Category: Inside Story

A New Year’s Intention

This I Wear | A New Year's Intention

A few years ago, I stopped writing New Years’ resolutions and started writing New Years’ intentions. This may sound like a small difference, but it is actually revolutionary.

Unlike a resolution, an intention can’t be checked off a to-do list. Instead, it’s just a gentle reminder to guide your actions throughout the year. With no way to fail, it’s more of an intention to change and expand your viewpoint or how you approach life.

This year, my intention took a little while longer than usual. I’ve gotten into the habit of starting to think about what my New Year’s intention will be before the December holidays, and unconsciously, I start noticing things that I’m thinking about and collecting ideas, storing them away for when I can sit down to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. And I like to let my intention brew – playing with the wording, trying it on in situations and noticing how it might encourage me to live differently before I commit to it.

Well, I finally arrived at what my 2014 New Year’s intention might be, and I was surprised to realize it had a place here.

As a late-20s professional finding her path, it’s been easy to get lost in the constant changes of life and the struggles experienced everyday. So this year, I intend to see abundance – to see the abundance of love, generosity, compassion, opportunity, friendship, laughter, and even money that can exist when I start noticing it and looking at things in a different way.

Maybe my intention or even the idea of setting intentions is a bit too abstract or kumbaya for you. And that’s ok. But I think it has a place here. After I determined my intention, I woke up the next morning and realized it worked right here within the philosophy of This I Wear and might give us a new way of thinking about the “shopping” problem, especially in the apparel industry.

Fashion is at a point of confronting scarcity. There is and will be a scarcity of resources to prevent producing and consuming apparel (and all the other things we make) in the way that we are doing it right now. And at the same time, maybe companies are scared that there will be a scarcity of profits and happy customers if they change their ways in recognition of this resource scarcity. And today, for many of us as consumers, we may see a scarcity of choice since so many of our options are poor quality, better quality but unattainable, or it’s just plain difficult to find things that we need that are produced in ways that match our values.

But what if all sides of the situation, consumers and companies and all the people in between, saw abundance instead? What would that mean?

It could mean an abundance of new connections, new creativity, and greater meaning in our lives. It could mean an abundance of materials found by creating new technology or upcycling garments and materials. Or it could mean that as consumers we see an abundance of choice in stocking our closets with things we acquire outside of the traditional marketplace – from shopping in our friends’ closets to swapping clothes online or buying secondhand and vintage. It could mean an abundance of opportunity to learn how to tailor our own clothes or make something from scratch! It could mean an abundance of connection in buying from and supporting emerging designers in our own communities. This list goes on.

I know there are a lot more ways that we can find abundance even as we take on the issue of scarcity. I’d love to hear from you on how you think the fashion industry or consumers can reframe this scarcity as abundance. Or share your own “New Years Intention” (or prediction) for fashion in 2014. Comment below to keep the conversation going, and here’s to an abundant 2014 for all of us.

Book Review: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

This I Wear | Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Welcome to 2014! Lazy days spent with family offer the perfect time to catch up on reading, so we’re kicking off the New Year with a new read! Enjoy!

“In the world of Cheap, ‘design’ has become a stand-in for quality.”

In today’s shopping world, the middle ground is gone. Our options seem to be luxury goods that cause us to be suspicious of price and discounted (but “designed”) items that give us suspicion of quality. As consumers, we often feel manipulated when we shop, because we don’t actually know what we are buying. In fact, according to Shell, “we believe that merchants habitually overcharge us just because they can, and the difference among products represents not a difference in quality but in the varying ability of salesmen to fool us.”

Why are we so suspicious? And is our suspicion warranted?

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, indulges our greatest consumer fears that retailers are taking advantage of us. Starting from the history of the department store and down to the invention of the price tag, she follows the growth of our cheap-obsessed American culture.

Honestly, after reading this book, it feels like unless I buy all of my clothing from that price-transparency movement starter Bruno Pieters, I may never know if the cost of my clothes is the result of the price of the materials, the skill of the labor, the import tax, or some concept of “good design” (which in the case of “cheap” is design for disposability).

