Why Do We Buy Pants?

Good old (well, new) khakis are hitting the streets for more than $500, and Eric Wilson of the New York Times wants to know why.  After all, economic times are a bit dicey, so it would seem hard to justify five Cs on pants.

But not so fast.  These aren’t just regular old pants.  They’re special.  Wilson explains just what goes into high-end khakis:

Yet, from the designers’ perspective, there is value to be found in pants that are thoughtfully designed with high-quality materials and labor…

A man was hovering over an 80-year-old contraption called a jump iron, hot enough to mold fabrics into shapes they will be unlikely to forget. Another man basted panels of suit fabric to springy canvas, which makes the garment more flexible. In a machine-made jacket, the canvas would be fused or glued into a suit.

Mr. Sternberg’s khakis are tailored like dress pants, and the details are largely sewn by hand, including buttonholes and split waistbands, which can be altered easily. The fabric, which costs $24 a yard, plus $3 a yard to import, is a cotton gabardine fine enough to withstand basting stitches. About two yards, counting for boo-boos and such, is used to make a pair of pants, so the fabric cost is $54.

Add labor, and the cost to produce a pair of these pants rises to $110.  The designer, Scott Sternberg, marks that up by 2X to get to his wholesale price.  Retailers then generally apply a 2.5X markup, which grosses up to $550.  The math works, but the logic seems sketchy.  (Note to self: get in the markup business.)

But hold your horses, Mr. Not So Fast.  Wilson quotes a brand guru with an opposing view:

The cost of creating those things has nothing to do with the price,” said David A. Aaker, the vice chairman of Prophet, a brand consulting firm. “It is all about who else is wearing them, who designed them and who is selling them.

Setting aside the question of whether a consulting company that calls itself “Prophet” has gotten too big for its corporate khakis, Aaker makes an important point: when we buy things and wear them, other people see.  And when other people see, strange things can happen.

Just what are we buying when we buy pants?  Part of it is the pants (are the pants?) themselves, and certainly part is the quality of the pants. But if that was the only consideration, we’d probably expect a little “give” in the mark up.

In the case of these whacky khakis – or the Coach purse, the Armani suit, the Jimmy Choo shoes, that little blue box from Tiffany – part of what we’re buying is the clear indication that we are the kind of people who can afford to spend too much.  Some of what we’re buying is the price tag itself, and the bragging rights that come along with it.

These costly signals – for better or worse – are part of the social soup in which we find ourselves.  Where we fit relative to others matters… sometimes a lot more than we’d like to admit.  Frugal was good while it lasted, eh?

(Note: this entry originally appeared at consumerology.com)

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