The Illusion of Quality

 Is it the labor that’s in it or the label that’s on it?

Is it the labor that’s in it or the label that’s on it?

I worked for a while for a company owned by Al Cohen, who had worked his way from off-price obscurity to Crown Building corner office by dint of his obsessive work ethic, compulsive attention to detail and potentially (ultimately) fatal anger. Cohen was an old-fashioned clothing guy who had had a stroke of commercial genius when he’d devised the Tallia brand and had it made in his Hartz & Co. factory in Frederick, Maryland. Cohen, his partner Stanley Hartz, and men like them, let’s generously call them nuts-and-bolts types, don’t understand something. There is very little about a product’s intrinsic worth that customers actually understand.

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Take the multi-billion-dollar Louis Vuitton business.  From New Bond Street to Wilshire Boulevard, from Mexico City to Dubrovnik there are guys on corners selling the latest LV bags, exact replicas, maybe even made in the same factories: over-runs sold by the licensees. Perfect in every detail. The same bag is being sold in the Louis Vuitton store in the Champs Elysees. And there are people lined up outside the store to buy them. Next to the cashier’s desk a sign saying, “Only Three Items Per Customer,” in five languages, including Russian and Chinese. So people bring their children, nieces, nephews, cousins and grandparents with them so they can beat the system and score a dozen €750 handbags, which, if they were to walk a few blocks north they could buy for one-tenth that amount, and, considering the materials and labor costs, the transportation and duty and all the rest, the street-corner price is about what the bag is worth.

Worth? You can carry all your stuff in a tote from Walmart that costs $7 or buy a different coated canvas bag –  just like the one with the LV’s all over it – with some logo that looks like an LV or Gucci’s backwards-and-forwards G’s, or even some lower-status logo like MK, at your home-town mall. At Macy’s. But there’s no Three-to-a-Customer rule on those. You can buy all you want, and welcome. Bring a truck!

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Sucker born every minute, you say?  I say the Vuitton brand is so strong that it doesn’t matter if the thing is worth the money or if you can’t tell the Champs Elysees one from the street-vendor variety; it is the experience of carrying it. It doesn’t matter if people suspect yours is a fake. The brand says something about you. Something important. It doesn’t matter if you know it’s a rip-off. There is no logic. Stop thinking there is. The Ralph Lauren polo-pony-logo shirt that can be bought for $12 in Marshall’s can also be purchased in a Polo Ralph Lauren outlet store for $24, at the Madison Avenue “Mansion” for $75 and then there’s a Made in Italy version, right next to it, for $250.

So quit thinking the value is in the thing. If it were, retailing would begin and end with Walmart, Lands End, and L.L. Bean.

The nuts-and-bolts guys, especially in the clothing business, are the guys you want to have make your stuff if you care (and know) what it’s supposed to look, fit and feel like. True. Cohen and Hartz had the will, the knowledge and the money to invest in machinery and management. They knew what the garment should fit like; knew what the proper finish was; knew that their product had to be better – obviously better, to the retailer and to the consumer.

Cohen had a personality frightening enough to guarantee adherence to his standards. So the clothing he produced was very good. In his world, the retail world of Tallia, his thirty-million-dollar brand, in stores like The Clothing Company of Trenton or Younkers’ in Omaha, Cohen’s Tallia had become a powerful brand because of the loyalty and enthusiasm it had garnered among the sales staff and the customers. The reason they were avid fans? Simple. It was the thing that we, with all of our “intrinsic value” hand-sewn and hand-pressed this and superfine quality and all that bullshit had been unable to achieve, despite the hundreds of thousands we had spent on “quality men,” despite the pep rally atmosphere, the meetings, the posters, the suggestion boxes, all the stuff in the TQM handbook. One word summed it up: consistency.

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Because the world had changed; ended, in fact. Nobody out there, not the average guy who shopped once in a while for a new suit, not the clothing salesman who stood there and tried things on the average guy and listened to his reasons for not buying, not the store manager who listened to the salesman’s reasons for not selling; nobody gave a good god damn if the thing was sewn and pressed by hand if it didn’t fit, or was puckered at the edges or if the shoulders were bumpy. Cohen’s Tallia came in like soldiers in a troop review. Clean. Consistent in fit. Old Mr. Hartz’s fanatical concentration on labor costs and consistent results worked together to innovate, to invest in equipment, to concentrate on results and not on some “time-honored” mythology of tailoring. His management genius was to create a product that, because the expensive operations, dependent as they were on the skill and dedication of an underpaid and unmotivated workforce, were eliminated. Replaced by machine-made processes that achieved more consistent quality at lower costs. The money Hartz saved, Cohen used in clever marketing of an image to create a reality about their product that Mr. Average, the typical retail salesman and his boss could understand; an image international and modern, played to the right audience, had a thing. Tallia was a Brand.

It happens once in a great while; brands are born at the confluence of three streams. There’s an idea, a dream of the reality of what the product designer — the artist, let’s call her — starts with, sometimes in a prototype, sometimes just an inchoate intention: it should look, feel, work like this, she thinks. Then, the the reality. The execution which matches the intention, sometimes even improves on it, which makes it a thing, a symbol of the creative intention. Finally there is a ready audience, a market for the realized idea, arriving as it does at the “right” time. How many great ideas suffer from inept execution? It’s not that the idea has to come first, or that there’s any necessary sequence to follow, but the idea, the reality and the audience are all there to meet each other. How often is an excellent product empty of any creative energy? Just as often as the best ideas, flawlessly realized, escape the attention of an otherwise distracted world. How many great ideas can never find proper execution? These are the most interesting details of history, or art, or business, and a person able to run the three streams together is the rare exception. It’s why we call Marion Donovan (the disposable diaper,) Rachel Zimmerman (the Blissymbol printer for non-verbal communication) and Coco Chanel (the crazy-expensive blazer,) geniuses.

There was no question that the product line Cohen produced with my name on the label was a good, solid, consistent product. No doubt that it was worth the money. There might have been a market for it, if there had been the one initial ingredient: a concept. There was none. Cohen’s manic self-absorption and his ignorance of the taste and sensibility of the updated traditional customer, produced a well made collection with no life. No soul. Hilton-Oakloom was just a label. No particular dream, strictly commercial execution, and no eager audience.

The name had the allure of a stud horse’s moniker, dignified and retired; not to be ridiculed or even disrespected, but as a brand name, useless. The stud won a few races back when, had pedigree, but the world had no memory of that. No one was going to take the odds on his comeback.  They would wait until the next generation, maybe, but as for Hilton-Oakloom, you can’t race him. He’s finished. Even the name was a flag for finished-ness, a combination of two defunct-companies; and the guys in the barn, me, Peter Dermer, Julie Hertling, old, overweight jockeys, hanging around the jockey locker room, telling stories about the old days. Because the new days were hopeless.

nick@nickhilton.com1 Comment