Quality vs. Image

In the “Back-to-School” mentality we’re left to wonder what you’re shopping for. What’s more interesting, however, is what will drive you to the point of purchase.


Oh, sure. We’re pretty fond of each other, but the truth is you all are our favorite contributors to The Man Repeller. Really! And we’ve formalized that fact with “Let’s Talk About It.” This weekly column is a forum for conversation, communication, and complete distraction from the jobs you’re supposed to be doing right now. So get involved. We promise we won’t tell your bosses.

Written by Mattie Kahn

We’re rounding on the last week of August, and so, of course, I’m getting ready to go back to school. Again. Frankly, it feels like I’ve done it a million times. But no matter how many internal debates I’ve waged in an attempt to choose between binders and notebooks (thus far, inconclusive) or decide whether I really need a new set of highlighters (I do), the thrill of the impending September season remains as genuine as ever. Somehow, despite my ever-growing cynicism, this annual rite of passage seems as exciting and foreboding and exhilarating as it did when I was six-years-old and gearing up for kindergarten.

I’m told—by my father and older brother and infinitely cooler friends (hi, Team Man Repeller!)—that even after you’ve celebrated your final graduation and stopped suffering minor mental breakdowns at your local Staples store, this final stretch of summer always feels anticipatory. Like: maybe the Gregorian calendar has it wrong, because, in fact, each year begins after Labor Day.

Certainly, the fashion industry seems to think so. For the sartorially minded, September is all-but synonymous with style. Between fashion week(s), magazines that moonlight as exercise equipment, and the unveiling of drool-worthy designer campaigns, it’s not just your neighborhood nine-year-old who feels compelled to go “Back-to-School” shopping. We all do. Up for classroom discussion, however, is what exactly we intend to buy.

This morning, Fashionologie spotlighted a nearly $1,000, hand-finished J.Crew top. According to the retailer’s website, “the embellishment of this design required more than 35,000 crystals, sequins, beads and paillettes.” The process of applying each one of those suckers reportedly took more than three days.

In other words, this is not Balmain’s $1,625 cotton T-shirt. Finished with hand-sewn silk embroidery and produced in what I have to imagine is a seriously limited edition quantity, the design is about as close to couture as a massive, international retailer is ever going to get.

PS: the so-called popover is already backordered.

And yet, while I’m in no position to purchase any iteration of a four-figure topper, honesty compels me to admit that I could sooner see myself forking over thousands for Christophe Decarnin than I could for Mickey Drexler. Not only because I’m hopelessly guilty of label driven lust, but also because—relatedly—when some colleague or co-ed asks me where I got my shirt, “J.Crew” just doesn’t provide enough metaphoric bang for my buck (or as Leandra argues, ego).

What I mean is I love J.Crew’s wares for knit tees and cozy sweaters, but I don’t see it as the kind of brand from which I’d purchase an “investment piece.”

Basically, there’s a limit to what I’m willing to spend on a single item from a supposedly high-street store, and it maxes out at three digits. Maybe it’s shallow, but, for me, the provenance of clothing tells a story, and the quality of that narrative is built into its price tag.

Of course, I recognize that this conversation is related to earlier ones we’ve had about label blindness and Carol sandals and Zara, but a slightly different facet of it fascinates me. If we’re all secretly going back-to-school shopping in anticipation of September, what drives our flights of fashion fancy? Brand? Batch-size? Slowly building the investment-oriented wardrobe of our dreams? How much does recognition from our “classmates” matter? And finally: would you ever preorder that top?

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • I would never order it. I feel the same way as you do. It is J. Crew and I don’t want to pay that much for something from J. Crew. I expect to get great basics at a pretty good price point from J. Crew. I would have to worry about the crystals falling off that thing. It happens no matter how much you try to avoid it. You see them glistening on your carpet and think oh shit, i just lost another sequin from this damn thing. Embellished pieces drive me nuts for that reason and you know there is no way in hell you are gonna put that sequin back on there or use the extras they give you in the little plastic pouch. A top for 1k would have to be from a high end designer/made in Italy and even then I would think twice. You could get a nice pair of shoes or leather jacket at that price, which would be much more versatile. And yes, I get anxious around this time of year even though I am not going back to school.