So why the pursuit of “cheap”? Well, it’s a long (well-researched) history, but this is what’s going on behind the price tag:

Prices are influenced by emotions, not just concrete numbers. And since human beings are pretty irrational, our emotions get a lot of attention from retailers. According to Shell’s research, “a fair price…is one that is ‘emotionally okay’ with the person doing the buying.” Some of this is pretty visible in stores, hence why $2.99 is more common than $3.00. But what about the fact that humans have a really hard time predicting the needs of their more rational future self? Well, we might not be so conscious of that, but it’s why a deal feels so good now. We don’t necessarily know what things are worth or what will make us happy or fill a need, but we do know how we feel when shopping. And a deal appeals to those emotional highs and lows. Our emotions get played to and suddenly, we’ve bought what the store wanted us to buy rather than what we truly needed.

We assume getting a discount “involves a trade-off of quality for price” whether it’s true or not. Even though we’re chasing deals like alcoholics going after their next drink, we actually don’t like the stuff we buy on sale as much. HUH? Think about it: if we buy something that has been marked-down, we start looking for flaws. Of course, something is wrong with it if no one else wanted it and it’s been left on the shelves. And that means that even something on sale that is of good quality has a lower perceived value, which influences how we treat it. According to Shell, “the less we pay for something, the less we value it and the less likely we are to take care of it, with the results that cheaper things – even if well made – seem to wear out and break more quickly.”

We like brands because we are looking for markers of quality, something (anything!) to explain the price. Most of us have no idea what we’re buying when we’re shopping, but a brand name has historically been a reference for quality. In fact, the idea of a brand or marker of quality is the only thing that overrides the previous point: “Once quality is assumed – as it is for many branded products – a lower price is a plus. When quality is in dispute, as it is when we buy things we know nothing about at flea markets or eBay, low price can be a negative.” So we don’t mind buying our Polo shirts for 75% off, but that Persian rug on eBay better be freaking expensive, otherwise it is obviously no good.

And speaking of discount goods, outlet malls are complete crap. Yes, they started off as a mechanism for getting rid of unsold, damaged or irregular merchandise, but now, most chain stores are designing and producing lines for their outlet stores. Yet, we’re still willing to get in our cars, drive hours, and spend an entire day after the pursuit of a deal. Why? Because we think that because it’s no frills and inconvenient, we’re EARNING a good deal. It is not a deal, guys. I REPEAT: IT IS NOT A DEAL. Don’t fall for the trap. And whenever you’re tempted by the distant glow of the outlet mall, consider the Simpsons reference Shell includes in this chapter, straight from Homer’s mouth at the outlet electronics store: “I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there’s a Magnetbox and Sorny.” (Don’t be Homer…)

And what is the result of all of this? We’ve been conditioned as consumers to look for markdowns, so retailers are now scared to stop putting things on sale. Oh well. I guess we’re all just human.

But Shell ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note that we as consumers can set our own standards for ourselves, demand transparency, and set ourselves free from this low-price death spiral. This optimistic conclusion was surprising given how far I felt pulled down the “all retailers are frauds” tube, but if you are a paranoid consumer or into behavioral economics, this book will have you turning page after page. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thanks to the folks over at Well Spent for putting this book on my radar. While it’s more consumer goods focused than just fashion specific, it is hugely helpful in understanding why we buy what we do, and how the market got to where it stands today, which hopefully will inform on how we can make a change in the future. Or God help us, we’re going to run this ship into the ground.

Share your thoughts! How does price influence our buying habits in more subtle ways? Is “cheap” addictive? How can we overcome the allure of a deal?  Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your views.

Thoughts on Why We Don’t Understand Quality

This I Wear | Why We Don't Understand Quality

Your mother may have had a sewing machine; but if she didn’t, her mother definitely did. It wasn’t that long ago that home economics classes still existed in schools and sewing your own formal dress for your high school dance was the norm.

But today, the only peers I know with sewing machines went to fashion school, and even they complain of their poor sewing skills. However, they have one up on the rest of us, because regardless of their ability to sew a suit from scratch, they can tell a quality garment from one of lesser quality. They’ve seen and touched it firsthand.

