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Should clothes never go on sale?
We're living in a SALES BLOAT era
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— Jonah & Erin
Things go on sale for lots of reasons. Sometimes the reasons are intuitive. The broccoli is about to spoil. Last year’s 4K flatscreens are about to be usurped by next year’s somehow-even-more-4K flatscreens. The carbon-steel chef’s knives from Sweden sat unsold at $300 each, maybe a lower price will help move them, etc.
Other times, sales reflect more arcane business-brain logic. Perfectly good toasters go on sale as “loss leaders” to lure people to a shop where they might buy other things. A pharmaceuticals conglomerate offers a discount on their new detergent to undercut established names, spread “brand awareness” and increase market share. Cars go on sale because it’s Memorial Day, etc.
But when clothes go on sale? Brother, the reasons can be as arcane, unintelligible and straight-up ~tWiStEd~ as it gets. And here in the unhinged and unsustainable e-commerce era, this s**t is only getting stranger — to the degree that markdowns (and emails about them) have become so ubiquitous, and so constant, that Mach 3+ clothes rockers are starting to feel their eyes glaze over at the sales bloat!!
Two years ago this week we unveiled C.H.A.O.S. Mindset, which holds that you should Cop Hardly Anything On Sale. “It’s obviously tight to find a pricey jawn that you were coveting at a heavily reduced price,” we wrote. “But our problem is that this is not always (very rarely??) how sales actually go. Rather, Black Friday can feel like a dispiriting trip to an outlet mall where you try to convince yourself you’ve found an underpriced gem not because it’s true, but just so you can participate in ‘The Theater of the Bargain….’”
Today I want to explore a question that might strike smooth-brained dummies (no one in Spy Nation, by definition) as scandalizing, but whose implications are in fact profound: Should clothes never go on sale??
“No Sales Ever” is not a left-field concept when it comes to clothes. Some of the big luxury fashion houses — Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton — famously never1 mark down their products, as a matter of upmarket image-protection. (Apple and MAC Cosmetics don’t either, for similar reasons. In a more “price conscious” sector, Trader Joe’s runs zero sales, coupons or discounts, on some putative “our prices are always gully” s**t.)
But what sparked today’s sletter is the fact that several dope smaller lines of the kind we write about more commonly at BBSP also enact no-sales policies — and they do so, somehow, without the deep pockets, cushy margins, and vast loss-absorbing infrastructure that bigger companies rely on. In some cases these small lines also forswear sales because (unlike, presumably, Bernard Arnault) the people behind them have read Karl Marx and f**k with the vision, and they’re trying to figure out how best to square that with their desire to make & sell cool clothes under our wack economic order!!
Spyfriends like Dylan from Never Cursed, Keith from Henry’s and Oliver Church — “single artisan,” “owner-maker”-type operations — don’t put their clothes on sale, primarily because their workdays are long enough, their output is limited enough, and their margins are thin enough as it is. A Spyfriend like Evan Kinori works at a relatively larger scale than those guys — he cuts patterns himself with the help of one other person, then contracts with factories to produce his finished pieces— and among contemporary independent designers he’s a prominent “no sales” practitioner, too. You may already know this if you’ve ever wanted to buy a piece of Evan’s for the low at the end of the season and then realized that … his clothes remain dope but his prices don’t drop!
Earlier this year, I (Jonah) asked him to explain his no-markdown position for me. “S.E.H. Kelly put it very well,” Evan said, “and it’s burned in my brain: ‘My thread doesn’t go on sale, my buttons don’t go on sale, my fabric doesn’t go on sale, my labor doesn’t go on sale. Why would the result of all that work go on sale?’ If anything, the prices go up for me to make stuff every year. So discounts don’t make sense to me and what I make.” Price, for Evan, is ultimately a way of reflecting and honoring what he’s called the weight of a garment: “It’s the best price I can offer for that product, the prices are stable, and they’re reflective of the make.”
Evan also framed things from a customer’s perspective: “A lot of designers build sale into the price from the start: They mark it up, because they know they’re going to sell it at a discount. As a customer, what could be more frustrating than, ‘I bought your shirt for however much, and a couple months later I see that people can buy it for 60% off?’ Why would I believe your pricing?”2
Another sick small label with a no-markdowns policy is James Coward, founded in Vancouver a few years back and currently run by three buddies. They make beautiful clothes at a very high level, which you can find at some of earth’s illest stores — Neighbour, C’H’C’M’, and Maidens among them.