  • Liz Sterrett


    I suppose if I had a bagillion dollars I would purchase such a shirt

  • Jane

    Why on earth would any sane human being purchase a t-shirt that costs 1000 dollars? My hand trembles when I pay 40 dollars for a blazer that has been marked down a million times at zara! Yeah hold on let me just work my underpaid ass off and be treated like shit so that I can buy into some rich person’s life. Y’all are batshit insane! No seriously you have to be a total douche bag good for nothing 1 percenter elitist to pay that much. WAKE UP! Look around and you’ll see the failed products of capitalism sleeping on benches and begging rich assholes for a quarter. Shame! It’s a piece of goddam cloth with sparkly shit sprinkled on there to make you feel better about yourself and your socioeconomic statues.

    • Monica Lee

      I’m fine with you personally not wanting to spend $1,000 on a shirt, but disparaging people you know nothing about for being able and willing to do so seems uncalled for. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) buy the shirt, but I can understand that there are people who live in completely different income brackets to whom $1,000 for a hand-sewn piece might seem reasonable. You don’t have to be a douche bag to buy this shirt. You kind of have to be a douche bag to blanket insult people you don’t know, though…

      • Jane

        Oh I am so sorry for offending thee o great one. Blanket insult? You know what a real blanket insult is? The incomes we’re making working like dogs so that idiots can purchase $1,000 t-shirts from J.Crew. Cut the empathetic shit! At the end of the you’re the one getting screwed over not the privileged assholes who use money as toilet paper. Get a grip!

        • Monica Lee

          Oh please, you know nothing about my political beliefs. You’re painting a shades of grey world with just black and white. Believe it or not, there are some people for whom spending $1000 on something (a shirt, a collectible, a piece of technology, a hobby) is justifiable–and they’re not all filthy rich. Just because it’s not justifiable to you *personally* does not make them “total douche bags,” as you so eloquently soliloquized. Accept that there are 6 billion people in this world who live their lives in different ways and move on.

        • Lulu

          I hear you, Jane. Its less clear cut for me in terms of my own choices. For me, the more compelling questions: how do we live ethically within an unjust system? how do we create structural change so that it doesn’t come down to “personal choice” (which really isn’t unconstrained, free choice)? Capitalism is ethically abhorrent, but living in it is not an individual choice right now. . . what do we do about that?

        • Dalmat

          Jane, you have a point (insults aside) that a $1,000 dollar t-shirt is ridiculous BUT what is worth noting and what is more pertinent is the fact that, the people who buy such things, are those that make / create jobs, are made available and provide an income for those “who work like dogs so that idiot can purchase” these things. That’s the fact, and the flipside.

          – Dalmat


        • Kim P.

          Now you just sound bitter… so I can’t really expect anything else you say to be unbiased. We all (most of us) have some envy to the rich-ies that can prance around and drop 1k on a embellished tee without even giving it a second thought, but lets not forget that supporters of the art of fashion see value in designs and good work NOT necessarily consumerism… which I think may be the point Mattie is trying to make here, hence why she wouldn’t purchase the JCrew tee. The story, construction, and design behind a garment supersedes the cool name tag or fancy price tag. Atleast to us fashion folk…

        • Thamsa

          How about the income of the person who made the $40 Zara blazer you bought on sale? Do you think they could even afford it?! There’s a lot in this world that doesn’t make sense and is plain unfair, but what makes you better than the person who spends $1000 on a shirt? I believe you also need to be woken up!

  • Juliette Laura

    Well, as a broke college student… I hardly skim 3 figures, tending to stick to 2. Let alone going anywhere near 4. Especially for a shirt. I invest more in shoes and handbags. But if I had the money in excess, then maybe I would, if it was something I “just couldn’t live without!”

    xo, Juliette Laura

  • Natalia Ignaczak

    I totally agree in terms of feeling less comfortable with buying investment pieces from J.Crew, who- let’s face it- is a mass market retailer and is becoming more trendy than classic. More so than that though, I also don’t like the recognizability of their prints or exclusive pieces. Just about anyone who receives their catalog or visits the site (what with their #1 rating and all) will know exactly where you got it and how much it cost. Part of the allure of an expensive piece is the mystery behind it. That’s not to say a PS1 isn’t recognizable, but in years to come I’d think a handbag, jacket, pair of shoes, etc. would transition more gracefully.

