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Oct 31, 2010

Peter peeks into Barney's dressing room: the shocking photos -- and prices!

Wise and frugal readers, you know I'm not much of a shopper.  Yes, I practically grew up in Gimbels and spent more of my adolescence at Bloomingdale's than I care to remember, but now that I sew, I no longer shop for clothes.  (The Salvation Army doesn't count, of course.)

But occasionally I do like to poke my head in some of New York's better department stores just to see what's going on.  In fact, only yesterday I spent a good hour and a half in Macy's with Michael's parents (Michael's mother was shopping for a handbag), and a few days previous could be found checking out the wide array of face lifts and fake tans on display at Bergdorf's, in the company of French friend Anne.

On a secret mission alone, I recently visited my local Barney's Co-op.  The Co-op is Barney's hipper sibling, mainly mens and womens sportswear, heavy on the designer denim and chic reinterpretations of men's work clothes that one sees everywhere these days: flannel shirts, Pendleton-inspired wool plaid jackets, work boots, etc.  You'd think every fashionable man today was trying to look like a 1950 dockworker or oil rigger or something, albeit with skinnier pants and better hair. 

I couldn't resist trying on a few things and luckily I had my camera.

Not to boast, but I can sew up a pretty respectable looking mens dress shirt.  And so can Marc Jacobs apparently.

Very nice plaids in fabrics that looked and felt identical to what I find for $2/yd at my favorite fabric dive.  And just like shirts at the Gap and the uniforms at Burger King, they come in Small, Medium, and Large.

Of course, Marc's are made in Sri Lanka, and why not?  It's a lovely place.

The fit isn't great (I tried on the Small), but what do you expect for $188, perfection?

This blue and cream combo is made in Thailand.  Same price.  Same bad fit.  Remember readers, I wear a vintage Butterick 36" shirt with no alteration whatsoever.  I'm a pretty standard size.

The Gant brand, which I wore as a teen, has also been re-imagined: preppy chic and exclusive to shops like Barneys.

Here's their version of a classic tattersall plaid.  I tried on size XS.

Better fit, but too snug in shoulders and chest.  (That's the fit that's intended I assure you; it fit everywhere else.)  A relative bargain:

I also tried an XS Gant navy wool blazer cut trim like a prep school uniform mistakenly thrown in the wash and dried on the high setting.

Very snug and nothing special.

Readers, is this fair?  I mean, to sneak into a department store dressing room and gawk at the ordinary clothes at extraordinary prices?

For less than the price of that yawn-inspiring Marc Jacobs shirt, I could have bought a gorgeous Singer Featherweight at the flea market today.  Could have -- I restrained myself.

Oh, wise ones, do you ever try on clothes at swanky stores merely to gawk and smugly judge?  Do you feel compelled to buy something as a form of compensation to the store, if only a tube of Kiehl's Facial Fuel Energizing Face Wash?

I don't.

There is something very odd about clothing pricing these days, especially when we're talking high-priced designer duds made in low-wage countries. 

Oh yeah: so we're in giftware on the eighth floor at Macy's yesterday. You know Wedgwood, that most British of British brands, whose label reads, England 1759?  (What American tourist didn't come back from the UK without a piece of Wedgwood?)

Made in Thailand.

I need more coffee.


  1. Of course, I walk through stores snobbishly thinking I could make so much better at a better price. And yes, I've tried things on so I could go home and make better knock-offs. It's all part of the gift of being a sewist.

  2. I was just walking the dog in my 'jammies (hand-made, of course) and thinking about clothes that I've left behind since starting to sew. I think it was putting on my uggs that got me thinking about it. My first pair of uggs made me want a khaki shortish skirt SO BAD to wear with them - the one I got was so awful and ill-fitting.

    As a girl who wears 'women's sizes' I've been relegated to either bad fitting, but style-wise what I wanted or fits-but-not-my-style. For my whole life. It's like I'm recovering from 35 year of clothing-induced identity confusion...

