March 7, 2011

Lessons from the Boys

Courtesy of Wall Street Journal

I have a very dapper friend who I enjoy browsing for clothing with. It's truly refreshing to shop with a gentleman who appreciates a bespoke suit and understands the differences in cuffs. We usually split up. He goes to the men's department and I the women's. When we meet back, it's always amazing to see how many classic, timeless, well made and reasonably priced pieces he has found in comparison with the options for women. Who knew there was so much to be learned from the sophisticated male shopper?
I don't wear fast fashion. When I shop I'm looking for craftsmanship and a piece (I rarely purchase more than one item at a time) to enhance my wardrobe. This runs a bit countercurrent to the current trend of overtly trendy and disposable fashion. I prefer to own less, but better quality garments.  This is something my mom instilled in me from an early age. Needless to say, I am incredibly picky about what I buy. When I saw Christina Binkley's article "To Dress Well, A Woman Should Dress Like A Man" in The Wall Street Journal I knew I was onto something. I have reposted the article because I believe it provides a few helpful hints to keep in mind when shopping. 
When it comes to shopping for fashion, women usually dominate, buying clothing for their men as well as themselves. But ladies, I have a gauntlet to throw down: Women have a lot to learn from the way men shop.
I first sensed this when menswear designer Thom Browne told me that he couldn't use a fabric unless it felt good "to the hand," because men won't buy uncomfortable clothing.
Come again? If comfort were the top criterion for selling womenswear, Jimmy Choo would be out of business. Unlike men, women frequently settle for garments that don't fit well and don't feel good.
Sometimes, women have little choice. It has long been an irritating truth that men are offered better-quality clothes for lower prices. Many fashionable women's clothes—including plenty sold at luxury prices—are made relatively cheaply. "Women do get shortchanged in the market," says Patrick Gigliotti, a menswear salesman at the venerable Boyd's Philadelphia department store. Some women who value well-made clothing have even resorted to shopping in menswear departments.
One reason for the quality difference is trendiness: Because womenswear is more faddish, there's a perception in the fashion industry that the clothes will be thrown away more quickly. Indeed, fast fashion has trained a generation to seek out throwaway styles.
Yet tailoring should matter. Women are always looking for clothes that will lift their bottoms and smooth their bulges. That's exactly the kind of magic that tailoring works. Luckily, with a little education about the way sophisticated men shop, it is possible to buy good-quality womenswear.
What does it mean to think like a man? Consider the way Jay Kos bought himself a pair of pants in New York last Sunday. Mr. Kos, himself a clothier and the owner of the Jay Kos store on Park Avenue, found a pair of olive wool pants at Soho's Blue in Green shop. But the pants had to pass a few tests before he took them to the dressing room. First, he felt the wool with his hand to ascertain its weight and softness. He checked the seams for clean stitching—no loose threads. In the dressing room, he squatted to be sure they fit comfortably. Only then did he step out to take a careful look in the store's biggest mirror and ask the salesman if the pants fit well.
This isn't the way most women shop. But it can be.
A first step is to put less focus on the brand. Logos don't guarantee fine craftsmanship. Dozens of luxury womenswear brands make high-quality fashions—Dolce & Gabbana and Akris among them. But I've found excellently sewn clothes at Zara (though not universally so). Some brands, like Ralph Lauren, have varying quality levels among a dizzying array of sub-brands. Akris offers well-made but lower-quality clothes under the "Akris punto" label. Rather than being blinded by branding, use it only as a starting point.
When you like a garment, grab the fabric and crunch it up—ignoring any gasps you hear from the womenswear sales staff, who are not accustomed to these maneuvers. If the cloth stays wrinkled or feels scratchy, consider moving on.
"You should start from the inside out," says Debi Greenberg, owner of Louis, a high-end store in Boston that caters to both men and women. Loose threads and ragged seams are signs of poor construction. Look for seams that have been carefully rolled and folded before being stitched down or have been "taped," or sewn over with a narrow strip of fabric.
In pants, the waistband is particularly important, as it provides structure and must hold up to sweat, pressure and twisting. In well-tailored pants, the waistband will have two layers of lining, with some structural seams in between. When it comes to pants, Ms. Greenberg recommends Proenza Schouler and Marni at the high end of the price range and Jil Sander for Uniqlo at the more affordable end.
A good jacket starts with a shoulder that permits comfortable movement and isn't so stuffed with foam padding that it looks awkward with the arm raised.
While you're peering inside the garment, check out the width of the fabric in the seams. Is there enough to allow the garment to be let out, if necessary? While good men's clothing is manufactured to be altered, women often have to buy a size larger and then cut the garment down—which can be more costly and difficult.
It's a good idea to ask where the garment—and sometimes the fabric—were manufactured. "Men love the story," says Mr. Kos. "If you're going to spend the money, then it should come come from a place with a respect for quality."
The country of origin can be an indicator of quality, and it's certainly a fair indicator of price. Italy, France and Japan are famous for their high manufacturing standards, but their prices are higher than those of lower-labor-cost nations.
Still, "made in Italy" is no guarantee, and it's possible to buy well-made clothes from many parts of the world. The 3.1 Phillip Lim brand makes some high-quality clothing in China with taped inner seams and alterable waistbands. J. Crew buys many quality shirting fabrics and cashmere yarns from Italian factories and then cuts and sews the clothes in less expensive countries.
Mr. Kos believes that garments and accessories that use a logo as the dominant design feature are more likely to take short cuts with materials or manufacturing.
Only after a garment has passed all these tests is it time to try it on. Be sure you can raise your arm in a shirt or jacket and that you can squat (without making the knees baggy) in pants. See if you can breathe easily. There should be no stretch marks across the torso and no gaping buttons.
When in doubt, remember what Mr. Gigliotti of Boyd's says about men's priorities: "Comfort is paramount."
I'll never be a girl who exclusively shops the mens department and I would be lying if I said that comfort is paramount, however I am a firm believer in not settling when you shop. Perhaps part of the thrill is the hunt for the perfect garment. 


  1. I enjoyed this article very much when I was reading it as well, not to mention that lovely illustration. I'm not much of a men's dept shopper - the only things I've ever bought are plain t-shirts (before slouchy tees for girls became ubiquitous). But just this past weekend I tried a light cotton cable knit men's sweater that I'm very tempted by.

  2. Lin- Thank you for your comment! This article is such a treasure. I love the charming illustration too. I don't think I have ever bought anything from the menswear department but a light cotton cable knit sweater is such a lovely layering piece for spring.