A few days ago I was checking out local chain stores looking for a cheap pair of sunglasses (I have a talent for both breaking and losing them, so cheap is a necessity). I was struck by how great the clothing looked, but once I took a closer look at the quality, it had me second guessing my initial excitement. Yes the clothes are cheap, but are they worth it?

chainstore collage

Chain stores have fashion buyers who regularly travel internationally to ‘research the latest trends’ aka buy clothing from overseas stores and then completely copy them. The factories they use can produce these knock offs incredibly quickly and have them ready for sale instore in a matter of weeks. At first glance the clothes may look fantastic, just like in designer boutiques or from the pages of your favourite fashion magazine, but look closer and you’ll often see poor quality fabric or questionable workmanship. I mean think logically, if a top is $20 the labour costs, fabric, thread, buttons and company overheads like retail staff, marketing, advertising etc have to equal much less than half that amount. So how is that even possible?

Who made my clothes?
Earlier this year Francis Hooper, designer and co-owner of World, did a really interesting documentary about the horrific conditions often found in the factories used by our most popular chain stores. Workers are paid incredibly low amounts to work extremely long hours in awful and frequently dangerous conditions.

He was glad the worlds media took notice in April 2013 when 1133 people were killed and over 2500 injured when the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but commented:

“Consumers got to see an insight behind the veneer of glamorous fabulous fashion, the underbelly. But that was just one factory disaster. They happen every week. Not to that same extent in terms of numbers, but it’s true there are frequent, deadly episodes in the clothing manufacturing business.” I encourage you to view the 15 minute documentary here, such an eye opener.

I couldn’t ignore the reality of what my need for cheap, instant shopping satisfaction really meant. I tried to find out if my favourite chain stores were involved, it was actually really hard, but this article by Consumer has the most comprehensive list I have found on major brands and where their clothing is made.

To keep the end retail price competitive, even the chain stores that do act ‘ethically’ still have to keep the labour and fabric costs extremely low. This inevitably means hourly rates for labour are shocking and the quality of the fabric is typically poor. Even if you love what you see in the dressing room, after a few washes the quality issues can start to show. This has happened to me so many times!

Chain Store (Glassons) vs Designer (Helen Cherry)
I really loved grey knits over winter and found what I thought was a great boyfriend style knit cardigan from Glassons for $50. Then on a girls trip to Wellington I fell in love with a grey mohair Helen Cherry jumper from Workshop for $240. Yes it’s a major price difference, but the current state of them is also majorly different. The Glassons cardigan has awful pilling all over it, is misshapen and the overall colour is washed out (yes this is possible even with it being grey!). In stark contrast the Helen Cherry jumper looks and feels as stunning as the day I bought it. I will be able to wear it season after season, but the Glassons number is now donated to charity.

Chain Store (ASOS) vs Chain Store (Cotton On)
I bought a plaid shirt online from ASOS for $60, and a similar plaid shirt for my teenage daughter from Cotton On for $30. We have both worn and washed these shirts regularly over the last few months. My ASOS shirt has worn very well, with no pilling or fading, my daughters Cotton On shirt is now badly mis-shapen and has holes the size of my hand in it.
shirt 2Exceptions to the rule
Like the ASOS plaid shirt showed, there are those gems that really are easy on the wallet and wear very well. I’ve found a few I can trust like Just Jeans singlets (they are usually 2 for $30 each summer), Witchery shirts, Country Road knits and Cotton On jeans. Unfortunately it does feel a little like a fashion version of russian roulette with it being impossible to tell the difference until it’s in your wardrobe and too late for a refund!

So what’s the answer?
Unless you discover a long lost great aunt has left you a hefty inheritance so you can dress designer head to toe, the reality is you’re going to have to mix high and low fashions, so keep these tips in mind…

1. Designer Threads – Buy the best quality you can afford, yes even though this will mean having less in your wardrobe. I invest in a few designer pieces each season, pieces I LOVE and know I will wear year after year.
2. Trademe – Most of my clothing is bought from Trademe. I’d rather buy a second hand designer piece still in great condition that I know is constructed well with quality fabric, than spend the same amount in a chain store. To make it quick and easy I have saved the searches of each of my favourite New Zealand and Australian designers, and am emailed any new listings each morning. Find out what designers you like, what size you are in their ranges and what styles suit you. I take a quick look each morning over a coffee and will only bid on an item that is in new or near new condition.
3. Opshops – I’m not fantastic at opshopping, I don’t have the patience or the right eye, but I do have a one friend who pretty much buys all her clothes from opshops and she is one of the most stylish woman I know! Think of it like a physical Trademe store.
4. Chainstores – These are still a really good option for items you or your friends know will wear well, for accessories or for trend based items that you are happy will only last a few months.

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