Who buys all the clothing?
November 13, 2021 3:19 PM   Subscribe

I have been trying to update my wardrobe recently, and find myself wondering... who buys all the clothing, especially higher-end and luxury clothing?

Every department store has pages and pages and pages of clothing. There are hundreds of small boutiques and clothing lines that I'm now realizing I've never heard of. There are brick-and-mortar clothing stores in every city, not to mention general retailers like Costco, Target, and Walmart that also sell clothing. There's a huge second-hand market and direct-to-consumer market as well, much of which isn't even stocked in stores. Offerings get updated every season, if not more frequently.

I've eyed some articles of clothing that I like, and window-shopped some fantastically expensive items (like $300-800 shoes, $100-200 tee shirts and $500-1000 sweaters) - and have observed that they actually sell out. Who in the world is buying these things? Can you help me get a sense of the scale of this industry? I have read about how wasteful the fashion and textile industry is, but is it the same at the higher-end boutiques where I would imagine that the numbers are much more limited (because there's a limited crowd that can afford clothing at that range)?
posted by gemutlichkeit to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (26 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
For online-only stuff? Who in the world buys them is the world! Think how many get made, and how many are interested, and how many of them are in a position to buy it. I believe this is called the Total Addressable Market in business jargon.

How many pairs of one design of $800 shoes are manufactured? 50,000? (high? low?). If it's a recognizably popular design, then how many people does it take to sell 50,000 pairs? A million? 50 million? That's a drop in the bucket of internet shoppers and online apparel in general is a little over 10% of Amazon's revenues. It's part of the reason why Jeff Bezos has almost $200 billion, an amount equal to you receiving two hundred million dollars a week, every week, for the next 20 years.
posted by rhizome at 5:04 PM on November 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Those items are there to exploit cognitive bias through Anchor pricing. A $800 sweater helps them sell a $20 sweater for $200, and the buyer walks away thinking they got a bargain.

Luxury goods also use luxury pricing strategies. They generate buzz by being wildly expensive and frequently "sold out." Paradoxically, if the price is too low, buyers perceive it as lower quality.
posted by dum spiro spero at 5:38 PM on November 13, 2021 [17 favorites]

Upper class and rich people may be only 10% or less of the population but that's still a few million people or so, and they like to buy clothing
posted by dis_integration at 5:58 PM on November 13, 2021 [7 favorites]

I think the market for higher-end clothing, especially higher-end women's clothing, might be larger than you think. I had a friend in college who worked in a clothing boutique that sounds similar to the ones you are looking in now, and her customers were not exclusively super wealthy folks--lots of teachers and nurses and other people who don't earn super high wages shopped there too. People who buy $300 sweaters do not necessarily earn 10x more than people who buy $30 sweaters.
posted by mjcon at 6:22 PM on November 13, 2021 [19 favorites]

I'm one of those people who buys $100 plain t-shirts. I buy them because they're much better quality than $30 t-shirts. I buy them because they use better materials, last longer, and fit, look, and feel better and don't exploit workers.

I consider the clothes I buy to be higher-end, but not luxury. Luxury when it comes to clothing is buying for the brand rather than the item itself.

I was once visiting Spain and had a pair of $400 Feit sneakers shipped to me (they don't make that model anymore, but this is the current equivalent). My host was aghast and pointed at his own shoes and said they were 20 Euros in a store two blocks away. But his shoes were clunky, boldly branded, looked like shit, weren't comfortable, and were made by children in China. Mine were hand-made with ethically-sourced leather by a master cobbler in Japan. His will wear out and end up as land-fill. Mine can be re-soled by my local cobbler and will literally last decades. Mine are also unbranded (something that's important to me -- I do not wear branded anything, or, at the very least, have minimal or invisible branding).

