Is Luxury T-Shirt An Oxymoron?

imageThis T-shirt by Saint Laurent costs S$1,250. Or S$32 more than the RRP of the cheapest iPhone 6S Plus. Or S$8 less than an air ticket to London (as advertised by Cathay Pacific in today’s The Straits Times). Don’t get us wrong. This is a nice expensive tee, even when left on the hanger and relieved of its boutique surroundings, it could be mistaken as merchandise of the Salvation Army Family Thrift Store. It feels good to the touch, not unlike those at Givenchy (priced at a not-too-distant S$1050 for the all-over print ‘Cockfight’ tee). In fact, they could have come from the womb of the same manufacturer-mother. Recurring on souvenir jackets, bags and espadrilles, the print of the Saint Laurent T-shirt has aesthetic and chromatic similarities with those in tourist shops of Oahu. Hedi Slimane sure has an expatriate’s eye for American West Coast kitsch.

It is hard to consider a T-shirt as an investment buy, but the pricing of these designer versions encourages one to see them as such. The irony of it all is that, unlike a suit, a tee is a garment destined for the rough and tumble of an active life, as well as that of a washing machine. Out of 23 people randomly polled by SOTD recently, only two use a laundry net when laundering an expensive tee in a front or top loader. None wash by hand. None “dry flat”, as recommended by many brands. Only one irons. How does a S$1,250 tee survive urban abuse and the lack of TLC?

There are those who buy rather than wash (since cheap tees are aplenty): true, but it is hard to believe that there are individuals who wouldn’t take serious care of their four-figure single purchase. Perhaps they know that the high-priced T-shirt is, in terms of real cost, not different from anything they will find in a fast fashion store. As such, tees can be treated equally. While the chasm between a T-shirt’s production cost (whether from a factory in a Bangladeshi ghetto or Tuscan town) and retail price is not a deep, dark industry-only secret, shoppers are not terribly concerned when they succumb to the seductive call of designer duds.

The cheerful Saint Laurent tee indicates that it is made in Italy. A T-shirt may be made in Italy, but is it made by Italians, using Italian cloth? As the BBC reported in 2013, many factories in Italy are now owned and manned by mainland Chinese. Just in the town of Prato (not far from Florence), around 4,000 factories are Chinese-owned, prompting a local observer to suggest that “there are now more Chinese garment manufacturers than there are Italian textile producers.” In fact, in Prato, it was reported that more than 30% of textile employed is from China. Does the percentage include cotton jersey, the fabric used to make most tees?

It is also, therefore, hard to consider the T-shirt a luxury garment as cotton jersey, however fine, is not a fancy knit. Jersey is so named because it was in Jersey, part of the Channel islands sandwiched between England and France, that the fabric (in wool) was first made in medieval times. While there are luxury silk and wool jerseys, there is, arguably, no luxury cotton jersey, just as there is no luxury denim. The pricing of T-shirts at luxury level is a fairly recent practice since designer brands, at the beginning of the advent of prêt-a-porter, had no real need for plainly basic garments to boost the bottom line. The promotion of the T-shirt as desirable designer wear really coincided with Calvin Klein elevating underwear to dizzying new heights in the ’80s, and later pushed forth by luxury conglomerates creating ever-expanding “entry-level” merchandise, a strategy possibly borrowed from the mobile phone industry.

Brand owners would like us to believe that pricing these days is a complex exercise, especially when managing a brand is costly too. There is also material costs, they’ll add. Cotton, a natural product, is subjected to price fluctuations also experienced by other agricultural goods. If the price of cotton continues to soar as it did in the past five years, the price of cotton jersey T-shirts will only escalate. There’s no turning back now, however humble the T-shirt’s beginnings, not even if you turn your back to Saint Laurent’s coconut-trees-in-the-sunset tee.

Photo: Saint Laurent

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