The Wall Street Journal has a story out today that reinforces my contention that while low end manufacturing (what I call rubber ducky type products) is declining in China, higher end manufacturing is booming. The story is entitled, China’s Challenge to Italy Now, a Rival to European High-End Suits, and it talks about how China is starting to make high end suits for men.
The WSJ article starts out by asking the million dollar question: “Can a Chinese factory make an $800 suit that is just as good as a $1,400 suit made in Italy?” Those suits are still being made outside China:
While production of most clothing has long ago moved to China, expensive men’s suits — those costing $800 and up — have represented the last frontier in Chinese apparel manufacturing. Such suits, whose jackets are by far the most technically complicated pieces of clothing to make, have typically been made in Italy or North America, or London’s Savile Row if the suit is custom-made.
Jhane Barnes is changing all that. Barnes is an “American label that used to have its $900 to $1,200 suits made exclusively in Italy” but now “says Chinese manufacturing expertise has improved so much that it has moved production of all of its suits and sport coats to a factory in China. It’s one of the first U.S. makers of higher-end suits to make such a move.”
The WSJ sees this as a “new benchmark for Chinese manufacturing” and I tepidly agree.
Jhane Barnes is not just not hiding the fact it suits bear a made in China label, it is touting it:
In light of the strong euro and steep prices for Italian suits, Jhane Barnes is touting the suits’ provenance as an advantage. In their pitch to retailers, sales representatives for the label claim that the quality of its Chinese-made suits is as good, if not better, than higher-priced suits made in Italy or the U.S.
The WSJ put the Jhane Barnes suits to a test, using “fashion expert” Bill Brandt, an adjunct professor of design at Parsons the New School for Design in New York and Custom tailor Leonard Logsdail.
These two suit experts compared a $795 Jhane Barnes made in China suit to a “$1,395 suit made in Italy from Corneliani, a $1,495 suit made in the U.S. from Hickey Freeman, and a $998 suit made in Italy from Brooks Brothers. During the test, all the suits’ labels were covered with tape.”
The results were as follows:
The results were mixed. Both experts thought the Jhane Barnes suit appeared to be well-made, but they said it needed more polish to truly rival the more expensive Corneliani suit made in Italy. They disagreed over how the Jhane Barnes suit compared to the U.S.-made Hickey Freeman suit and the made-in-Italy Brooks Brothers suit.”
The Jhane Barnes suit drew the following review:
Mr. Brandt of Parsons deducted points for the inferior workmanship at the sleeve and in the shoulder area. He says the sleevehead and the collar felt meager and hard, for example.
He also faulted the jacket for not conforming with the wearer’s body. A spokesman from Jhane Barnes says, “Based on our feedback from renowned master tailors, the shoulder and sleeve construction was quite satisfactory.” Mr. Logsdail liked that the manufacturer took the time to sew in cloth for the interior jacket pockets, rather than using lining as the other suits did, a more decorative and more labor-intensive process. The pick stitching made him conclude more work was put into this suit than the Hickey Freeman and the Brooks Brothers suit.
Verdict: Mixed. Nice suit for the money but ultimately not as polished as the Corneliani suit.
My law firm represents a large number of companies in the worldwide yacht business, both manufacturers and sellers. In that industry, Italy is the standard for mega luxury yachts, but China is becoming known for producing good (not great) quality yachts (in the $1 million to $10 million range) that come loaded with extras.
Jhane Barnes’ going to China is a harbinger, and not just for suits:
Robert Burke, a luxury-goods consultant based in New York, says Jhane Barnes’s shift to China is likely to be a harbinger. “Part of the reason is the Chinese have made major investments in factories, in training, in equipment,” says Mr. Burke, a former fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “Chinese product can be as good with the proper training and machinery.”
While Mr. Burke acknowledges that there is still some stigma associated with suits made in China, he can already see men’s resistance softening. “I also remember five years ago that if dress shirts weren’t made in England or Italy, they wouldn’t be considered good shirts,” he says. “Now that’s no longer the case.”
But old habits do die hard:
Some consumers may also take a pass. “Typically, paying $800 or more would warrant a garment made in Italy, the U.K. or the U.S.A., made of the finest fabrics,” says Zachary Paul, a New York-based stock trader. “I would need a lot of convincing to spend that much money on an item made in China.”
Jhane Barnes says it is saving on labor and suits that took two months to make in Italy are now taking six weeks in China, even with greater “handwork, such as visible pick stitching. The jackets are now fully canvassed, meaning they have a full canvas interlining sewn into the front to give it its shape, rather than having the front and the lining fused or glued in place, as was the case when the suits were made in Italy.”
Retailers are testing the China suit waters:
Macy’s started carrying Jhane Barnes’s made-in-China suits and sport coats at its New York flagship last fall and began carrying them in two other stores in the Northeast this spring. Saks Fifth Avenue, which didn’t carry Jhane Barnes suits when they were made in Italy, was intrigued enough by the Chinese-made suits to carry them in its New York flagship beginning last fall.
Saks has since ordered more of the suits, but executives still consider the line “a test” and are waiting to see how the suits do for spring. “We carry clothing that’s made all over the world,” says Men’s Fashion Director Michael Macko. “In the end, the end product and whether it is good is the most important thing.”
What are you seeing?