    I recently conducted a dressing-room experiment of my own (and felt guilty about taking photos in the dressing room, incidentally!) I was trying to figure out what style trouser really works for me. I tried on a bunch of brands (none worked, BTW.) But what really got me is that since I was trying on clothes anyway, I grabbed a full black suit from my previous go-to suit label (Jones NY, if anyone is wondering.) The ill-fit for the relatively expensive clothing ($125 trousers? $250 coat?) blew. me. away.

    I know the conversation is endless regarding the limited selection of RTW for plus-size women (and the limited selection in patterns from the big 4, as well.) It's interesting that the men's selection suffers from the same narrow focus and bad fitting choices!

    Also, if I saw a featherweight that was less than ANY of those price tags, I would not be able to resist!

  3. I've always wondered, and perhaps some one out there knows. Do you think that the people sewing up the $188 Marc Jacobs plaid shirt get paid more per hour than the ones sewing up the $14.99 Walmart plaid shirt? Or do they all make the same $1 an hour, and the extra goes to the company's brand image?

  4. What blows my mind is that you get the honour of paying $188 for a shirt that doesn't have the plaid matched properly at the side seams or the arms. That's a big fat "blech" to Marc Jacobs et al. And what's worse, the typical person on the street doesn't even notice how craptastically these expensive(ish) garments are made. Apparently wealth doesn't equate to taste - go figure!

    So, we keep on sewing. I like to think of it as a quiet revolution against dodgy RTW.

  5. I wonder the same thing, Liara. I have only been in Barney's once, I have never been in Bloomingdales and the more posh Macy's make me nervous. I am not a luxury store shopper and likely never will be. I do all my snoop shopping online.

  6. Great question, Liara. My guess is the latter. I wonder how we could find out.

  7. I love to snoop shop. I'm so critical of sewing workmanship until I look at some those expensive garments. Yes, I walk out the store without buying anything. I don't feel any guilt about not paying those ridiculous prices.

  8. I wonder why people bitch when I tell them $90+ for a custom fit hand made blouse, but they would spend $100+ on a 'designer' blouse made of milquetoast fabric that gapes at the boobs.

    Go figure.

  9. I generally make my very simple clothes (I'm a housewife - I need *washable*) for around the price of a sale at JCPenneys.

    But the first reason that I learned to sew was my odd size/shape - think Bette Midler. Now think how many movies she's done the "transformation" in, just by changing the tailoring of her clothing. Okay. You're there. I *need* to sew.

    However it's getting to the place where I can't find in the fill-in pieces in my wardrobe, and I don't have time to sew *everything* I want to wear, as much as I would like to.

    Watch, I'm going to end up doing it anyway. Good thing that home-sewn items hold up well!

  10. Oh the irony! I am flipping pages between your current photos and prices and New Vintage Lady's page featuring the Sears catalog from 1940-41. One wonders if those garments were also made in Sri Lanka. So wrong in so many ways. I LOVE sewing!

  11. Those prices are ridiculous considering it probably cost a mere pittance to have them made. You are paying for a name and that is just stupid.

    And as for Wedgewood...all the china factories in the UK are closing down as it just is not cost effective to keep them open here. Sad, isn't it?

  12. SAINTS PRESERVE US. That is some outrageously expensive (and boring) flannel. Do they look ANY better than shirts from Target or Sears?

    On a side note, I don't shop at the Salvation Army any more:

    Life would be so much easier if I didn't have a conscience.

  13. Luckily I have none. There's always shoplifting! ;)

  14. Sri Lanka, the full cost of a shirt (that's cut, make & trim plus fabrics) for say, Ralph Lauren, is less than $3. In Thailand, assuming the fabric was drop-shipped from elsewhere (doubtful as Thailand is a very good fabric source anyway) you'll be paying somewhere in the region of $4.50 that's the shirt cut, made, packed and ready to ship, and if the patterns need to be drafted/graded/markers made that's usually thrown in gratis. I guess the high prices are really going to pay for the retail spaces, because they're sure as hell not going to factory or shop floor staff.

  15. As Shannon said, the plaid doesn't match. Drives me nuts. Ditto the red&blue jacket lining. And the fabric probably shrinks. Like you and your shirt pattern, Peter, for years, I wore a sz10Vogue pattern and only had to make the sleeves/pants/skirts a bit longer, but could never find anything to fit in RTW. Now I'm old & fat and very glad I learned alterations anyway, and still can't find RTW as, if you're big around, they think you're a giant.

