- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sure, you could buy that $30 dress shirt and look presentable at the office. Or you can go to a high-end store and drop $230. Both will hold your tie in place and cover your arms. However, the similarities might end there.

In fashion, “you get what you pay for” applies in many — but not all — cases, says Leslie Davis Burns, chairwoman of the Department of Design and Human Environment at Oregon State University and author of the book “The Business of Fashion.”

Why the price difference? The main reasons are people and fabric, says Ms. Burns, who researches fashion theory and the consumer.

“When you look at a true designer collection, you are going to be getting specialty fabrics such as silk and cashmere,” she says. “You are going to be getting quality of workmanship.”

Better workmanship means more people were involved in making that shirt. The consumer is paying for the risks the designer has taken, more people on the research-and-development staff, and the better-trained tailor or seamstress. The consumer also is paying for time — a less expensive item can be stitched together in about two minutes; a higher-quality item may take two hours.

“The more expensive the shirt, the more custom the sizing,” Ms. Burns says. “It is just going to fit better. … Pretty much all shirts are stitched together in a factory. What you are paying for is the level of expertise of the operators. If it is going to take two hours, then the cost of the labor goes up as well.”

Over in the suit aisle, one can find the $5,000 item or the $200 item. This is an area where the differences can be found right away, she says.

“They really don’t look the same,” Ms. Burns says. “They may have a similar silhouette, or the skirt may be the same length, but they are different in other aspects of it — in terms of fabric and design details.”

Just jeans?

The rise in the popularity of premium jeans — a label used by the fashion industry on jeans that cost upward of $100 a pair — is a perfect example of price disparity. After all, denim is denim — made of cotton and sometimes a bit of stretch, but nary a thread of cashmere, silk or leather.

It is not that simple. To many shoppers, jeans have become works of art as well as a way to display status and physical fitness. Also, manufacturers have set the bar high; people are not balking at paying $200 a pair.

Sales of premium jeans by such labels as Rock & Republic, 7 for All Mankind and True Religion have risen exponentially in the past few years. True Religion, for instance, sold $2 million worth of jeans in 2003, its first year in business. Sales in 2006 were past the $109 million mark.

That’s a long way from Levi Strauss making durable pants to outfit gold miners.

Overall, the number of premium jeans sold doubled between 2004 and 2005 and is continuing to rise sharply, say data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Just as there are different levels of other fabrics, there are different qualities of denim, Ms. Burns says. However, what usually drives up the price is the way the jeans are treated, says Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com, the online branch of Conde Nast magazines, including Vogue and W.

Premium jeans often have labor-intensive treatments such as whiskering — the hand-hewn worn-in look on the legs — she says. They often have custom embroidery on the pockets. That can mean anything from 7 for All Mankind’s signature swoosh to Swarovski crystals sewn into styles made by Luxirie by LRG (cost: $500 a pair).

Many shoppers say expensive jeans just fit better. That is a subjective observation, Ms. Phelps says.

“My favorite pair is by Cheap Monday, a Swedish company,” she says. “They cost $60.”

Kathryn Finney, author of the book “How to Be a Budget Fashionista,” says she is not swayed by the allure of premium jeans.

“There is absolutely no reason for a pair of jeans to cost $300,” she says. “Whether they are from Wal-Mart or Rock & Republic, there is not much of a difference. The process and the materials are pretty much standardized. My favorite pair cost me $29 at Old Navy. I get so many compliments on them.”

Where to spend

Ms. Finney won’t spend her money for low-rise, stretch, embroidered, boot-cut premium jeans, but that doesn’t mean she won’t spend it elsewhere. She once dropped $550 on a Cole-Haan leather tote. It was a lot of money for her, she says, but it was a quality piece she carried every day for five years. She also once spent $450 on a Burberry trench coat (marked down from more than $1,000 and still three times more than she ever spent on a coat) and wore it regularly for years.

Calculating your cost per wear is a great way to decide whether buying high-end is worth the money, Ms. Finney says.

“I carried that bag probably 1,500 times,” she says. “I got my use out of it.”

Another place it makes sense to spend for higher quality is shoes, Ms. Finney says. It is fine to buy cheaper shoes for one-time use, such as to wear with a party dress. However, for everyday shoes, go for the best quality you can.

“Your feet are important,” she says. “A lot of people overlook that.”

Ms. Burns says shoppers should go for quality over quantity when buying classic pieces they expect to wear for more than one season. A tailored jacket, for instance, is a place to spend money.

Ms. Finney says to pay attention not only to the manufacturer, but also to whether the jacket is lined, how the fabric feels and whether the pattern matches up at the seams.

Meanwhile, scrimp on trendier items, Ms. Phelps says. She says dressy T-shirts and tanks last only a season. It makes sense to go to the Gap or H&M; and stock up cheaply.

If you still go after labels, remember that most designers have several price points. Giorgio Armani has the expensive Giorgio Armani Collection, the midlevel Emporio Armani and the more budget-friendly A/X line. Isaac Mizrahi has a budget line at Target as well as his designer line. Ralph Lauren has several lines at different price points.

“At the lower prices, the styling might be a little more simple,” Ms. Burns says. “A coat may not be 100 percent cashmere, but may be a cashmere-nylon blend, for instance. A customer may or may not be able to see differences.”

Holding out for the real deal? It can be done if you are patient and happen to be in the right store at the right time. Ms. Finney once proudly scored a $200 pair of Kate Spade sandals for $13.98 at Designer Shoe Warehouse.

“Everything goes on sale,” she says. “That’s the rule.”

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