Not just because of designer-wear but because of dirt-cheap clothes that seem impossibly low cost! I sometimes hold something up in a shop and think, ‘where’s the margin? and what are they paying the people who made this?’. I’m not the world’s most conscientious shopper but making my own stuff makes me feel a bit better about this.

  2. Tanya October 16, 2012 / 6:36 PM

    I also get people thinking they are complimenting me by saying people would buy the things I make. I get told this about once a week, and when I start trying to explain why it wouldn’t work people interrupt me thinking I’m saying ‘but no one would pay for this’. In fact what I’m saying is ‘no one would pay me what this is worth to me’. Besides, I’m a product knitter so I’m all about the new clothes (for me). This may be selfish but it’s my hobby – doing it for money would suck all the joy away!

    Great post too, v interesting and thought provoking.

    • yesilikethat October 16, 2012 / 8:09 PM

      Thanks Tanya! Really nice to hear from you! I’m definitely a product knitter/sewist too.

  3. alibobs October 15, 2012 / 9:25 PM

    This is such an interesting post and discussion thread. I have clicked through and have downloaded Overdressed to read on the tube.

    I have had some people saying “you could sell that” or asking me to make them things. I haven’t said no, but thought out-loud as I worked out my price… “so you want the same yarn? This is £20 a ball, so maybe 15 balls for a jumper for you, which is £300 plus something for my time, maybe a month… err.. you aren’t interested anymore?”

    I was discussing this with a colleague who said he used to do jobs for family and friends (he used to be a roofer) in exchange for beer and pizza – is he selling his skills too short, or was I being too mean putting a price on my help?!

    Having made a dress with couture techniques (and foolishly deciding to hand bead part of it!) in nice fabrics, I totally understand the prices of some designer clothes, but I don’t get the prices charged for a fancy t-shirt. Maybe if they were embellished with real gold, but there would have to be a lot of bling for the price to be worth it!

    • yesilikethat October 16, 2012 / 8:06 PM

      I really need to read Overdressed! I don’t think you’re being mean, you definitely need to draw a line. I only make things as gifts, cos once you get into a money relationship with friends things just get awkward and there’s uncomfortable talks about pricing, as you say.

      I think designers pad out collections with the simple t-shirts etc to make money, it’s like restaurants making more money off mark-ups on booze than the food. Still doesn’t explain why people buy them though!

  4. Roobeedoo October 15, 2012 / 10:04 AM

    “Designer” prices are so ridiculous I don’t even want to think about them! I bought the latest issue of Lula and there are some astonishingly beautiful garments in there but the prices are insane – £25k for a coat? I could build an olympic-sized swimming pool for that!
    The prices that really confuse me are the “ordinary” ones. I am no longer sure what it is reasonable to expect to pay for e.g. a simple cardigan. I am currently besotted by a pure wool aran-cabled cardigan from Seasalt Cornwall. But it costs £89. I used to think that was the cost of a winter coat, not the woolly layer underneath it! So I go without and think I’ll get round to knitting it one day… except I probably won’t. So I just go without because I worry too much about the price tag. If a colleague sees me in an £89 cardigan and knows where it came from and what it cost, they would judge me, I think. And sad as it is, that matters to me! I can’t bring myself to wear Boden anymore for that very reason – it is instantly recognisable and everyone knows a mixed-fibres jumper costs £65 from there. And that is NOT reasonable!

    • yesilikethat October 16, 2012 / 8:03 PM

      It’s just another world. I read somewhere that in a recession it’s the merely rich that get squeezed, as opposed to the super-super-rich. So for example people stop buying million pound yachts but the 50 million ones sell like anything. I guess clothing designers do the same thing.

      I’m the same as you with regards to how much everyday clothes cost. Love your point about Boden!

    • Sewing Sveta October 19, 2012 / 11:47 AM

      But you can buy Boden on sale for example, then it would be 30pounds, not 60. Or at Ebay. Or flea-market. Why not?