The other day I called up Daniel Garrod — a chill Spyfriend who leads James Coward’s design, and who has a rare gift for clear, bird’s-eye thinking about the industry he works in — to get even deeper into the hows, whys, upsides and downsides of this “no sale” s**t.
“I have a lot of conflicted thoughts about it,” Dan said up top. On a basic level, he explained, “I oppose this idea that a garment is supposed to be worth less just because it was quote-unquote ‘in-season’ and now it’s not. That’s a really weird way of valuing things: Our pants aren’t worth less just because it’s 3 months later.”
He agrees with Evan that, in those cases where the price of a garment “represents the time and labor that went into its creation, and the materials it’s made from, then reducing that price, in essence, devalues” all those things. “Which is troubling, because it draws attention to a greater question about how little we think about what goes into the things we consume.”
Dan comes at the issue as someone who doesn’t just make expensive clothes, but likes to buy them — and who has on occasion tricked himself into copping wack pieces at reduced prices, falling prey to the chimerical thinking that inspired C.H.A.O.S. Mindset. “Maybe there’s a brand you like that costs a lot,” he said, and when sale time hits “you decide to buy in and get yourself a piece, but it’s not your choice piece, and — as much as any object can create a sense of fulfillment — you don’t feel fulfilled by that object at all.”
That alienated, disenchanted, unfulfilled feeling seems more and more common these days, as “sales season” verges on never-ending, and as we grow increasingly accustomed to seeing page after page of new jawns discounted mere weeks after they hit the market. This is significantly a function of the way large sites like Ssense, Matches and Mr. Porter have changed the fashion-retail landscape — a dynamic we explored in our award-winning investigation into Ssense’s effect on the Cool Clothes Ecosystem.
Dan told me that a year or so ago one of these sites approached James Coward. “They wanted to buy things from us at 30% of retail. From a practical level, that didn’t work for us, because we operate with really tight margins by most business standards, and especially by the standards of our industry. But thinking through the implications of their offer, I realized that if they’re buying things at 30% of retail, that means they can put them on sale for 50% off and still be making a margin. So that’s starting to get factored into pricing, to the point where I see the prices at mid-to-larger brands like Lemaire and Our Legacy going up — and I might be wrong, but I think that’s at least partially because they’re trying to make it so that their clothes are still profitable when they inevitably go on sale.”
The result is that we’re living in a hypertrophic era of jawnflation, marked by bogosity and illusion. “A jacket that retailed for $600 now retails for $950,” Dan said, “because it’s been priced to go on sale — and when it does, a customer feels they’re getting more of a deal, even though the product is exactly the same. It’s hard for smaller companies to compete or even engage in that game.”
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The concept of “accessibility,” unsurprisingly, comes up a lot in conversations about sales. As Evan Kinori put it to me, “You could argue that a sale allows people the gateway to try things out that they couldn’t afford otherwise” — creating that kind of gateway just doesn’t make economic sense for him.
When I brought this up with Daniel Garrod, he said, “There’s plenty of clothing designers whose stuff I couldn’t afford full price, or it would be irresponsible of me to spend x percent of my annual income on it.” He granted that, “Whether I like it or not, James Coward is operating at a luxury price point,” and a sale can help bring a jawn within reach. “So I get it.”
In this light, we might be tempted to regard sales as a kind of populist battering ram, breaking down the walls that separate luxury slappers on one side and an unruly coalition of deal hunters, savvy swag lords, cheapskates and broke boyz 😜 on the other.
There’s obviously some truth to this. But there’s also some smoke-and-mirrors HOGWASH at play. I’d complicate the “accessibility” argument with three points:
The notion of “attainable luxury” is an oxymoron. The moment a luxury product hits a certain tipping point of accessibility, consumer desire will necessarily reconfigure itself accordingly, and something else that remains broadly uncoppable will fill the luxury slot.
This definition of “accessibility” is narrowly focused on price, to the exclusion of myriad other externalized factors — e.g., the costs and tolls of fast global shipping, fulfillment labor, the depletion of neighborhood character as small shops see their margins shrink & are forced to close, etc.
We’ve called bulls**t on the concept of “democratizing” fashion as it’s typically deployed these days: fraudulent marketingspeak for “selling more clothes to more people with nice fat margins for the bosses.” This reflects a cursed vision of “democracy” that is oriented entirely around the consumer’s “right” to consume, and not at all on the rights of, e.g., the many workers (and aquifers, waterways and agricultural lands) whose exploitation helps keep the bosses’ fat margins so ROTUND.
