11 February 2010

Label envy?

Above, a Cynthia Rowley dress printed on "a heavy cotton knit" (image courtesy nytimes.com): below, a Hanes Beefy-T (image courtesy hanesbullseye.com)

This article from the New York Times amused the hell out of me, and really got me thinking about the significance of designer labels.

Once, a couture label was a guarantee of quality and originality. It assured value for price: yes, the garments were extremely expensive, but they incorporated the highest-quality materials and superior workmanship (such as hand-finished hems and buttonholes) as well as the designer's unique artistic expression. If you've ever seen a vintage couture piece up close and personal, you know that these differences are more than just fancy touches: even fifty (or more!) years later, the fabrics are supple and luxurious, the construction amazingly detailed and intricate by modern standards. The inside of a Dior New Look gown bears a striking resemblance to a suspension bridge and has about the same structural integrity (note that the bridge in question is not Westchester/Rockland Counties' Tappan Zee, the structural integrity of which is rather suspect at this point).

This isn't to say that couture labels didn't always have the same cachet, the same status-symbol, um, status, that they do today. However, there was no need to splash a designer's logo all over something to convey it: the details of design were sufficiently unique, the quality sufficiently evident, that the over-the-top branding that we've become accustomed to wasn't really necessary. Creating a tailored garment takes skill: a t-shirt, no matter how rarefied the fabrics used to make it, is... not exactly the pinnacle of the art of tailoring, shall we say?

So, OK, here we have the estimable Ms. Rowley, screening photo images of her latest collection onto heavyweight cotton jersey - that's something very much like Hanes Beefy-T material, by the by - making it up into, essentially, t-shirt dresses that look (if you squint lots, and maybe have a stiff drink first) like the actual tailored ones from her Fall 2010 collection. You can also buy the photo-screened dresses as yard goods and assemble them (or not) yourself, or, on the wow-this-label-whore-thing-has-gone-too-far level, get a $150 sewing kit, that "includes one of Ms. Rowley’s labels, which you can sew into the garment of your choice to make your own statement on fashion."

Did I mention that you're paying a low, low $320 for your t-shirt dress, or $280 for the privilege of doing your own assemblage? If you assemble the dress as intended (and more on that later), and assume a decent-but-not-great labor rate of $10/hour, that means the dress takes four hours to cut out and sew up. For those of you Fabulous Readers who don't dabble in home sewing, that's practically instantaneous in terns of garment construction time. I don't have exact statistics on production times for traditional couture garments, but I'm going to guess as dozens, perhaps hundreds of hours.

As for the uber-expensive sewing kit with status label, to, supposedly, up the brag factor of your plebeian wardrobe? On some level, it reminds me of label switching on vintage garments. On the other, it's kind of amusing, in a fashion-as-metatext kind of way: you don't actually need the designer's product, just the symbol of it. It's the status part of couture without any of the innovation or artistry. Oh, brave new world!

Is this also the time and place to bring up that, ideally, nobody but the wearer sees the label on an article of clothing? That's always been my take on the women who buy dresses a size too small because they have to fit into that size 8 (or 6, or...): Honey, nobody but you sees the label. Cut it out if you must. When the label's sticking out on an article of my clothing, I'm gratified when someone tucks it in for me (thanks, Mom!), so I don't walk around looking like a slob - and thanks to my good thrift-store karma, I've got some moderately brag-worthy labels. I still don't want them sticking out!

As a social statement, though, it would be very amusing to sew that high-end label into the aforementioned Hanes Beefy-T. Or take the yard goods with the printed-on dress and do something completely different with it: Throw pillows? Big, boxy t-shirts (the dress printed on jersey knit has obvious antecedents in those horrible t-shirts from the 80s with tuxedos printed on them)? Curtains?

The only reason I'm amused at this, and not fuming over a designer ripoff (which part of me feels it is, big-time) is the obvious subtext of do-it-yourself fashion. Ms. Rowley is assuming that she has enough of a market that has sufficient sewing skill to assemble copies of her dresses, even if they are the screen-printed tee version. I'm sure there's some expectation on her part of customers personalizing and tweaking the sew-it-yourself design - in fact, if she's really smart, there will be a Web site or Facebook page dedicated to customers' interpretations of the designs. According to the Times article, this is in part a reaction to the fast-paced information lifecycle afforded by the Internet. As we all know, one of the great (and hugely beneficial, in my mind) changes that technology has allowed is multidirectional information flow - it's not just that the designers tell us about fashion: we tell them. Or at least we can, if they're listening, and I hope they are.

So what are your thoughts? Does the ripoff factor of a $150 sewing kit outweigh the participatory-fashion coolness? How should designers react to the instant-gratification nature of today's market, especially if they want to continue to offer the high-end, time-intensive tailoring that is a requirement of haute couture? If you had a sew-your-own Cynthia Rowley dress kit, what would you do with it?

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