Toward a Definition of Quality

I got some feedback from the “Country of Origin” piece I put up here a while ago. The gist of it was that these upstart countries like China hadn’t developed the expertise to produce really fine apparel; they hadn’t been at it long enough. And “Heritage” brands that sell Asian products are engaging in a sacrilegious bait-and-switch game. These kinds of comments are just xenophobia in disguise. The idea that the Chinese -- or anybody, anywhere -- can’t make quality is ridiculous. Because if you have a true definition of quality the country of origin has no part in it. So let’s talk about what defines quality in apparel. The intangibles of the product, the label, the brand name, the country of origin, don’t mean anything. The aspects of the product that are created by marketing, customer perception, or celebrity endorsements will have an effect of the success or failure, the end users’ enjoyment, and the price of the product; they have nothing to do with the quality. Nothing. Quality is real; and value is its measure of worth.

Excellence in apparel is comprised of three things: beauty, durability, and comfort. A garment has to look good, feel good, and last a good long while.

Let’s start with beauty, the most subjective and personal aspect. While no one particular taste or style is definitely more beautiful than another, there are some indispensible visible features that must be present. Together, the fit, the silhouette, and the richness of the material contribute to the visual appeal. Bumps, folds, fullness, and wrinkles are not beautiful, not matter what the style. You might like chartreuse plaid three-piece suits; they’re beautiful if they look good to you, and on you. We could argue that a definition of classic style is that which is beautiful to the widest audience, but you get the point.

 Comfort and durability are the most important tangible aspects of any garment; in fact they are inherently mutually exclusive. Durability would call for coarse and heavy cloth sewn together by heavy-duty machinery. Comfort requires the opposite: the softest, most luxurious fabric and interlinings, the least amount of padding, the most delicate stitching. Quality in apparel requires more of one element, always at the expense of the other. We like cloth that is light and supple but that holds a crease and keeps its shape. We want comfortable fit, but the most flattering cut for our personal silhouette. We want to keep something for a while, but have it be a pleasure to put on always.

Once the designer, the fabric technicians, the pattern maker, the sewers, and the manufacturing management understand what constitutes quality, it doesn’t matter where they are or what language they speak. Since these aspects of quality require great research and development, trial and error, and most important, an understanding of the customers’ quality criteria, they are expensive. It is rare that people want to pay for quality, and that is the one and only reason that the world – not just the USA – is full of shoddy goods.