    • Cass

      Totally agree on the recognizablity factor. I love DVF but stay away from her prints now because I feel like they are SO immediately recognizable. I like a little mystery.

  • Molly Oberstar

    Such a great point was made when you suggested that it makes little sense to indulge in an investment piece from J.Crew. I buy from the retailer because, for the most part, the product is lower priced and quite lovely (save for the oddly shaped, poorly fitting pant or sweater – maybe it’s just me). It saves me from depleting my cash supply in the Via C department at Nordstrom. If I can find a Phillip Lim-esque embellished top (savings made possible by J.Crew’s beaded chambray shirt purchased at 25% off), I’ll snatch it right up. If I’m going to splurge, though, I want a name…I’m with you there. Rather than drop a thou on a tee at J.Crew, I’ll buy another LouieV.

    -Molly Oberstar

  • I had a year when I thought, come on, you’ve been a really good girl, buy yourself a thing or two with a three-digit-price. So I did. A pair of jeans, because I am a jeans girl, and a what they called “cognac brown” leather bag, both beautiful and just slightly above the 150 mark (I’m talking Euro). Anyway, the zipper on my new jeans broke (irreparably) even before someone had noticed it was an expensive brand 🙂 and since I don’t get around much (as a home office freelancer), I didn’t have enough opportunity to show off the bag, even though I am still happy to own it.

    My favorite jeans nowadays are by Cheap Monday 🙂 and I try not to shop at H and M & Co. too much, but if I worked somewhere else, I’d go for expensive classics (what do we call that? Business Serious Dress Code?). Women/Blazer/More or less timeless professional wear to wear and wear and wear – because this is who I am (an oldie eschewing trends and preferring more expensive things (aka Sagittarius) 🙂 , which I tend to imagine can benefit one’s carrier and prospects (looking like who you are). So no: I wouldn’t do the J. Crew sequins. But I understand the three- or more digits likes 🙂

  • Cass

    Wow, so people get really upset over thousand dollar shirts…

    I agree with the author on this one. J Crew should stick with whats in their wheelhouse and leave the couture to couture labels. I don’t think its label-bias, I have nothing against J Crew. But if I’m dropping a grand on one article of clothing – J Crew isn’t even on my radar.

  • Leandra Medine

    RIVETING, MATTIE! You’re such a smarty pant.

    BUUUUUUT: my problem with this concept is that it brings forward a whole different blazon of label blindness that works in reverse. If you love the shirt and can afford it, the label shouldn’t be deterring your will to purchase. The same way that just because you may be able to afford a high-fashion couture label brand t-shirt which did a one off and is creating things at a more approachable price point, does not mean that you should buy it.

    I want to say it’s not as much about the label and your preconceived notions about it as it is about managing our expectations from the brands we love. As an avid J. Crew cashmere sweater buyer, I think I’d be really upset if the usual $229 became, say $429. So I can imagine it is slightly disconcerting if not completely confusing for the t-shirt aficionados who are lining up to buy the most recent embellishments from J. Crew to find such a huge bridge in regular price vs. this one off price. (This comment is in direct relation to the comments about people getting upset).

    Re: the people who have pre-ordered the shirt, they are probably the rare partisan who still knows exactly what they like, no matter who is making it.

    • Mattie Kahn

      I so agree, and I’m SO jealous of those people. But I still think that my issue with this shirt isn’t eennntirely materialistic. J.Crew has fashioned itself as an high-quality yet accessible lifestyle brand, and I have long celebrated my love for it! To me, this top undercuts some of its core values. Plus, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Remember last month Mickey Drexler himself responded to an angry letter from a long-time customer? See: http://racked.com/archives/2013/07/25/mickey-drexler-says-jcrew-styling-has-strayed-too-far.php

      To belabor the point (because why not): I don’t like people who pretend to be something they aren’t, so why would I respect a brand that I felt did the same?

      • Dalmat

        Mattie – “I don’t like people who pretend to be something they aren’t, so why would I respect a brand that I felt did the same?” Completely agree with you and perfectly put. Yes high-end designer brands stroke our egos, but there was something other than this not being one that just wouldn’t allow me (or many others) to even consider this top even if we liked it, and even if we appreciated its craftmanship. And your point hits the nail on the head!! I think if this were a small design house that I had never heard of before making limited pieces I would probably be more interested.