The majority of us have no idea what quality looks or feels like in clothes. I think I audibly sighed when reading a section in “Overdressed” when a young woman touched a dress from Forever 21 and said the fabric felt nice. This is not a good sign.

To me, this is the equivalent of kids not knowing that oranges grow on trees and potatoes grow in the ground. It is the equivalent of eating Taco Bell and thinking you’ve experienced real Mexican food.

We are totally and utterly separated from where our clothes come from. And many of us are only slightly aware of this ignorance.

And because of this, in just the last few decades as the vast majority of sewing jobs moved overseas and fabric stores shuttered in our local communities as demand plummeted, we don’t know how our clothes are made.

And just to clarify, we don’t know where the fiber comes from (the farm vs. the lab), how the fabric is made, and how (and by whom) the clothes themselves are constructed. Though to give us some credit, the system is so complicated that many in the industry might not be able to tell you either.

This is a problem for many reasons, but namely that (1) we are buying cheap poorly made clothes because we don’t know better and (2) we won’t pay higher prices for quality clothes because we can’t understand the skill and better materials that make them more expensive now but guarantee that they will last and fit us well.

So how do we start to understand quality?

One reason I personally advocate for “Made in the USA” is that perhaps more local production will help us understand our clothes again. Local production means local skill development. Bring back exposure to sewing skills and the materials that go into a garment, and you bring back understanding of what quality is and how much quality costs. And then maybe consumers will start questioning how a pair of jeans could be $10, and just maybe they’ll start telling companies that poorly made fashion isn’t good enough anymore – whether vocally or through their changed shopping habits.

How can we learn the difference between cotton and polyester or how to tell the strength of a seam? In order to change, we need information, and proximity to information is a huge help. Like many of the clothing designers I know, we don’t need to have professional level sewing skills to begin to understand what we buy and wear everyday. But just as urban farms have taught kids that a potato grows in the dirt, bringing back local clothing production to our communities could spark a revival of these skills and a demand for knowledge. And that’s where change can start.

Do you feel like you know where your clothes come from? Share your stories in the comments below or tweet @ThisIWear.

Book Review: You Are What You Wear

This I Wear | Book Review: You Are What You Wear

I realize it is now the middle of September, and I’m just getting through the first book on my summer reading list: Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner’s “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You.” But better late than never. And well, I have another confession: I made it to page 120…out of 233 pages. So let’s be honest, this is not a full book review, but merely a chance for me to say that given the title and the subject matter (clothing meets psychology), I was extremely excited about this book. In fact, I thought this might even solve some of my own wardrobe dilemmas or help me to understand those of others so I could be more helpful. But the excitement was short-lived.

Here’s where I totally agree with Dr. Baumgartner: Our closets reveal a lot about who we are, for better or worse. After reading on page one that she believes “clothing is an extension of who we are,” I thought we were going to be best friends as we obviously think alike.

In each of the chapters, Dr. Baumgartner focuses on a case study of a “closet therapy” client whom she helped to dig deeper into personal issues that were revealed through wardrobe shortcomings. From the woman who spends beyond her means and doesn’t wear the nice things she buys to the women who reveal too much or cover up entirely to hide themselves, the case studies are of real women with real issues. And it’s pretty clear that they are wearing their weaknesses.

The chapter that may most closely resemble my own problems might be the “Somnambulist” chapter, but as I am anything but bored with my life (only my clothes), even that example didn’t make sense for me. Yet it was enough that I started to wonder what story I’ve been telling lately with my clothing choices. Probably tired. Maybe confused or in transition.

But I totally lost interest in the author’s theories as her strategies for overcoming these closet (and personal) ills became apparent. I am possibly exaggerating but chapter after chapter, I felt like she kept encouraging her clients to throw out everything (where are the strategies for donating or making sure your clothes are given away responsibly?) and continually shop! At a certain point, though she wasn’t advocating for indulging in trends, all I heard was shopping, shopping, shopping.

I wanted it to be more personal. And going to the mall doesn’t feel personal anymore.