    • Sewing Sveta October 19, 2012 / 11:57 AM

      So I mean that the price can be really small, I don’t say that you should buy stuff%) Sorry for my bad language%)

  5. Stacy October 14, 2012 / 5:23 PM

    I looked into the possibility of selling denim purses on ebay,
    but, yeah, it’s impossible to sell them for enough
    to make it worth the time,
    even when the materials cost almost nothing.

    • yesilikethat October 16, 2012 / 7:57 PM

      Stacy I love your haiku-style of commenting!

  6. gingermakes October 14, 2012 / 4:04 PM

    Interesting post! One thing I remember from reading “Overdressed” is that when it comes to, say, mid-range American designers (Nanette Lepore was the example she used), the construction costs go up considerably because they order a small number of units (say, 500 dresses instead of 25,000 for a store like Forever 21). That said, in Nanette Lepore’s current collection, a long-sleeved, fully-lined, 100% silk dress with a peplum and a belt is $378 (not on sale), and it’s made in the United States. I would NEVER have paid even a quarter of that for a dress, but now that I know more about the cost of materials and labor, that seems very fair (heck, if I was trying to make a similar dress, I could easily spend $150 just for all that silk!).

    That said, I just don’t understand why people will spend $100 for a dress from Topshop that’s made out of something like viscose and I DEFINITELY don’t understand paying tons of money for something just because it’s designer label. That’s the grossest kind of conspicuous consumption.

    • yesilikethat October 16, 2012 / 7:56 PM

      That Nanette Lepore price does seem reasonable when you see what goes into it, and I think it’s definitely worth paying more for better materials/better working conditions etc. There was a big campaign in the UK about the importance of buying free range chicken, and it’s sort of similar, if that’s not too much of a weird comparison! The first thing I do in shops is check the materials, can’t believe how much they charge for the worst kind of polyester stuff (ahem, American Apparel) x

  7. Beangirl October 14, 2012 / 1:05 AM

    It would be interesting if the money from those expensive designer clothes actually went to the people who construct them rather than to the shareholders of the companies who sell them. I wonder how that would change the quality. And our perceptions about the value of sewing labor.

    recently I was complaining bitterly to a friend about a t-shirt I bought from a “fashionable” online retailer (in the US) that was priced out at $65 (I got it on huge sale, I didn’t pay that price for it, it was “out of season” so I guess you have to take that into account). But they were originally asking $65 a simple, light-weight knit shirt. And when it arrived, the quality of the construction was at best what I find in the discount store for $10.95, not to mention the quality of the fabric.

    My first thought was about all that money going into the pockets of a corporation that hypes itself as being “green” and “politically correct” and they clearly seem to be paying the same rates for construction that the discount clothing manufacturers are paying. because it seems unlikely that someone getting paid a reasonable wage actually put that little effort into it’s construction. Although I could be wrong about that.

    • yesilikethat October 14, 2012 / 7:26 AM

      It would be super interesting to find out how the cost of a piece of clothing breaks down. I’m sure for some big designer brands about 25% must be spent on advertising and branding. Of course they’re never going to release those figures.

  8. Jenny October 13, 2012 / 11:36 PM

    Honestly, the (ridiculously) high cost of designer labels has always baffled me. Is it really worth it to drop a grand on a top just because it’s attached to a famous name? If a garment is entirely handmade and tailored to fit the buyer by the designer him/herself–well, that’s different story.

    I have to say, I disagree with those Ravelry threads suggesting that crafters and artists pay themselves minimum wage. I believe their talent (assuming they have it, of course 🙂 ) is worth more than minimum, and those that wish to buy handmade goods need to understand that.

    • yesilikethat October 14, 2012 / 7:25 AM

      I think people just have no idea about what goes into making clothes so a designer name is some kind of reassurance that it’s worth the money (which is often isn’t). Agree with you about talent being worth more!

  9. busyellebee October 13, 2012 / 1:37 PM

    Hi, It’s so true, many of us want these things, but how often do we ask ourselves, “Is it really worth it ?”. By being able to afford designer labels, we think we’ve bought a ticket to the ‘cool gang’, when in fact all we have done is expressed our own insecurities and desire to belong, and then paid heavily for the privilege. Are we crazy?