    Years ago there was an article in where the police and designer were complaining about the overseas factory doing designer on the day shift and knockoffs at night. Same factory, same fabric and patterns, slightly different label. What does that tell you? Remember when offshoring garment mfg was supposed to be that they took the European sized patterns with? I haven't seen anything but flat cut, ill fitting stuff for years. You could cut them out of the books I have on traditional clothing where everything was cut flat and straight to maximize the use of cloth. Oh for a decent button and a properly fitted shoulder. Meanwhile I heard some business guru on BBC last night saying that you can offshore and get the same quality. But, he was wearing a suit made for him by a tailor. Darn, 2 days in a row you wound me up!

  16. Wasn't there a time when having a garment custom made was the "thing" and not some designer name that's on umpteen million look-a-like pieces of clothing around the world?

  17. Well, if the clothing was made in America, how much would it cost?
    Is anyone willing to pay for anything made in America?

  18. You pay less that that for Made in America, but even at the same quality, people dont want to buy it. Ask American Apparel.

  19. Trudy already told the story here but I'll add my two cents: The same factories that make items for Wal-Mart, Payless, et al. make clothing for Ralph Lauren, et al. It's the same sewing machine operators, the same shipping and packing clerks, the same cutters at the tables. They don't make a penny more per hour for making a shirt for Ralph Lauren than they do making a shirt for Target. Part of the problem is that the whole concept of 'quality' has become disengaged from price and today's consumers have been 'educated' to buy on brand name, rather than actually looking at the goods. If you showed 1000 people basically matching items of dress without name tags or other identifiers in them, I doubt that they would be able to tell you which one was better 'quality' than the others, which is really bad because it means that the average consumer gets cheated all..the...time.

  20. The prices are ridiculous, especially when the quality and fit are so shoddy. I don't object to "made in china" necessarily, as I grew up in a time when "made in china" was a badge of quality and people queued for hours to purchase chinese toys (early '80s in Eastern Europe). I am sure there are good tailors in China, but they most certainly do not produce these garments!

    Since I've started sewing I cannot buy anything from the labels - JCrew, Ann Taylor, whatever else - and I've almost given up going into their stores because I only get angry at the fit and empty promises. I still do go in occasionally, though, to laugh at garments made poorly and think how I can steal the style.

  21. Peter - in your usual jovial and tongue-in-cheek way, you've hit the nail on the head as to why, in the last 12 months, I purchased fewer than 10 ready-to-wear garments. Clothes you make for yourself fit better, look better, are closer to what you want them to look like than anything mass-produced; they mean something to you, they're a storybook of an adventure, a lesson you learned (and learned, and re-learned!). They are, more often than not, cheaper than your hand-crafted version.

    Of course, when you factor in your time at a reasonable hourly rate, they're probably not that much cheaper - which makes me think the extra pounds/dollars you're paying a 'convenience' tax - the convenience of not having to make them yourself, of them not fitting everywhere on your body, the convenience of looking like everyone else...

    I've been following your blog since late last year and I'm still loving it! Thank you for keeping me entertained and pensive. x

  22. Peter, I love your blog....have been lurking for a very long time.

    I'm a 4H GIRL from way back and learned to sew, starting with a tea towel (!)and ending with a 100% wool tailored, lined wool suit in 1970. The judges were very tough back then and would never have given a blue ribbon to the clothes you have shown here. I, too, am shocked at very poor attention to detail, like mismatched plaids, etc.

    I've returned to garment sewing with a vengance and follow your progress with great interest. Foro me, home sewn garments are individual and less cookie=cutter. Living in a part of the country where there are no Ann Taylors or GAPs, sewing is also an outlet for great clothing. My only choice in this town is WalMart. I love seeing what other people are making and they all are inspiring.

    Can't wait to see what Cathy will be wearing soon.

    You are a delight!!!

  23. Remember the part in Prayer For Owen Meany where the narrators mother goes to the city to buy dresses, brings them home, copies them in either black or white on her Singer, and then returns them saying her husband (she's unmarried) didnt like them? She has some psychological reason for wearing only black or white. Probably looked a lot classier too.

