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Why Does Every Nice Dress Cost $500 Now?

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Retailers

Sarah Hagi was recently in the market for an easy long flowy dress to wear this summer in Toronto. Something modest, but nothing too formal or fancy. It should have been easy to find. But shopping online, the writer was surprised to find few options other than dresses that looked as cheap as their low prices or a whole crop of styles from brands that she had never heard of before, charging $500 to $700 apiece. The expensive dresses didn’t look all that different from the cheap ones. “If I’m spending hundreds of dollars on something, I want there to be some marker of its quality,” Hagi said. “I know things have gotten more expensive, but also I’m like, Am I getting ripped off?”

The answer is probably, unfortunately, yes. Today, price and quality feel less connected in fashion than ever before, even when luxury logos aren’t involved. Long gone are the days when you could spend a Saturday at the mall and leave knowing you had seen the best styles of the season. Since the pandemic, few stores carry full assortments, anyway. Instead, shoppers are heading online — not just to buy but to compare notes. TikTok is full of desperate pleas like “Ladies, where are we buying our dresses?” and stories of women who regret paying several hundred dollars for tissue-paper-thin dresses seemingly designed for 20-year-old influencers. “The options for grad dresses are probably the worst I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” said another frustrated shopper on TikTok who confessed she ended up doubling her budget to buy a $400 Staud dress for her college graduation.

Everything — a haircut, Netflix, your sad desk salad — is more expensive right now. But in fashion, where prices stood still for decades, the sticker shock often feels more like a jump scare. Today’s fast-fashion brands are faster than ever before. To stay in business, many “normal” brands are cutting back where they can, including fabric and design. Small and independent designers, the ones that drive people to search for cheaper “dupes” of their best pieces, have it the hardest. Like Mara Hoffman, whose namesake brand is known for its responsible production techniques, recycled fabrics, and $600 popcorn dresses that became a post-pandemic trend. This week, Hoffman announced that she was closing her business after “fighting for what feels like a long time to make this vision and this model work.”

Mickey Drexler, the merchant who led Gap and J.Crew during their heydays, says our cultural obsession with snagging a good deal also plays a role in the pricing conundrum. Many brands today price their garments artificially high, knowing they will sell most of their inventory at a discount. Brands that sell through department stores are especially dependent on this vicious perma-sale cycle that often leaves shoppers feeling ashamed if they buy anything at full price. “If I were a customer, I would Google, while I’m in the shop, everything I’m buying and see where you can buy it for less,” says Drexler, who is now the chairman of Alex Mill, which offers linen and cotton dresses for between $200 and $250 and rarely goes on sale.

Recently, a chart that plots the percent of polyester in the clothing of major American brands went viral on Twitter and Reddit, showing how cheap fibers make up most of what we buy from cheap brands. Not all synthetic fabrics are created equal, however, adding to the sense of confusion when we shop.

I spoke to Marcelo Gaia, a New York City–based designer whose small but growing label, Mirror Palais, frequently riles up TikTok commenters who see his youthful vintage-inspired mini-dresses and sheer strapless gowns and expect fast-fashion prices. Instead, most of his pieces rank upwards of $700, a level some commenters sometimes say they would only expect from a brand like Chanel. “Good luck finding a dress for $800 at Chanel,” he told me in his Chinatown studio, where he employs sixteen people. If he sold his dresses for $125, he couldn’t cover half the costs of making them.

“All these tiers are crinkle silk chiffon,” he said in one recent TikTok tour of a rack of his latest designs, after a tweet went viral accusing him of overcharging for polyester dresses. Most of Gaia’s dresses are made from natural fibers, he explains, but he uses synthetics when the design calls for it. “The body of the dress on the inside is stretchy nylon, and I did that on purpose. I wanted the body to be really easy to fit and super stretchy,” he said. “It’s so important to be able to distinguish the difference between a company that is selling you purely cheap synthetic products just for the sake of hitting a really high profit margin and brands that are using synthetics as a part of their design.” To prove his point, Gaia flashed an image of a polyester knockoff of another one of his most popular silk dresses on the screen behind his head. Later, I found the listing on AliExpress, where the dupe costs just $30. For a brief moment, I’m seduced. Then I scrolled down and read a disclaimer from the retailer: “This product can expose you to BPA, which is known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

What most customers want is “value,” something that has never been harder to define or find. One person’s bargain is another person’s splurge, and everything can look amazing online thanks to Photoshop and AI. To try to make sense of the summer-dress-shopping conundrum, I conducted a little experiment. Everywhere I looked for dresses this spring, one style kept popping up: a fit-and-flare shape, tight around the waist with a gathered, midi-length skirt and thin shoulder straps. A little coquettish, a little retro, but crisp and white. So I bought six of them, from six different stores and at six different prices, from $14 to $754. I steamed them and brought them to Clarissa Arocena, a garment developer whose design development studio in Long Island City, Hidden in Plain Sight, works with contemporary and luxury designers. When she looks at a baby hem or a French seam, she sees dollar signs: how much it might cost to make, how much it might cost to buy. She seemed like the best person to tell me what these dresses are actually worth. I wanted her to tell me which, if any, of these six nearly identical dresses was worth buying.

Photo: Shein
Photo: Fashion Nova

We started with the infamous Shein, where for $14 I got a peach-colored version of the corset dress with elastic smocking across the back. Arocena deems the fabric “very thin, very plastic-y.” (Shein’s website claims the polyester is made from recycled water bottles, so arguably it’s by design.) Online, the dress seems to cinch the waist, but in person it’s too stretchy to be anything other than shapeless. The hanger appeal is zero. Arocena’s biggest concern, other than the labor conditions under which it was made, is how it will fare after a trip through the washing machine. The seams are bulky in width, but thinly sewn and all connected by a chain stitch. “If one snags the whole thing unravels,” she said.