For any mass-produced item you want to buy, there is probably a better alternative that may cost more but will last much longer. For instance, I have six pairs of these shorts. $130 seems insane to some people for shorts. But mine are six or seven years old now and look as good as the day they were bought -- and I wear them practically every day for 7 to 10 months a year, walking 10+ miles a day and swimming in salt water. The only issue I've ever had with them is I've had to replace the pockets as I carry a heavy phone and eventually they tear. Pocket replacement costs me $20 per pair by a tailor who lives in my building.

The important thing with "expensive" clothing is to not buy anything made by a well-known brand because much of your $ is paying for that name. (A $300 pair of Nike shoes will not be anywhere near as good as a $300 pair of hand-made shoes.) Buy from smaller companies and your $ is going to materials and craftsmanship. The exception to this is bigger brands with ethical practices as their business model. For instance, Icebreaker is a multi-million dollar company that makes great merino wool clothing but does so ethically. Their C$90 t-shirts are the best I've ever found. Their short-sleeve button down shirt is the best fitting casual shirt I've ever owned. Natural materials that will last many, many years -- I'll be shocked if I'm not still wearing it in a decade -- especially when compared to a much cheaper comparable-styled/cut shirt from, say, Uniqlo, H&M, or any other fast fashion brand.

I'm still pissed at myself for not acting fast enough to buy this $500 sweater or this $300 hoodie.

Also, as mjcon says, I am not a wealthy person. I've worked retail all my life. I just think buying fewer well-made things is smarter than, for example, buying new Nikes every year or two. Each pair of my $130 shorts has paid for themselves, so to speak. My custom-made to my feet Drifter Leather shoes have been resoled 3 times ($40 each time) and have walked, literally, more than 10 thousand miles in seven countries. They still look great.
posted by dobbs at 8:20 PM on November 13, 2021 [67 favorites]

A friend of mine buys pre-owned designer pre-schooler clothes from eBay (often for less than she'd pay for regular pre-schooler clothes at the store) and the sellers are based pretty much everywhere in the US. She'll sell them when they get too small and because they are well-made, whoever buys them will get their own bargain.
posted by holgate at 8:26 PM on November 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

To be honest, I buy mainly quite expensive clothing - not the real luxury stuff but $400-500 for shoes or a dress sometimes, and $200-400 is probably normal for a lot of the stuff I buy. I don't think I would ever go over about $500 for a dress though, and that would have to be something I thought I'd wear forever.

The reason for spending this much is largely because I want to buy things that are made in my country, that are made from better quality fabrics, that are cut better and that last longer. I like to be able to get more information on where the fabrics come from/who has made the clothing and environmental/supply chain stuff. Since I live in a small country (NZ) I don't think very high numbers of these garments are actually made - some of them you have to order beforehand and they make them up for you so they are not running huge numbers of these clothes (this seems to be a new thing) - and I am supporting local makers and designers. I actually really enjoy doing this. Since I started (when I started to get really worried about environmental issues and waste from fast fashion) I think I probably spend about 20% more on clothes, but I have fewer clothes and the things I have I enjoy wearing a lot more.

I don't know if that answers your question about luxury labels in department stores but it may help explain who shops at the smaller/boutiquey places. I'm just your average mid-thirties professional. The one thing that may allow me to spend a bit more money on clothes than others is that I don't have any kids that I need to spend money on!
posted by thereader at 8:28 PM on November 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

I've been getting more expensive clothing as well. To me, it's worth the investment. The fabric is nicer, breaths better, doesn't stretch out and lasts longer. The stitching is more solid and doesn't fall apart. The fit and cut are better, and the designs are more interesting. The color doesn't fade etc. When I no longer want the clothing, I can consign it and make some of my money back. You can't consign junk/cheap clothing, and I've had more than one piece of cheap clothing fall apart within a month.
posted by Toddles at 8:44 PM on November 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

They also keep prices artificially high to protect their brand. If something isn't selling, they don't reduce the price, they just destroy it.