The way Dan himself tries to square this circle is to not buy pricey slappers on sale but, rather, buy them secondhand. “It’s fun to feel like I’m hunting for things,” he said, “it’s fun to engage in a different layer of commerce, and I feel better about buying a piece from another person, rather than from a huge store where I have no idea who the money’s actually going to.”
Generally speaking, clothes do not go bad (like produce) or obsolesce (like tech) while sitting on the shelf, at least not in any literal sense. But their complex and fantastical relationship to the shifting & shimmering SANDS OF FASHION means they often hit the market D.O.A. — pre-expired, in a way, because they’ve been cut in a currently undesirable silhouette from a currently wack color, and so on.
What this highlights is that sales are, at root, an essential feature of a system built on excess production. They allow businesses that don’t want to leave any possible profit on the table to err on the side of making too much s**t rather than too little. Put more bluntly, sales allow brands to sell clothes they shouldn’t have made to people who don’t actually want them.
A line like James Coward, whose designs fall, broadly speaking, into the aesthetically and physically durable idiom of “workwear,” and whose appeal depends significantly on subtle, self-evidently beautiful materials that age well — thick moleskins, heavyweight linens, densely woven cottons and wool gabardines — might be, if not trend-proof, more resistant to fashion whiplash than clothes from designers who get nuttier with it as far as colors, materials, prints and other expressions of “seasonality.”
“I think about it in terms of furniture,” Dan said. “Sales and big online retailers are changing that world, too, but historically, people still tend to think of a chair being forever, but not a jacket. I don’t want to kid myself that what we make will necessarily increase in relevance with time, but we do try to make clothes that won’t feel irrelevant in a few years.”
The question designers have to ask themselves, the more successful and deeper into the system they get, is Why do I make clothes? Thinking through this question over time, Dan told me, James Coward has actually grown “less extreme” in their anti-markdown stance. “I’ve started to think everything’s not so black and white,” he said. “If something of ours has been sitting there a while unsold, taking up space, at a certain point I’d rather someone wear it.
“If we make pieces that miss the mark a little, and people wind up enjoying them at a reduced price, to me that’s better than those things sitting in boxes, or getting burned, the way you hear about big brands destroying product rather than putting it on sale.” (A truly heinous practice that H&M, Burberry, Nike, Urban Outfitters, Michael Kors and Louis Vuitton, among others, have all reportedly deployed.)
Right now, Dan told me, “there are a couple pants of ours on sale at Neighbour. They’re not out on the floor anymore, they’ve had them a couple years at this point, and we’re OK with those pieces being sold for less, because we don’t want to be that dogmatic with stockists about how to run their business — and because it gives those pieces a life,3 rather than just sitting in a box. Making things and having them sit in a box is one of the biggest sources of existential dread for me.”
And that’s the thing that really sticks out to me. Many (hopefully most??) designers got into making clothes not because of a burning breadhead desire to get rich and sell mad s**t, but because of a creative need to make cool clothes. The ones who try to protect that relationship to their craft by foregoing sales will obviously not change the system, but their decision reflects, at the very least, a gesture of possibility, agency & criticality toward the dominant forces of their industry.
Sales are, along with the seasonal-drop schedule, a convention of the business that many designers hate but find it hard to shake free from, at least once they hit a certain size. And, as Dan observed, really big brands — the ones whose owners often dictate and enforce those conventions — are better equipped to play the game than small ones.
So there’s only so much resisting any one brand can do. “I’ve never seen the balance sheets of other clothing companies our size, so I don’t know how close other people teeter to the edge of not existing,” Dan told me, “but that’s a real thing for us.” Ultimately, he said, “There’s hills to die on, and there’s fights to fight. And when there’s such an established structure in place, at a certain point, we have to conform.” ☯
Hermès does hold rare, in-person sample sales during which a selection of stock (not Birkin bags, apparently) is discounted, and the other houses I mentioned might have similarly tightly controlled “loopholes” to their no-markdown policies.
Technically there will be occasional opportunities to cop “never on sale” clothes on sale, when a store that carries a no-sales-ever brand emails out a markdown promo that applies shopwide.
James Coward has also been known to hold an in-person sample sale in Vancouver; this year’s installment was this past weekend. Dan said, “It’s as much a way to sell our product as it is a way to put faces to names of customers in the city, and we tend to throw the events with other friends in the city who make things. So I never feel bad about that.”