    For instance, there is NO way that Lanvin top is ‘worth’ well over a £1,000. That is a price of a good, fully kitted out computer for goodness sakes! You have showed us tops you have made, and each and every one of them can beat that top for quality.

    As for Olympia Le Tan, yes her things are lovely, but we can do just as well I’m sure. Just get an old hard back book, gut it, cover the outside, add a few bits and bobs and you have a designer bag.

    But because it isn’t validated as a designer bag in the eyes of the fashion police, we shy away from doing just that, and spend our money on someone else’s creation instead. Something which 9 times out of 10, we can do just as well or better. All because we want to ‘belong’.

    Yeap, we are all crazy! And not in a good way.

    • yesilikethat October 14, 2012 / 7:24 AM

      I was looking at press about the Frieze Art Fair and it’s like the same craziness magnified a million times – art can be worth whatever someone will pay for it, and I guess clothes are going the same way. But in theory clothing should be more tethered to reality because there are fixed costs involved in making it, unlike most contemporary art. x

  10. didyoumakethat October 12, 2012 / 8:10 PM

    I love your writing SOOOOO much! When is someone going to offer you a journalist gig? This blog post is sharply intelligent, eloquent and to the point. Yes, I’ve often been told that someone would pay X for something I’ve made. I think, ‘Girlfriend, you don’t even know the cost of the basic materials – and that’s not even covering my man hours.’ I think it’s interesting that people see the ultimate compliment as, ‘You can make a profit out of this!’, whereas I think, ‘Do you honestly think I started doing this in order to make money?’ At the same time, for us on the small scale, I think it is very VERY important to draw a line in the sand about what we’ll give away for free, and what we’ll charge for. Regarding pricing on designer goods? I honestly have no idea. I find the whole logo creed repulsive. It’s basically a school uniform. ‘If I pay X for this, it’s a benchmark of my good taste and I feel that I fit in.’ Really? Have you been down Walthamstow market recently, to see all the rip offs? And yet, and yet… I own a Paul Smith handbag. So, go figure! It’s not all straight forward.

    • yesilikethat October 13, 2012 / 1:14 PM

      Hey thanks Karen. It’s an interesting question because I do think branding can make a huge difference, and none of us are immune. It’s not inherently a bad thing, a brand can just be the unique style and DNA of a label. But when it comes down to paying for for a jumper with a logo on, that’s what I don’t understand. Good point about drawing a line with friends! I am so slow when it comes to repairs/favours etc that people have given up asking, maybe that’s a good strategy….

  11. nicoleneedles October 12, 2012 / 8:05 PM

    Where it comes to the pricing of clothes, the sad thing is that the person, or people, who made it usually get the smallest proportion of the price. And unfortunately, there are far too many gullible people out there willing to pay over the odds for goods. I’m all for paying a fair price for goods, but some things are just silly. I work at a famous Knightsbridge department store (not Harrods, the other one…) and I find it increasingly depressing how customers will pay £350 for a pair of pretty average jeans, or that acrylic mix jumpers at £200+ fly out of the store. The thing is, none of the customers have any concept of what goes into making an item, and that they are quite frankly being ripped of on most (not all) occasions.

    So of course the labels keep pushing the standards down, and the prices up……

    • yesilikethat October 13, 2012 / 1:11 PM

      Yeah, it’s all about the branding and marketing rather than the actual clothing (and whoever made it). I can understand paying more for a unique style or a better fit or construction, but £350 for branded jeans just seems insane.

  12. ooobop! October 12, 2012 / 5:13 PM

    I wonder if the original book designer get’s a cut? Mmmm… silly question really!

    • yesilikethat October 13, 2012 / 1:09 PM

      No that’s a really interesting question! I never thought about that. She does choose a lot of obscure books that are out of print and some older classics. I wonder if this is why? Hmmmm…

  13. Chuck October 12, 2012 / 4:57 PM

    Ahaha, I think you have nailed Olympia le Tan’s target market. Obviously I want one… x

    • yesilikethat October 13, 2012 / 1:10 PM

      I wouldn’t say no to a free one (as if). Although I don’t really get on with clutches – what’s the point of a bag you have to literally hold in your hand all night? Seems v restricting.

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