Why fashion brands destroy billions’ worth of their own merchandise every year

Nike Germany just got busted by reporters for shredding new sneakers under cover of its supposedly sustainability friendly recycling program for old sneakers at a facility in Belgium. This is against German law.

Nike vernichtet Neuware
posted by starfishprime at 12:17 AM on November 14, 2021 [7 favorites]

I have also bought shoes and shirts in that range, for the same reasons given above. With shoes, I want to buy shoes rarely and have them last many years. (And sometimes, in the case of a couple of particularly spectacular pairs of Fluevogs, I also just love the look of them so much that I know they will make me really happy every time I wear them, and that’s a nice gift to give myself.)

With clothes, I want them to fit well, feel nice on my body, and last a long time. For bonus points, I am very fat, so I have somewhat limited places to buy clothes from to begin with, and when I find somewhere I like the fit of, I will cheerfully give that store my money forever rather than keep trying new cheaper stores to see if one of them might be magical.
posted by Stacey at 4:22 AM on November 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

The True Cost is an excellent documentary on fast fashion, for that aspect of your question. I saw it on Netflix - not sure if it's still there.
posted by FencingGal at 5:46 AM on November 14, 2021

I have six pairs of these shorts. $130 seems insane to some people for shorts. But mine are six or seven years old now and look as good as the day they were bought

YMMV but I own many pieces of clothing costing less than a quarter of that which have lasted just as long, or longer. I too share OP's bewilderment because who the hell would buy $130 shorts when a carefully selected $30 pair does the same thing? But I think the mythology of "quality" and "durability" costing a lot has power, as comments on this thread demonstrate. (It is mythology though because modern manufacturing has enabled quality to be much more affordable.) Many moderately rich people pay a lot of money to *feel like this is the only way to ensure quality.* In order to know better, a person needs to have been poor-ish, I think... Poor-ish, and trying not to show it. That seems to be the only way a person finds out about the $30 unbranded shorts that last forever and look amazing.
posted by MiraK at 5:59 AM on November 14, 2021 [9 favorites]

... who buys all the clothing, especially higher-end and luxury clothing?

Two high-earner households with big display closets. At least, in my visual experience, based off a handful of dog-walking clients in my past. The Closet™ was always a major part of the house tour.

I’ve been enjoying this thread (heh) and the fact that more wearers are glomming onto “Wear fewer things, and better things.” I share that philosophy, though on a limited budget. If I buy something new, it’ll be from Gudrun Sjoden, Eileen Fisher, or LL Bean, but I’ll always check Poshmark or Etsy first for those brands before making a retail purchase.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:25 AM on November 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

I too share OP's bewilderment because who the hell would buy $130 shorts when a carefully selected $30 pair does the same thing?

You're ignoring the ethical aspect of it. A $30 pair of shorts cannot be ethically or sustainably made and sold in a retail store. It's mathematically impossible to source quality fabrics dyed with environmentally-friendly means, cut and sew them to a tested design, store and ship them, and have them end up on a retail space where you can browse for them and then have them shipped to you with a free return policy for $30. No one along that supply chain was paid a living wage.

I have a hat from H&M that, if I recall correctly, was $15. I bought it almost 20 years ago -- faux fur lined, wool exterior, ear coverings that can be tied up or down with side tassels. Machine washable. It's still a great hat and I still use it every winter. But I bought it before I learned how bad fast fashion is for humanity, the environment, and the planet.

Someone upthread linked to The True Cost (Youtube). Well worth a watch if you think $30 shorts are a bargain.
posted by dobbs at 6:43 AM on November 14, 2021 [21 favorites]

There's also a big second hand market for expensive things - I buy really expensive shoes, for instance, gently used. I pay about as much for used shoes as I would pay for a mid-range new pair, partly because I have very hard-to-fit feet and partly because I like how they last.

