Why is a tee worth $125 or more? Are the materials really that much better? How much is a design worth? Is it just the marketing costs, or the cost of labor, like everybody seems to think? Let’s try to decipher the mystery behind the difference between an off the rack basic tee and a designer tee.
Labor Isn’t the Biggest Cost, But it Does Matter Where You Produce
When most of us shop for a basic tee, we like to assess: How does it feel, fit? And of course, we immediately look to see where it was made. Was it made in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh? Is it labor that mostly determines the price tag? Surprisingly, the labor cost to mass produce in these countries often only adds a few cents to the overall cost of production. This is due to the extraordinarily low labor costs to manufacture in these countries – sometimes as low as $0.50 an hour.
With these low labor costs, come concerns about the lax regulations around work safety and the environmental impacts of these large-scale, mass-produced operations. There are considerable costs associated with adhering to safety and environmental regulations when manufacturing in western, developed countries, such as the United States, which some may view as a disadvantage. However, these disadvantages do not outweigh the ethical costs of manufacturing with little to no regulation, which diminishes our collective movement toward social responsibility and decreasing our environmental footprint.
This is not to say that manufacturing in the United States immediately equates to a much higher price tag. Mass producing in the states can be done profitably due to economies of scale. However, many luxury items are produced in high quality-controlled, small batches.
Surprisingly, Fabric Has the Biggest Effect on the Retail Cost of a Tee
The grade of fabric, variety, quality – all of these characteristics are not only at the heart of what makes a tee feel like a soft second skin, but the better they are, the more costly the tee.
Cotton, one of the most common fabrics, comes in lower and higher grades. The grading is based on the length of the staple (fiber strands). The longer the fiber, the smoother the yarn, the higher the grade. In lower grade staples, shorter fibers twist together, creating more joints, and therefore texture. Imagine the difference between a smooth, soft tee and one that feels a bit harsher and scratchy against your skin.
Even more than the grade of cotton, the variety and quality are large determining factors of cost. Organic cotton is by far more expensive. Meanwhile, the addition of other expensive fibers, such as elastane, which gives your tee that minimal stretch, increases overall cost. Alternatively, the addition of cheap synthetic fibers like polyester lowers the overall cost.
All of this, when it comes to wearing your tee, simply means that ones made of pure, higher grade, longer fibers, feel softer and retain their original quality for much longer. When cheaper synthetic fibers are mixed in (such as a cotton/polyester blend), one fiber is often much stronger than the other. The weaker fiber will break, knot around the stronger fiber, create little balls of fiber, and voilà – you’ve got that dreaded tee that’s pilling all over.
Marketing Adds the Most Value For the Customer
Is it really just the marketing that you’re buying? Top-notch advertising is costly: the copywriters who can convey the true voice of a brand, designers who master the visual representation of a message, videographers who tell a succinct, powerful story in motion. A quality website requires skill -- there are the sites inundated with far too many products, polluted with ads and pop-ups. Then, there are the sites that are perfectly curated galleries of products, where every single item stands out, even in a collection of beautiful pieces. Is a Monet still a Monet if it’s placed in an alley? Or does it shine brighter in the Louvre?
As a fashion-forward consumer, when someone admires your tee, and asks where you bought it, are you pleased to tell them about the grueling process of rifling through endless racks to find the perfect piece, or would you rather proudly direct them to a site where they will fall in love with a piece instantly, just as you did? We spend our entire lives constantly refining our tastes in fashion, and what we wear speaks to how far we’ve come, and where we want to be.
Sure, marketing and design add to the cost of a tee, but what you’re really investing in is the brand’s commitment to your image, values, how you want to present yourself to the world. You wear your heart on your sleeve, or your values on your tee.
The decision we all have to make is whether or not a designer tee is worth more than a $5 t-shirt. Are you buying a piece of fabric for functionality, or are you curating your own image?
Photo credits: Caya Creatives and i.kdave