  24. Outrageously cheeky prices!! This is one reason I don't like shopping retail. Ugh. $125 for a SHIRT? I would have passed out cold on the floor from sticker shock AND the poor fit.

    One of the reasons I love to sew is making myself something that's completely unique and not 'making do' with something RTW. I indulge my love of bright colours, bold prints, sparkly stuff, and good fit.

    I do like to visit some retail stores to see the seasonal displays. I do love seeing all the shops done up for Christmas! But do I buy anything as a token? No.

    The only time I willingly shop retail is if I need something for my daughter and I've exhausted all the other possibilities. I shop sale items and even then I find the prices expensive.

    I love your blog, Peter. You are a terrific sewist and writer. I'm looking forward to seeing what you whip up for Cathy in one of her fantastic modelling sessions.

    Sarah :)
    Flu-ish in Canada

  25. Peter - I CANNOT believe you passed up a Featherweight!! I sew on mine all the time and it's the best.

    Go forth and snag yourself that machine!

  26. I don't even go into the stores any more because I just get irritated by the poor fit, poor quality of work and ridiculous prices.

  27. Like everyone else, I'm cheesed off at the prices charged for such cheesy goods. But speaking of cheese, what should I think about the cheesecake on the walls of the dressing room? I googled Barneys dressing room images and found another one with beefcake alongside the cheese. What are you guys supposed to be doing in there?

  28. I cannot count the number of times I have gone shopping only to walk around thinking "I'm not paying that for THAT! Are they crazy?!?!?"

    Also the finishing details like buttons that are never finished off, beading that you can see falling off on the rack, hems that are not straight, zippers that aren't anchored properly, the list goes on, and on and on! I also noticed the plaid that didn't line up...

    Peter, I think you look just fabulous in your self-tailored outfits - and I'm sure your buttons don't fall off in the wash... You have inspired me to learn how to tailor a pair of pants that actually fit! :)

  29. In my experience, men's clothes (particularly underwear) is cheaper, more well made and from better quality fabric than women's clothes. I'm still fuming that I paid over A$100 for a locally made jersey-knit maternity dress that turned out to be polyester! (I know, I know, I always check - except for that hormonal, overwrought day when I just wanted something that fit over the baby.) This is such an incentive to learn how to sew.

  30. What IS a reasonable price for a Singer Featherweight? I've been seeing them all over my local flea market, but they all seemed overpriced. I've been considering buying one, though.

  31. to hit a few of your topics.
    One of the reasons sewists in the past could sew their whole wardrobes was that they sewed all their lives. I sewed a portion of my wardrobe in 7th grade alone, and added to it for years. And they do wear well. Pants I make for my daughter have lasted for 5 to 10 years.

    I never go to Salvation army or donate to them anymore. If they want to discriminate, they can do it without my money.

    I have wedgwood pieces made in England. I guess they will be more collectible now. Buy used.

    Some of us have been left out of the fashion world for decades, and it looks like they are now throwing men under the bus. How could anyone buy a jacket for 500 that will rip if they so much as inhale.

    But then, I went to the fabric store today with a coupon and could not find a thing to add to my stash. All polyester ####, or the cotton knits were children's sleep ware prints. Sooner or later joann's will go out of business, I hope there are some spinners and weavers out there.

  32. What a great post!!! I have been sewing for 30 years, and I go to stores and think the same thing, WHY?!! My favorite thing to do is to look at all the designer things in Bloomingdales, Nordstroms, etc. and look at the construction. Sometimes it is impeccable...and I sigh, and wish I could master some of the techniques, then other times I see all the mistakes, with the huge price tag, and tell myself, I can make that better!

    Not long ago, I bought a Bernina sewing machine, and was so happy, because I had been wanting one forever. I spent $1,200 or more on it, and I love it. Funny thing though, that I didn't notice when I first bought it, was that it was assembled in Thailand!! I was kind of irritated about this, and the next time I went into the shop, I asked them, how much cotton picking money do you have to spend, for the Bernina to be from Switzerland??!! They said 1,200. I promptly told them I had, then there was silence.

