The story of a garment:
Many years ago, as a high school student, I regularly passed a clothing shop in the town I grew up. In its window there was this ensemble of waste coat-with-trousers. Stylish I though it was, quite bold given its Madras pattern but at the same time classic enough not to feel like a couture model on the Paris catwalks. But there was no way I could afford the £100 it cost from the cash left over after I had paid for school books, lunches and train fair from my parental stipend. Luckily, no one bought it, and it went on sale. And even luckier, it went on sale at such a low a price that I could afford it – if only very barely, and by sacrificing every penny I had saved over the past 2 terms.
Today, nearly 20 years on, it is still part of my wardrobe. It remains in good shape despite many dozens of machine washes (even though the label reads ‘dry cleaning only’), and a dozen house moves including a couple of inter-continental ones. And it fits me, and my business life, today as well as it did the high school girl I was in those days.
But maybe the most important part of the story is the following: There was a time where the ensemble fell out of favour with me. I very nearly threw it out about 10 years ago – after all, I had nothing in common any more with the high school girl that had bought it. Yet I didn’t. Because the long-winding story preceding its buy had me attached to it to a degree that would not allow for a cheap and quick disposal. I knew I would regret it.
Reflecting on this story raises of course questions:
Can we use the power of story telling to encourage a different type of fashion consumption?
Are there brands that already use it in a way that capitalises first and foremost on an honest, transparent and fascinating story rather than on ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ claims?
And: Are we invariable talking luxury, or can this be achieved in the high street too?
To begin with, let’s clarify what ‘the high street’ means in this context:
It does not mean the rock-bottom retailer, but rather those retailers with a rather good quality-vs-price product range. In short: the Marks & Spencers and John Lewis of the British high street; or the many small shops and boutiques that offer selection of clothing at a fair, but not outrageously cheap price.
The variables that play a role, beyond the actual story of a garment itself, are therefore: quality and price, both in ‘adequate’ quantities.
Giving it a bit further thought, the above questions can be summarised into a single one:
How good a story, and how high a quality level, does a product (garment) need to have, in order to justify its price to the consumer?
Rather than going about academically in answering this question, let me introduce a three brands – small and not quite so small any more – for whom the story of a garment or piece of accessory is pivotal to its recognition, and let’s have a look at their price and quality level.
The IOU Project
The IOU Project produces unique, handmade apparel based on fabrics handwoven in India and finished in artisan workshops in Italy and Spain. Because each textile is unique, they provide end buyers with the ability to trace the production process from finished goods right back to the weaver that hand-wove the fabric. The stories of how that item was created, of the people involved, of the customers who purchased them, are the essence of their e-commerce social network which The IOU Project has built as a meeting place for a community that shares their brand values of authenticity, transparency, uniqueness and both social and environmental responsibility.
A IOU madras shirt sells at 65€ online, a pair of chinos 89€, Japanese denim jeans cost 159€, and a madras blazer also 159€.
The garments are all of high quality, made and finished in small specialist workshops in Italy and Spain. The price range is competitive and compatible with what is available on the high street.
Shazia Saleem aims to actively promote and raise awareness of hand woven and sustainable textiles so that hand woven clothes become a wardrobe essential as popular as cashmere. The collections use only the finest hand woven textiles, particularly from India and Scotland. The designs are made from Varanasi hand woven brocades, ahimsa (cruelty-free) and wild silks hand woven in Assam, Orissa and hand woven Khadi cottons from Bengal, Kolkata and Jaipur. Every style in the brand’s collection contains at least one hand woven textile to ensure there is sustained employment for weavers.
A hand-woven sleeveless 50% silk brocade / 50% cotton round neck shirt costs £65, a hand-woven silk-cotton skirt £60, a 100% silk dress with silk brocade sleeve costs between £128 and £158, and a leather with silk brocade evening mini-dress £699.
The collections have an impeccable finish, and the designs are all available at a fair price, that easily competes what the high street also charges for mass produced item.
Gracia Women creates classic elegant garments for ‘real’ women. Inspired by nature the brand uses rare and durable material – Cactus Silks, Scottish Tweeds, organic long-staple cottons – to create collections that excel through their tailored shapes, and unobtrusive details that are a testament to the brands craftsmanship: the tweet jackets all come with a detachable matching belt, the shawl collars feature delicate embroidery and a buttoned leather strip, the buttons’ thread colour is the same as the jacket’s vegan cactus-silk lining0s vivid colours etc.
A tailored organic Fairtrade cotton long-sleeved shirt with hand-carved buttons sells online at £65, the organic denim chinos at £75, and the tweed jackets with cactus silk lining at £295.
All in all, the brand is a real bargain given its design and details, the product quality and the story behind the making of each garment.
It is only fair to conclude that brands with a real story behind them, and in addition deep ethical (sustainable) credentials are competitive with the those retailers in the high street that offer a good product/quality experience.
What is interesting to observe though, is that all of the above brands – as well as many others already available – combine quality craftsmanship with a tell-tale story. Rather than talking, or claiming, ethical behaviour, they reach out to their customers by engaging them in the creation process in one way or another: Be it through offering mass-customised garments, by presenting the customer in addition to the garment with the garment’s history (or: ‘personality), and in all cases by making sure that our buy will remain unique and distinct at least in the details from any other of their designs or what is available in mass retailers.