Mass production, automation, globalization, commoditization, offshoring, container ships, next day delivery, bubble wrap, off-brands, clearance sales, intermediaries. Nobody has a good word to say about it. The whole material culture of capitalism has a very bad reputation and deserves it.
This is especially true in the case of clothing, which is often wasted and produced by people who are treated miserably. “Fast fashion” has rightly become a term of condemnation. Nobody should want a shirt they’ll wear twice and send to the dump.
There is, however, another side to this story. Automation, digitalization and globalization have brought us incredible material abundance at very low prices. This is, in itself, a good thing, and it is not just a story of inequity and waste. We should emphasize sustainability, but also celebrate good, cheap clothes. They can make a lot of people happy – much more than a luxury brand that talks about sustainability and serves the 1%.
I recently did my summer shopping at Uniqlo. Two pairs of chino shorts, two black t-shirts, five pairs of black boxers. Outside for $135. I have purchased all of these items before, I know they will look great and last me for years.
Before you get fired up about my love of cheap stuff, remember that snobbery likes to wear the costume of conscience. “Buy quality, buy once”; “It’s an investment”; “I’m not rich enough to buy cheap things.” Oh, try it. You may find that you feel better about what you’re wearing when you stop trying to cement your class status and have a little cheap fun instead.
Food is a good analogy here. A lot of people like to say that McDonald’s is gross. But it’s a tasty meal at a good price, and those fries are just plain good. When you pay twice as much for your burger at Shake Shack, is the food twice as good? Or are you shelling out for a brand that separates you from hoi polloi?
Accepting the cheap pleasures of modern capitalism doesn’t have to cut you off from the joys of luxury, if you can afford it. One year I paid more for a pair of brogues than for a car. I still have the shoes, on their third set of soles; the car, with 150,000 miles when i bought it, was a blast to drive and went to jalopy heaven. Both awards were equally appropriate. Luxury (and snobbery for that matter) works best when it’s carefully targeted and precisely distributed.
Watches are my favorite example. I was a little heartbroken when my favorite watch – the Casio F-91W in orange (about $15) – went missing. I was forced to splurge and spend four times as much for a nice neon Swatch. A nice watch is great if you inherit it from your grandfather or something, but with a modern Rolex (or equivalent) the risk of coming across as a center cast, show-off, unimaginative man is just too high. Save your money for a nice pair of cufflinks.
So let’s sing the praises of the Converse All Star, a $65 classic that you can own in a range of colors. Levi’s 501s for $60, Reef flip flops for $40 and Dickies jackets for $90. My wife looks great in $30 MIA slides and a $120 Cos dress.
Returning to my cheap brand of choice, my stylish buddy Jonathan in London managed to get his hands on a yellow and black plaid suit from the Uniqlo+Marni mash-up. Cool as hell, but online it seems to have already disappeared. Tried to get a pair of baggy shorts ($40). No dice again. Part of the strategy of these rapprochements between big designers and big, inexpensive brands is manufactured rarity. The idea must be to protect the aura of exclusivity from the pernicious effects of selling clothes to people other than the super-rich (a Marni bowling shirt can cost you over $700).
I don’t know how the economy works here, but performative scarcities leave me cold. There are plenty of brands I can think of (Bode, Acne Studios, T-Michael) that have distinct looks they could bring to a chain store, using less luxurious materials, at reasonable prices – for everything the world. Would that keep millionaires away from full-price brand stores? I strongly doubt it. Never underestimate the desire of the wealthy to outspend us. More, better cheap clothes, please.
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