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Why high-quality clothes can break the psychology of fast fashion

(Illustration by Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; iStock)

Ten years ago, fashion writer Derek Guy interviewed a young Parisian student about his wardrobe. Brian’s clothes, spare but sophisticated, fit into the tiny closet common in pre-20th-century housing. Every item mixed and matched elegantly, from the camel-toned overcoat to black jeans.

When Guy interviewed Brian a decade later, many of the same jeans, pants and jackets were still in his closet, he told Guy. Everything remained not only wearable, but fashionable long after most people would have tossed their garments or shoved them to the back of the rack.

“He formed a functional, stylish wardrobe using just a few pieces,” says Guy. “The lessons of his wardrobe are applicable to anyone. I don’t think people need to buy designer [clothes] to do what he did. You can shop at Uniqlo, J.Crew, Target or Gap.”

With fast fashion moving from design to retail rack in less than 15 days — and often lasting no more than 10 wearings — the idea of using clothes beyond a single season, let alone a decade, can seem archaic. Last year, the average American bought more than one garment per week, paying about $17 for each, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group.

But fast fashion’s sartorial sugar rush fades fast: 11.3 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2018, the last year the Environmental Protection Agency published data. That’s about 76 pounds per person in the United States, adding to the fashion industry’s trail of environmental degradation and labor violations.

As you look to upgrade your attire for winter, it might be tempting to replace the sweater you bought a few years ago with a new one, or find something on the discount rack.

Hold off. After the novelty is gone, will you be left with just a pile of threads or something that matters, if not forever, for at least a season of your life?

Here’s how to tell if that item you’re eyeing has the potential to stick around for a decade or longer.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression idled thousands of factories. To spur consumption, desperate manufacturers began researching how to make their products worse, writes Giles Slade in his book “Made to Break.” By incorporating inferior materials, companies forced people to buy replacements earlier, a practice called “planned obsolescence.”

Today, the idea of degrading the physical durability of many products, although alive and well, has been eclipsed by something more pervasive: “psychological obsolescence.” Persuading consumers to ditch perfectly usable products for more fashionable versions with little more than cosmetic changes has transformed consumer capitalism.

No one did it better than carmakers. Faced with a saturated market in the 1950s, manufacturers found a new way to stimulate demand: constantly changing details such as chrome trim, tail fins and colors. “Our big job is to hasten obsolescence,” said Cadillac designer Harley Earl in 1955, according to Slade’s book. “In 1934, the average car ownership span was five years: now it is two years. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score.”

Fashion has surpassed Earl’s vision. Clothes often become obsolete in the mind of the buyer long before any materials wear out, sometimes as soon as they’re taken home. The desirability of most fashion is dictated by designers, retailers or our peers — hardly ever ourselves. This powers psychological obsolescence: When trends change, so does our satisfaction.

The antidote, argues Jonathan Chapman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, is emotional durability, a term he coined. Our possessions, particularly clothes, serve as extensions of identities, even our values. By recognizing what makes the items valuable, rather than merely desired, fashion can become timeless, whether it’s an heirloom engagement ring or a faded pair of jeans.

“We are consumers of meaning not matter,” writes Chapman in his 2005 book “Emotionally Durable Design.” “Waste then is a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.”

To build a wardrobe that will last a decade, you have to look beyond how long a garment will stay in fashion or remain wearable. It’s about finding, or cultivating, pieces that are meaningful to you.

To know what emotional durability looks like, check out the Contentedness Thread online, where fashionistas gush over ordinary clothes, often ratty jeans or scuffed shoes. Clothes, as one person said about their leather jacket and jeans, that have become “an extension of myself.”

“If either of these were ruined,” the person wrote, “I would have to give them a Viking burial and salute them as they burn in the ocean.”

I won’t plan any funerary rites for my clothes, but I have some items — a pair of black boots on their third resoling, a knitted sweater that fits just right, a white button-down shirt for any occasion — that keep appreciating. They’re emotional investments far beyond the cost of their constituent cotton, leather and thread.

Were they expensive? Most were not. The boots cost about $100, marked down from more than $300. The price — amortized over the many years I’ve walked around in them — is not much more than a coffee per year.

Taking care of the boots is a pleasure, and I plan to wear them as long as possible. Over time, I hope to build a durable, timeless and authentic wardrobe that lasts for a decade or more.

How to build an emotionally durable wardrobe

Many roads lead to emotional durability. High fashion and exclusive designers are one route. But so is discovering what’s right for you, irrespective of price.

Guy points to $30 painter pants by Dickies. “It’s not a $30 compromise to a designer version,” he says. “You can buy that version and not feel you’re missing anything.”

The thing that won’t work is merely chasing trends. Brands and designers, masters of psychological obsolescence, will entice you into something new forever.

Here are some principles that have helped me figure out what has staying power and what doesn’t:

Learn to recognize quality and value

The bromide of “buy the best you can afford” isn’t always helpful.

“Best,” like quality, is subjective and personal. It doesn’t have to be super-expensive. There is quality to be had at almost every price and style — especially thanks to the explosion of online marketplaces for used and vintage clothes, from RealReal to Poshmark.

One way to find quality clothes is to try them on. Go see what well-made garments look like at high-end stores. Learn to recognize shoddy workmanship, ill-fitting forms and poor materials. Here are a few practical tips if you want to know how to buy that good sweater, start building a wardrobe or gauge quality.

With this and a little research, you’ll have a benchmark for comparison. Finding a friend or trusted person familiar with clothes is invaluable — but eventually, go with your gut. You’ll know when something is high quality for you vs. just an expensive design.

Lean into the trend of recombining pieces from the past and present, to create something new that will always be personal. This has never been easier. Unlike the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the culture appears to have moved beyond a single instantly recognizable style for each generation, writes Jason Farago in the New York Times.

Going “out of style” may be a thing of the past.

That’s good news for you. That means you’re not lashed to the whims of trends, but have the freedom afforded by your own taste.

Avoid the temptation of ‘sales’

Discounts are great. But buying something just because it’s cheap — not because you love it — does not help if you’re uninterested once the thrill of the bargain wears off.

Decide how much you want to spend on each item you buy. Come up with an amount that’s high enough to make you think twice, but low enough to allow you to buy something that will last. For Marc Bain, a fashion writer at the Business of Fashion, the amount was $150.

“It forces me to think about just how much I want that item of clothing, how much I’ll wear it, and whether I think the value it offers is worth a significant cost,” he writes. “It’s an investment, rather than the cheap buzz of getting something new.”

The sugar high from shopping isn’t just a metaphor. The mere anticipation of a purchase can send strong, positive emotions coursing through the brain. A price puts a break on your impulses by triggering the part of the brain that senses pain.

Ultimately, it’s worth considering what we’re trying to change when we change our clothes. The most enduring clothes may not have much to do with the clothes at all.

The clothes make the man, the old saying insists. Perhaps the man makes the clothes.


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