What happens if I pay a bit more, like a $48 style from Fashion Nova? It seems like a standard fast-fashion dress, with a ribbed knit top instead of smocking, which looks more childish in person than I expected from the website. The seams on this one are stronger, but Arocena still worries about how it will wash. And it too provides little shaping or support, which someone looking to channel the fit-and-flare trend will be expecting. “You might have to pay extra to get good undergarments, so you might as well already get a piece that will lift you or give you the support you need,” she said. But she said the price is fair for what it is.

Photo: House of CB/Nordstrom
Photo: Staud

We turn to an alternative in the $200 range: an off-white style from House of CB, a British label I often see recommended on TikTok. In fact, I had already seen several influencers wear and recommend the exact style I bought, the Samaria. The first thing Arocena notices is the heavy fabric, a stretchy poly-blend. “It feels like a jegging,” she said. Because the fabric is so stretchy, it bunches along the lower hem and creates slight waves over the torso, which I had noticed in some of the TikToks, though none of the influencers (or their commenters) seemed to mind. Arocena peers inside the dress. The brand reinforced the zipper and the pockets, but other major seams are left unfinished or bound. The boning in the corset is wrapped in the same fabric as the outside of the dress, giving it a bulky look. “It’s got the makings of something that should be quality,” she said. “But it feels cheap.” It’s also weirdly heavy, but it’s not transparent. And it has pockets.

We move onto one of the most popular accessible designer brands of the moment, Staud, whose take on this summer-dress trend clocks in at $375. The style comes in a crisp, albeit slightly transparent, cotton poplin. The curved seams on the Staud torso indicate to Arocena that the dress might have been designed on a mannequin, instead of directly on the computer like many mass-market designs. She points to the dress’s curved neckline: “It’s hard to sew without it bubbling here, where the chest seams are.” No bubbles in sight. She likes the quality of the baby hem. Even though all the seams inside aren’t tacked down, they lie flat. “You can tell when you look at stitches, if it’s starting to clump like, okay, this might be a little cheap,” she said. Clumpy seams mean a dress might have been run through a machine “without much care,” she said. Staud’s cotton poplin fabric also feels luxurious, she said, ultimately deeming the price to be reasonable here too. “She’s a great summer throw-on piece.”

Photo: Ronny Kobo/Saks Fifth Avenue
Photo: Tove/MyTheresa

Our next contender comes from the label Ronny Kobo and has a revealing sweetheart neckline and ruched cups and retails for $398. It’s like a grown-up minimalist version of a Betsey Johnson dress. Arocena is immediately impressed by the thoughtful design, especially of the bodice, which, thanks to its shape and boning, offers the most corsetlike effect of all the dresses I bought. Inside the bodice, the boning is thin and smooth, the zipper is bound and hidden from view, and the seams are tidy. “They could have covered it easily with lining, but they didn’t do that,” Arocena said, adding that the absence of lining isn’t a red flag. “Lining is great, but sometimes it is there to hide your sins because lining can be sometimes $4 a yard, super-cheap,” she said. “This is actually a steal,” she said, adding that the Ronny Kobo could have reasonably cost as much as $700. “If you wanted to keep it forever, you could give it to your daughter.” The only downside is the shape and details are trendy and may seem outdated in a few years.

It’s the moment of truth for the most expensive summer dress in my experiment, a $754 organic cotton style designed by London label Tove. Arocena admires the tight French seams that crisscross the bodice — not something that can simply be run quickly through a sewing machine. “When the seaming is tiny and tight, there is someone who is more skilled who has to do this,” she said. Arocena’s colleague, another garment developer named Noah Pica, points to a triangular seam under the bust, called darts, that adds to the shaping effect of the torso. “You can’t AI-ify that,” he said, speculating this dress was also designed by hand on a mannequin. He calls out the quality of its “slub” cotton, which has a slight texture, like the textile equivalent of wood grain. “It’s really dry; the ‘hand feel’ is really good,” he said. Arocena agrees, adding that the clean, vintage-esque design of the dress means it will outlast various trend cycles — another reason to pay more. And yet Arocena thinks the price is too high. She would expect something more in the $500 range. (As of publication, the dress is in fact on sale at MyTheresa for $527.)

“For some pieces that are designer or that may not feel like it’s worth the price, sometimes it’s about buying into the world or the fantasy,” Arocena said. “And then it’s up to the consumer to gauge, when they wear it, do I feel like I’m a part of that world?” We agree the Tove dress fuels a fashion fantasy. Everything about it said high fashion luxury, even though it’s not. “This one is just so clean. She just looks so effortless that she feels like she could be positioned next to the Row.”

But summer-dress shopping isn’t always about chasing a fantasy. Sometimes it’s about finding something that will work for more than one of the four weddings you have coming up or get you through outdoor brunches without sweat stains.

In the end, Hagi gave up finding her elusive go-to summer dress from department stores or any of the brands that populate her Instagram feed. Instead, she turned to The RealReal, where she bought a new-with-tags Ronny Kobo dress — a white linen-and-cotton blend with nice details like big sleeves and a tie around the waist. The price was around $300, a little higher than what she would have liked to spend, but Hagi feels good about her purchase. After all, she didn’t pay full price.

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Chantal Fernandez , 2024-05-24 13:00:49

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