  33. The first thing I noticed, after the price tag, was the unmatched plaid. Marc Jacobs should be ashamed of the quality he associates with his name! But any designer that only offers S, M, L,and XL rather than a neck, sleeve size and type of cut at those prices must have a low opinion of himself.....or his customer.

    I have very fond memories of shopping with my mother at the Plaza in Kansas City. It was very posh and extremely expensive, still is but not to the same extent. We would go to a place that would seat us in the dressing room which was more like a large living room. Refreshments were served. Then they would roll in racks of the size and type of clothing you were interested. After we left Mom would quickly pull out her notebook and draw the ones I liked and make notes on the fabric and details. We never bought anything. The only dress I remember from there was one Mom refused to make. Now I know why! It was a sundress made out of burlap(lined but still burlap) and gingham trimmed in lace.

    It seems to me that most people today do not know what to look for in quality when it comes to clothing; except for fit. And, fit seems to be handled with lycra in S, M, L and XL.

  34. Trudy said:

    I guess the high prices are really going to pay for the retail spaces, because they're sure as hell not going to factory or shop floor staff.


    Or the high prices go to advertising, since you need to convince people to pay $188 instead of $14.95.

  35. i don't so much gloat, well a little bit maybe, as i do just try things on. RTW is wonderful for trying new styles without all the fuss of a muslin. and it's a great way as you know peter to see how the pros do it, too. but i do laugh at the prices and i find myself in my rare RTW purchases buying things i couldn't or wouldn't bother making. nothing simple!

  36. It is inappropriate (imo) to judge something good or bad based on whether it fits you and according to your preferences -unless you are a long time customer of that given brand. You wouldn't (or shouldn't) judge a home sewing pattern to be good or bad based on whether it fit you either, you could only say whether it were cut to fit your dimensions but to say it was "bad" in that it didn't fit you considering the broad gamut of fit possibilities would not be fair.

    And as far as the shirt sleeve lengths go... I give these examples an emphatic two thumbs up. In fact, I would tell all my designers to follow these examples rather than the contrary even tho you think these are bad examples. One can't know how much they'll shrink and these obviously have plenty of excess to cover any wash/wear short falls.

    Personally, too short sleeves are my #1 problem and I'm only 5'5" but most shirt sleeves in my size (I'm slender like you) are too short. It is obvious to me that MJ is targeting a higher income individual. They are more slender and taller than average so altho I know you think this is bad, I would say the product development and sizing of this line is excellent. In fact, a model that competing lines should shoot for if they aren't already.

  37. i never feel bad about dressing room photo shoots - only self-conscious because my phone's camera sound can't be turned off!

  38. Kathleen, you make some excellent points. This was entry was a bit of a set-up, no doubt.

    However, in my experience, it is only lately that mens shirts are sized S,M,L, XL, etc. They used to come in specific neck widths and sleeve lengths. Of course that meant many more sizes to make and probably more shirts that didn't sell. But for the customer, it meant being able to purchase a shirt that fit. And as you know, it is STILL this way in many places.

    I think it takes chutzpah to sell a shirt for $188 and offer it in basically 3 sizes. I'm sure even "higher income individuals" come in more variations than that! ;)

  39. What a great post. Like you, I enjoy doing reconnaissance shopping in high end stores, despite being followed around by sales people asking "can I help you" I always want to say, yes, please hold this while I measure the lapel with my tape measure. Which is probably not what they are thinking. But it is a great way to test out dress and coat styles for my future sewing endeavors.
    As for the merchandise available in these stores - prices are crazy for those shirts and the number one reason I sew is to have unique clothes that are different in color/fabric from what is available to buy.
    As well as the fact that I love to sew.

  40. I'm cracking up at this post Peter, because I remember going shopping with my grandmother in 1968 and hearing her say "I could make this so much cheaper, and better!". So it's nothing new... factory made clothing has it's limitations of size and style. What's unforgivable to me is the poor construction. I expect to get what I pay for. Maybe that's why I don't shop anywhere but the discount stores anymore, I refuse to pay top dollar for clothes I have to take home and alter.

    Anyway, I also wanted to say I just found your blog and am loving reading your thoughts and all about your sewing projects! So nice to meet you!

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