So while the book was made up of a fantastic introduction followed by a disappointing episode of “What Not To Wear” hosted by a therapist, I had hoped it would be something different. I wanted her to pull out the personalities of the people she focused on. To Sarah with the stagnated life and wardrobe, I didn’t want her wardrobe just to be freshened up so she could create space for new things to happen in her life. I wanted her wardrobe to become a biography of sorts (“I’m Sarah. I’m from Vermont and I like book clubs.” Or whatever she’s into…). I wanted to learn how to share the positive stories of who we are through our wardrobes.

To wrap things up, I don’t know that I’m recommending you read the book, though there is definite value in the overall theory as well as the “Wardrobe Analysis” section that helps each reader look at her own closet with new perspective.

But that said, it has inspired me to ask myself how the person I want to become would dress – a good question for anyone similarly going through a big transition. Why? Because we truly do get to decide what story is told through our clothes, and that is where me and Dr. Baumgartner are on the same page.

Find yourself telling an unintentional story with what you’re wearing? Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your story.

Another Day, Another Closet Clean

This I Wear | Another Day, Another Closet Clean
The wait is over. Two weeks ago, I picked up 12 boxes – all of my belongings that have been patiently waiting in storage for me – to move and unpack in my new lovely apartment with an unheard of walk-in closet. Three of these boxes, plus the one suitcase I’ve been living out of, were filled with clothes. The last time these things hung in my closet range from 11 to 20 months ago!

Here was the ultimate test: do I really need THAT much clothing? And secondly, did I ever really need those clothes in the first place? And finally, how do I have any clothes left after all of the closet cleanings I’ve done over the last two years?

Looking at the boxes, I felt a little quiver of disgust. I let the boxes sit there, opened and overflowing, for days as I was overcome by exhaustion just at the sight of them. On the other hand, unpacking my suitcase – the relatively small amount of clothes that I’ve successfully lived in for the past four to eight months – was easy. I quickly hung them up on hangers in the closet, happy to continue wearing these pieces daily.

My boyfriend, clearly a minimalist at heart, urged me to get rid of all the boxes. “Don’t even go through them,” he said. But I was truly delighted to be reunited with some of the pieces.

Others elicited more unexpected, and more irrational, reactions. The Zara blouse that I’m in one too many Facebook photos wearing is the victim of a noticeable laundry error; and though I’m slightly embarrassed to wear it, whenever I try it on to re-determine its fate, I can’t help but feel pretty cute in it. Dilemma! And all of the worn-down, hole-ridden tank tops, knit dresses, and other “can’t-wear-it-outside” wear from Forever21, H&M, and Gap suddenly felt precious; I no longer shop at those stores, and so I know there will be no replacements for these items. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. I certainly didn’t miss these pieces, but I feel simultaneously foolish nostalgia for them and a responsibility, since I know they are headed for the rag pile at the textile recycling center, never to be worn in their current state again after they leave my care.

Of the three boxes that came into the apartment, already one full box is ready to go back out. I still have a stack of “maybe” clothes that I’m not sure what to do with yet. And I would still feel more comfortable if half of my “toss out” pile went to friends (perhaps a swap party is on the horizon?).

All of this ties into changes of who I am – clothing size-wise, but also where I am in my life – not just the major changes I’ve committed to when it comes to shopping. In some ways, the change is natural: I don’t want a lot but instead want fewer pieces of higher quality (isn’t this what every late 20-something says?). But it is bringing up issues of my current style identity crisis: what DO I feel comfortable wearing these days? How can I only wear things that make me feel like my best self? What story am I telling about myself with what I wear? (Questions that led to an intentionally hidden Pinterest board as I tried to collect what I think I would like to wear – call it my closeted “Closet Crisis”?)

Is anyone else feeling this way? Raise your hand if you’re in your mid 20s to early 30s, hate your closet, but can’t figure things out enough to know how to move forward with your style while applying your shopping values (whether of ethics or even of quality). Better yet, comment below or tweet @ThisIWear and remind me that I’m not alone in what I’m going to continue to call my #closetcrisis. But now, I guess, the closet door is open.

(And if you too feel this way, you might like Jess Lively’s recent three-part post on creating “an intentional wardrobe.”)

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