Every clothing brand, including the fast fashion ones, will try to convince you their stuff is of fantastic quality. Surprise: it’s not always the case.
It’s difficult to actually assess the quality of a garment you see in a shop. Close and careful inspection and fifteen minutes in a changing room will not necessarily tell you how the item will age, and whether it’s going to be good to wear for several years, or just a season or two. So it’s completely reasonable you’d look for shortcuts: details that are normally seen in clothes made by established manufacturers and premium brands. The problem is, clothing companies know that, and will use this knowledge to pretend their product is better than it actually is.
So don’t get too excited if the things with suspiciously low price tag feature…
1. Working cuff buttons
It’s probably obvious by now, as this can sometimes be found even in polyester Zara blazers. But working buttons on a jacket’s sleeve, which used to be associated with custom made garments (either MTM or bespoke), don’t really tell you anything about the quality of the jacket. It’s a nice little detail and I like it a lot – some of my ready-to-wear jackets have it as well, and they’re a standard in clothes made by brands like Suit Supply. The problem is, while in custom-made clothes they’re all nice and fancy, in ready-to-wear clothing they might actually be a thing which brings the value of the garment down.
To achieve good fit, a lot of RTW stuff needs to be altered by a tailor. Shortening or lengthening the sleeves is one of the easiest, cheapest and fastest alterations, which does a lot of good to how the jacket you wear is perceived. And it’s often needed, as the length of the arm is highly variable between people. However, if the sleeve buttons are working, the ability to alter the sleeve length is limited – you can’t just remove the buttonhole stitching and move it up or down, because there’s a hole in the fabric. Which leaves you with more expensive and risky option of changing the sleeve length from the shoulder. Not every tailor will do that, those who will, will also charge you more. And if the jacket is, say, plaid – you can say goodbye to the pattern at the sleeve being matched to the body.
That’s the main problem I have with Suit Supply jackets, by the way – their 44 size is basically perfect for me, except the short sleeves, which I can’t do much about. And it’s a reason why high-end RTW, like jackets made by Eidos or Sartoria Formosa sold by No Man Walks Alone shop, come with unfinished sleeves, so you have to take the coat to the tailor and get the sleeve length just right.
2. Split yoke
Split yoke in a shirt means that the yoke – the part on the upper back, below the collar – is made of two separate pieces of fabric, sewn together at an angle. It theoretically gives you more flexibility – the tension which goes through this part of the shirt doesn’t go along the thread, but diagonally through the weave, allowing it to stretch.
In my experience the advantage of that is rather negligible, and I’m rather certain that in a blind test I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It may have some aesthetic value – I like it, sure, especially on a striped shirt. But it doesn’t really determine the quality, as you can see this detail on shirts of rather subpar fabrics and make, and it will be absent in some higher-end shirts made of really good fabrics. Which doesn’t stop shirt companies to use it in their marketing as a sign that their product is truly supreme.
3. Leather sole
You may have heard that only shoes with leather soles deserved to be called such. I’m more liberal in this area: I prefer my boots to be rubber-soled, for example. But a leather sole in and of itself doesn’t speak of the quality of the shoe. Not even the famed Goodyear Welted construction does.
Inexpensive GYW shoes will often have a sole made of leather which won’t last long, and other elements of the construction – like the welt, or the cork filling, or the insole – will be where the manufacturer decided to cut corners (this low price doesn’t come from thin air after all). While you probably heard that shoes with stitched leather sole can be resoled, this may turn out to not be economically viable – the operation may easily cost you half the price you paid for the shoes.
What turns out to be more important than the leather on the sole or the method of stitching, is the leather used on the upper and the overall quality and precision of the make. These things will determine whether the shoe will look good after you wear it a few times, or will it start breaking in an ugly, inelegant way, showing unsightly creases and losing shape.
4. The label of the fabric manufacturer
OK, if your jacket has a label of a good mill, which is generally considered a maker of fine quality cloth – great, that likely means the fabric is good.
What’s this fabric’s been used to make, is another story. It’s been known for some brands to make suits or jackets which are cut using patterns far from perfect, and made using fully fused construction. The fabric was supposed to be the selling point, justifying the high price, comparable to things of much better overall quality. Don’t fall for that.
What to look for instead?
Oh, it so much easier to criticise and point out flaws rather than give constructive advice. Especially, as I said before, judging the quality of a garment you’re only just about to buy, is difficult. But I’ll try to give a few pointers – four, to keep balance – hoping they’ll turn out at least somewhat useful:
1. The fabric is important. Don’t buy something just because you love the fabric, but the closer the thing your body, the more attention you should pay to what’s it made of. Quality cotton shirt will feel different against your skin. In a jacket, breathable lining and outer fabric also means a lot…
2. …but the good qualities of the jacket’s fabric can be reduced by its construction. If the jacket’s fronts are entirely fused – that is, there’s a layer of a fusible material glued to them – it will not breathe as well. That’s especially important in unlined jackets made of open-weave fabric, like hopsack or linen, where their ability to let the air through is their main advantage. Fortunately, full- or half-canvas construction will often be advertised by the maker, if they use it.
3. Handmade details may be a good sign. They’re expensive to make and take time, so you won’t see them in things only pretending to be premium. However, this will also mean that the clothes finished by hand will cost you more; it also doesn’t mean that machine-finished clothes can’t be good. Look for clean, even seams; neat and elegant finish with no weird irregularities or loose threads – at least.
4. Just try to get some experience with good quality stuff. You don’t have to even own them. Go to the stores which sell high-end menswear, even if you don’t intend to buy anything. Examine the clothes there, try them on perhaps, to see how they fit. Look at the details. Get the idea how the things you want to wear should be, and then decide what is an acceptable break from this standard and what’s not.