  • Lauren

    No, for multiple reasons: 1. It’s in the name. J.Crew is all over the place and everyone has at least one piece in their closet. Probably, 1 out of every 3-5 people has a J.Crew something or other on right now. If I’m spending that much money, I want a name attached. 2. I have found that “bang for your buck” quality on J.Crew pieces is notoriously awful. That $100 silk blouse you bought? holes in two wears. Your $80 pixie pants? The zipper got stuck half way down on day one. Maybe its just me, but I’ve rarely felt I’ve ever gotten a one-to-one ratio on quality to dollar. My gut is telling me that the beading is going to fall off during transport. And I’ll be up all night, elmer’s rubber cement in hand, gluing crystals back on. Ain’t nobody got time (or money) for that.

  • Jessica Sturdy

    I feel the exact same way. I am in love with Kate Spade’s new Beau bag in the leopard calf hair, but I refuse to pay 4 figures for Kate Spade. It just doesn’t seem right!

  • Piper

    That is a beautiful shirt!!! If someone has the money and they love it they should get it! Everyone loves the stories about a prince who falls in love with a low born girl, it’s a similar situation the prince (the consumer) and the girl (J.CREW top)! Why is it different when it’s real life?! It is on back order because some people don’t have to have a big label to sate their appetite. Style is an expression of ones self, the people I admire the most in fashion are the ones who wear their clothes, the clothes don’t wear them.

  • It’s most notable to me that one of those $1,125 Balmain cotton shirts linked above is now $280 – alongside a ton of other 75% off Balmain markdowns. If a designer can turn a profit margin on those terms and remain in business (and wildly popular), I would immediately question how much of that originally four-figure purchase is any real quality versus the image of a label. The bigger question could be, how do you define luxury? Is it objective – quality materials, craftsmanship, bespoke design, ethical sourcing – or is it subjective – buying into a four-figure brand based on name recognition and esoteric popularity, and to what “tribe” the purchase may grant access.

    I guess a good litmus test is to ask, whether J.Crew or Balmain or Christophe Decarnin: Would still buy the product if no one you knew recognized the label?

  • Lianne

    I agree with everyone here in that I wouldn’t look to J Crew for an investment piece, and that I wouldn’t be willing to spend a thousand if there wasn’t a higher end label attached to the tag. But I don’t think it was J Crew’s intention to sell a high volume of these $998 toppers. By having a high priced item, that we’re all now talking about – regardless if we are disagreeing about purchasing it… we are inherently associating J Crew with a one thousand dollar t shirt. I think that is a pretty effective marketing technique. One which, in time, may convince me to put down hundreds on items at J Crew more willingly.

    • Kylie Sartini


    • Mattie Kahn

      Spot on and so true. Especially because the powers have already started stocking more expensive brands in collaboration with J.Crew (i.e., Goldsign Jeans, Barbour, etc.), but they decided to take this top-dollar item in house.

  • Kylie Sartini

    hahaha this is just classic. I do agree– I’m def. topping out at 3 digits for any high-street store — I would never buy that J. Crew popover for 4, however I might, just might talk myself into preordering the Balmain sweater. Sorry I’m not sorry — label lust?? possibly.

  • Jessica

    There’s a definite limit to what I would spend on an investment piece, period, regardless of the piece’s origins. Aside from my personal reservations about dropping $1K on a “popover,” shouldn’t any brand be free to create beyond their cozy basics, something that reaches into heights both beautiful and near-unattainable? After all, if style is about how you wear what you’ve purchased, not about flashing labels, then I don’t feel it matters (except in terms of quality and hopefully obviously excluding our aversion to copyright-infringing duplicates) from which brand the item comes. Sometimes I fear that if I just scoop up the latest item from (insert crave-worthy designer here), it’s just minutes until I see it everywhere (case in point: the Isabel Marant Carol sandal post). I agree with some of my fellow commentators – the mystery and surprise that comes from finding an item from an unexpected place is part of the fun.

    Even if it’s a fun that I won’t be partaking in because I’m not going to drop the majority of a paycheck on a hand-embellished sweater, regardless of brand or desire. Bags, however, are another story.


