Yesterday, NBC Business published an article viewing this country's growing problem of economic inequality (meaning, rich dudes are getting richer and broke bois are getting broker) through the lens of the retail clothing market. Essentially, the piece claims there is a distinct parallel between the change in income amongst Americans and the choices they have when buying new clothing. See, people who are poor are left with the option of $7 Walmart T-shirts, while rich people can got out and purchase $70 tees at Barneys. But wait, hasn't this always been the case?
The article is aimed at demonstrating that there is a giant "middle ground" hole, meaning, garments that are not a bargain, but also not prohibitively expensive. Isn't this supposed hole complete fiction? Sure, companies like The Gap (which, by the way, has the word "gap" in its fucking name) may be currently riding the struggle bus, but so are retailers in general, on both the high and low end. In addition, America's rising retail star during the recession has been J.Crew, a company that, for all intents and purposes, sits comfortably within what one could reasonably call the "middle ground". J.Crew's prices have admittedly crept upwards in recent years, but ultimately they are a mass retailer who wants—rather, needs—to appeal to a mass audience in order to be successful. The example used in NBC's article, a $125 cashmere baby hoodie, is not only an atypical J.Crew offering, but is for the most part a completely different product than the purple, printed Walmart hoodie offered in comparison. And frankly, the fact that this article considers a $125 cashmere baby hoodie an extreme case is grossly uninformed. After all, Hermes baby blankets cost $760. J.Crew has thrived because they offer customers garments that are of a higher quality and more “on-trend” than anything in their class, and yes, at a competitive pricepoint. In short, it's not a matter of price that drives high-end (read: savvy) consumers away from The Gap. It's that their clothes fucking suck.
In the simplest terms, we're dealing with economies of scale.
If we turn our attention to the low end, we once again find that the brands that make the best products are the ones that win. A store like Uniqlo is not aimed at those who just want inexpensive clothes as this article implies. Rather, it's for those who want quality, functional and stylish clothing without having to spend a ton of money. They target customers who might consider buying a more expensive product elsewhere and attempt to convince them that they can look just as good for less, regardless of their income. They aren't trying to drive rich people away—they want to lure them in. Why spend $70 to get something well-designed when you can have it for $6?
Furthermore, the article makes the fatal flaw of vastly overstating the correlation between the retail clothing market and income. The clothing someone wears is inherently less indicative of their income because of the relative prices of garments versus other consumer goods, coupled with the fact that fashion has always been aspirational. Someone who makes $40,000 a year can buy a $500 Givenchy T-shirt and appear "wealthy" to the outside world. Often, that's the entire physiological motivation behind this specific behavior. Someone who makes $40,000 cannot, however, as easily walk into a car dealership and buy a Range Rover. In the simplest terms, we're dealing with economies of scale. We can't assume that the income gap has anything to do with the success of either high-end garments or low-end garments because clothing tells us so little about the person wearing it.
Ultimately, the only factor that has ever mattered when it comes to buying clothes is a person's level of interest in them—their taste, if you will. You either care about the clothes you wear or you don't. It just so happens that the average person—the person this article is presumably written for—is looking to spend as little as possible. If anything, today informed consumers are finding out they can spend less money to get well-designed products more and more often, whether it be from Uniqlo or the most recent H&M or Target designer collaboration, which have proved insanely successful. Interestingly enough, rather than growing further apart, it's my belief that the clothing industry has in fact become more universal and more all-compassing by the day, regardless of the shitty income disparity America currently finds itself saddled with.