But actually, I think class segregation in the US hides how many fairly (or unfairly) rich people there are - like, there are tons and tons of luxury condos here in Minneapolis, and I, a union worker in a household almost exactly at the median income, know no one who could afford them. But those are the people who sustain the expensive restaurants too, and presumably the boutiques. Banking and tech, I guess, and I will never meet them because we live in a profoundly economically segregated society.
posted by Frowner at 7:23 AM on November 14, 2021 [12 favorites]

Fashion is a hobby for some people, and that’s where they put their disposable income instead of season tickets and sports paraphernalia, or going to see live music as much as possible. Like a lot of things, there are a lot of different price points and levels of quality, and for tons of people clothing is an expression of who they are or how they see themselves. It could be a visible signifier of upward mobility or just…personal fanciness.

Other people use price as a standin for quality if they don’t have the interest or knowledge or time to research what they’re buying.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:45 AM on November 14, 2021 [7 favorites]

The first person that comes to mind is Lydia Elise Millen, an English vlogger. She recently had a tailored suit made in England by Souster & Hicks that was £500+ and a owns a Hermès bag. She speaks about the reasons for this a lot on her more recent vlogs, but she likes items that last a long time and that are tailored. She has a lot of cheaper items of clothing too.

Vloggers like LEM aside, a lot of scalpers buy these for quick resale, hoping that someone will spend more on the item. The Animal Crossing x PUMA trainers/sneakers were around £70 - £90 but quickly went on ebay for £295.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 8:33 AM on November 14, 2021

You're ignoring the ethical aspect of it.

Not really. IMO ethics doesn't actually explain why anyone would pay high prices for clothes, since thrifting/re-using clothing is far more ethical than purchasing expensive new ones from ethical producers. It's so easy to buy high-quality, and often even new-with-tags clothes in online thrift shops these days for very low prices!

It's different if you're shopping for, like, highly specialized clothing like a period costume or whatever - then, yeah, paying high prices to local artisans would be the only way to ensure ethics and quality. But for normal clothes to wear on an everyday basis? I chalk the popularity of expensive clothes down to people with erroneous beliefs about the correlation between price and quality, or between price and ethics.... or to people for whom fashion is their hobby, the thing that they *like* to spend money on, and of course to all the rich people to whom money is no object at this scale.
posted by MiraK at 9:15 AM on November 14, 2021 [4 favorites]

The quantity of luxury items being manufactured is actually very small. Remember, there is minimal to no copyright protection in the clothing industry. Some design features (like Louboutin shoe's red soles) can be copyrighted, but the overall look can't.

Thus there are plenty of people dedicated to track the latest trends, and find cheaper alternatives, and if there isn't one, get smaller brands to clone them. That's partly the reason why the design houses have to renew their lineup semi-yearly.

Also, be aware of the anchoring bias... One way of moving your expectations is to offering high, mid, and low cost items in the same category. Most people would buy the mid tier, believe low tier is probably too cheap and high-tier is too expensive. But if they only offer two tiers you will often go for the lower tier believing that the higher tier is often not worth it. I probably explained this wrong. :D

Most people who can afford to buy the very best are price insensitive. So the high prices don't bother them. They have personal stylists who arrange wardrobes for them. They probably don't even look at the prices.
posted by kschang at 10:10 AM on November 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Personally, I have found that more expensive clothes are better quality and last longer. Not *all* the time, of course, but in general. As others have pointed out, less likely to stretch out etc. I have found that more expensive clothes by smaller designers are much better cut too. This has been my actual experience, since I moved away from fast fashion. It's really condescending to suggest that people who are actually engaging actively with economic and environmental concerns have somehow just been discombobulated by marketing.

People have mentioned cheap shorts lasting just as long or whatever, but those cheap shorts are produced in the millions by huge corporations and many are probably thrown away. I have chosen not to be a part of that. It is a decision that I am fortunate enough to be able to make and I understand not everyone can. Likewise, I wouldn't buy Nike (I have in the past) because of their practices. Smaller batches and locally made almost always = higher prices. I'm ok with that.