  • Guest

    Drexler+JCrew+Lyons=not to be trusted

    • Lulu

      I love this! You can always get at least 25% off anything at J Crew, and more often, 40% off the already marked down price. I love J. Crew, frankly, but never pay full price for anything. This shirt was available earlier in the summer for 30% off plus an additional 15% off. . . . my number 1 rule, regardless of name: NEVER PAY FULL PRICE. (same goes for a Chanel bag).

  • alejandra

    I bought a vintage Christian Dior blazer at a thrift shop for 75 dollars two years ago. I wear it all the time. If I can get Dior for 75 bucks i wouldn’t pay $1,000 for J.Crew. Maybe if I did not have a budget and I HAD TO HAVE it. But I would rather invest in an item that had more longevity. Also at J.Crew, a coworker or mine bought a necklace from there for $275 , and I ordered the exact same one online for $40. (the same down to the clasp and the metals.) So if i can get this necklace for 40 dollars how great is the quality, really?

  • jas

    while it is a beautiful tee and i appreciate the design and time that has gone into making it, i don’t think i would ever pay $1,000 for a piece of clothing. also, i am 100% sure i have seen similar items like this in vietnam and thailand that have also been hand sewn and sell for $20.

    i am definitely willing to pay more for items that are well made, good quality, hand sewn, innovative, etc. i appreciate design and quality. also, i don’t discriminate with the brand. who cares if it’s gap or balmain who have made the item, as long as you are getting what you pay for. generally, i would like to think that high end brands put way more into design and quality control which is why they can charge high prices. that said, paying $1,000 for a cotton tshirt is insane. i would say that is 90% label and 10% quality that you are paying for.

    i could just never justify that kind of money on an item of clothing. there are starving children!

    reckless abandon blog

  • K.H

    I work in the fashion industry, and have my own boutique, but am being lead to an awful conundrum of quality vs the label – which totally goes against everything I have built.
    I see so many people come in store, and buy these high street labels at exaggerated prices with little regard for where or how the garment was made, without batting an eyelid. Yet we try out a new designer, who manufactures on home soil, and it will get disregarded purely due to having no ‘label appeal’.
    I love the J Crew top, and you can almost justify the price due to the amount of work that has been put in to make this a feature piece. Although J Crew is not a ‘premium’ label to brag to friends / family / enemies about, they have produced a quality garment that addresses the reason behind its pricing. Little can be said about other ‘premium’ labels that are using cheap fabrics, mass produced and charging over the four figure amount.

    • Lulu

      I agree entirely. Some of my favorite items have come from small boutiques in Berlin (where I lived) that have no name recognition at all. I get asked about them whenever I wear one, though!

  • Andrew

    I have always wanted to buy something that is ridiculously expensive and completely stupid. One of my biggest urges is to run out to Barneys and get a Saint Laurent white t-shirt that costs $325. There are no embellishments, no special sewing- just plain white. And for some reason, it just seems SO COOL to be walking around wearing a $325 t-shirt from a huge designer that almost no one can afford like it’s just no big deal. But then I’d pair it with Zara so that I look like I don’t really care about price, I just pick things I like (mind you, I would quickly snap myself out of this thinking).
    I can’t help it, frivolity is always attractive.


    • liv

      I love your honesty!


  • Ines Roma

    @c7fccf8f92b57538a509d451c768a501:disqus. Why on earth would any sane human being have an online meltdown over a $1000 t-shirt on a fashion blog is just beyond my Rockstud Valentinos?! Calm down. I think you are suffering from a Noam Chomsky mental constipation case. Luckily it will clear in your 30’s.

  • Hmmmm, a very relevant question as I, too, evaluate my back-to-school budget and exactly how I will wield its purchasing power. I’ve been asking myself: what am I looking for this time? Brand name and quality matter (I’d say the latter is more important, actually), but every fall I find myself searching simply for more pieces that approximate ME. My school wardrobe aims to impress both my classmates and myself with its seemingly effortless authenticity.