Plus, it's enjoyable to support local designers and I like supporting the local economy. I want to spend more to support these people. And, I'm interested in fashion. Lots of people are interested in it, and it is as valid as any other interest. I'm NOT interested in what the big brands put out, but I'm very interested in how small makers and designers are trying to refine their practices in order to promote fashion while making ethical decisions.
posted by thereader at 10:52 AM on November 14, 2021 [9 favorites]

Great question, I've wondered. But just saw a sort of rebuttal in an article about a mountain of fast fashion in the atacama desert.
posted by sammyo at 6:18 PM on November 14, 2021

The first person that comes to mind is Lydia Elise Millen, an English vlogger. She recently had a tailored suit made in England by Souster & Hicks that was £500+

Either that’s a typo for £5000 or that’s not very expensive. A well made “bespoke” suit made in the UK could easily cost in the mid to high four figures.

Partly it’s the cost of the material - maybe made in small runs at a company that isn’t manufacturing in low-cost countries. And partly it’s the huge amount of work involved in measuring, cutting, fitting and sewing, all by hand. And, again, depending on the company, done in the UK by people paid UK wages.

Why would someone spend this much? Because they have the money. And if so, and they wear suits every day, why not spend that much on a beautifully made suit, from wonderful material, that fits perfectly, and that’s put together by highly-trained craftspeople in the same country?

I’ve only had a few bespoke shirts made, once, as a treat, like an expensive hobby. They fit so much better than any other dress shirt I’ve had (I’m tall and thin, and I’ve always found it tricky). On the one hand I could find OK shirts at a fraction of the price, but they wouldn’t fit as well and the material wouldn’t be as nice. On the other I’ve seen “designer” off-the-shelf shirts for the same price or higher. That seems crazy to me.
posted by fabius at 6:01 AM on November 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is a slight tangent to the original question, but “why do some clothes cost so much?” seems related to “who is buying expensive clothes?” Anyway, here’s an interesting blog post from 2014 with some rough costs for a bespoke Savile Row suit.

Summary: cost of cloth and labour was around £1500, and an average suit selling for £4800. The rest of the cost would go to rent, marketing, other overheads, and profit.

The production costs being only 33% or so of the sales price seems like the company’s making a lot. But “ the average production cost in retail, … is 13% to 20%”.

And if you want to see the “$300-800 shoes” you mention in a different light, it’s possible to have a pair of shoes made bespoke for you, for, say £4,000…
posted by fabius at 6:30 AM on November 15, 2021

Upper class and rich people may be only 10% or less of the population but that's still a few million people or so, and they like to buy clothing

The number is actually higher than that. About 15% of households have $1m in net worth, not including their homes. That's 18m households (122m total households) in the US.

Then 5% of households have an yearly income of $200k or higher, which correlates to but is not exactly the same as the $1m net worth households. That's 6.1m people.

And then you have to count the number of people who are not wealthy, but have enough money to buy an item or two every year at luxury prices. That's about 25% of US households, or 30m people.

In short, you might not think there are enough shoppers who can afford this stuff, but it's actually a pretty big market.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:56 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sorry I didn't mean that you add those numbers together, but rather that the US luxury market is between 6-30m households or up to about 50 million people.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:49 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have a pair of dress shoes that originally retailed for $800. I bought them used in good condition for $150. If I were in the market for nice shoes I would definitely consider buying new ones from the same designer at full price, because:

- they are a very classic silhouette that never goes out of style
- they look great with things in almost every color
- they are comfortable to wear despite their high heel, and
- they are well made and durable.

Happily I don't think I'll need another pair of dress shoes for a very long time! But when I do, if I can still afford it, I will absolutely go high end again. So much nicer than feeling like I bought some trendy crap that will look dated and feel worn out within a year.
posted by potrzebie at 7:56 PM on November 15, 2021

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