    As for the bedazzled shirt–If I had the money and I couldn’t live without it, who gives a shit if it’s from J. Crew? To be honest, I feel like a douche when I drop brand names anyways. Not that I don’t care about who made my clothes, cuz I do, but who can say, “Oh, my T-shirt? It’s Balmain” without a touch of superiority in their tone? Like, enlighten me–how do you say that non-condescendingly? I’d rather tell somebody it’s from J. Crew.

  • Petra

    I hope that if I had anything close to a thousand dollars for a shirt, I would try and make sure the label I’m buying stuff from treats and pays their employees fairly. That would really make me feel good in my clothes. All this other stuff is just first world problems.

  • Alba B.

    With the great respect of the famous architect Louis Khan, which I don’t know if you belong to the same descent, but anyhow your surname similarity, kind of emanates the quality of your writings/discussions. So thank you for this.
    In our mindset as women the only objective to purchase is driven by our will of feeling under the spotlight, and we could make everything possible to have it all for ourselves especially back-to-school mood!
    Saying that, being into spotlight doesn’t neccessary imply the fact of perfect beauty but it can be the perfect ugly, that under a certain light, as the buildings of Khan, arise from the ashes as a phoenix to take the terrain it wasn’t hers before, in the majesty and pomposity of astonishment.
    As a conclusion to your question I would invest everything on my creativity to be original on my own way, and stand out as I am, not necessarily put my hopes on my clothes. The quality and design dwell inside US.

  • carrier = career

  • Patti

    I can definitely share your feelings on being compelled to go back-to-school shopping around this time of the year, when designer campaigns switch seasons and magazine headlines show you gazillion hot items to buy NOW for fall. Summer is not over yet and I feel, as I sweat in my tank top, I desperately need that woolen full skirt to complete my wardrobe. This kind of fashion chronological discrepancy has absolutely played with the consumers’ minds and perhaps has tricked us into thinking we need those clothes hanging on the window display now. There is, at least for me, no fighting this desire. I have long surrendered.

    As for the over-priced designer pieces, I can understand though I have no financial support to indulge. Nevertheless, the price really covers the whole package that comes with the piece of clothing sold – the name of the brand, the workmanship, the designer’s creative effort, etc. When it comes to investing in clothes, people do tend to make well thought out decisions, which they can be proud of decades later. It is no doubt a matter of choice when it comes to justifying a purchase. I have personally experienced being blinded by price tags, now many of my cheap steals sit in my closet never to be worn again, and some I dread to even remember why I bought them in the first place.


  • andrieya

    I’m kind of surprised since this made news about a month ago about Jcrew being “too fashionable”….. http://www.forbes.com/sites/derosetichy/2013/07/24/j-crews-ceo-gets-advice-from-my-wife/

  • Anna Louise

    Yes I know I am late in on this conversation and no-one is following this anymore, but it’s taken a while to iron out my considerable feelings on this and now I would like to get them down as a way to formalize my thoughts in my own mind. At first, I don’t know what horrified me more…the argument that someone would not buy a high quality product from a mass market retailer because it would be embarassing to have spent a lot of money on JCrew rather than, say Celine, even if the particular JCrew product offered beauty and high quality, …or the realization that I too would hesitate before buying a high end JCrew product. Note I am not judging whether the product in question itself is beautiful and high quality, just speaking to the general philosophy espoused that big price should mean big name. In the end, I have decided that the reason I hesitate to buy high end JCrew is that I hesitate to buy ANY high end products that are so easily recognizable. I still love following big name designers, and covet luxurious products. However, I prefer them either to be one of a kind (or almost) or so classic (yet gorgeously cut) that their source is not obvious from 50 paces: the royal blue caymen clutch from a tiny little leather-making shop in Argentina. The pure silk little tweed jacket from a limited-run designer in my own neighbourhood from back in the day when silk tweed really wasn’t available, except maybe from Chanel. The gorgeous scarf from Paris that is from a high end designer, but not Hermes obvious. Many a drool-worthy bag have I left on the counter because it screams $2000 name designer bag. I would rather that quality speak (softly and eloquently) for itself. That said, I don’t mind sharing who my clothes are designed by, if someone is interested. I just don’t want it to scream it as I walk down the street. Those are my thoughts. I will just finish by indicating that the item in question is a sweater, not a t-shirt, i.e. much more substantial.

  • berne mak

    I would love a back to school post for those who want to look stylish on a budget. That’d be great!!