Sunday, March 17, 2013

Getting what you paid for - it's prom season!

 This started out as a quick response to a newspaper article, but turned into a pretty long post. Just a warning!

Sunday mornings are very quiet in my house, a lazy time spent reading the paper (Boston Globe for me and Metrowest Daily News for my dh) and consuming way too much coffee. My husband broke the silence today with an outburst of "Aha! This is just begging for a response!" as he handed me an article from his paper.
He listens to my frequent comments and complaints every spring during prom season about the impact of really inexpensive gowns and dresses, and reads my blog posts on what cheap fashion has done to the garment industry in the US. The article by a mom in a nearby town about the hidden costs of ordering a prom dress over the internet was published as a "guest column" in the opinion section. (You can read the article here.) She wrote it as a warning to other families considering buying from similar websites, and it hit home enough for me to want to respond -  but not necessarily in the way dh intended for me to.

"You need to talk with this woman!" he urged me. Well, while I commiserate with the disappointment of paying for a gown from "a very American looking and popular online prom specialty company," then having it arrive from China and six sizes too large, I have to wonder if the average consumer understands what the real cost of a gown is. In this part of New England, we have an abundance of off-price retailers, headlined by TJ Maxx and Marshalls, and rounded out by outlet malls. Department stores like JC Penney, Macy's and Kohl's have a sale every week and offer percentage-off coupons for charge card customers and savings cards published in the newspapers. Shoppers here are trained never to pay full retail. So, naturally, careful prom shoppers are going to look for the best bargains available, at prices better than the bridal boutiques offer on special occasion dresses. One of my first reactions was to think 'what did she expect for $188?' This mother ordered a gown from a website she thought was offering a discounted American-made (or at least available in a shop in the US) dress. The warning at the conclusion of the article includes the observation that what was received was a "different" dress from a foreign manufacturer - which is exactly what most of the online sites, whose gowns are offered at prices too good to be true, will turn out to be doing. And it will end up costing the consumer at least twice as much in the end.

There's limited information about the gown in the article, only that it's beaded, shimmery, and has 3 layers in the skirt. The verdict on the gown when it arrived was that it was "in fair condition (one loose bead, below average quality)." (Frankly, I'm surprised it rated this much praise. I've seen quite a few of these internet gowns in the past few years.) Looking for help from the company, the mom sent a series of emails, and eventually received a response admitting the company's mistake in sizing and instructing her to return the gown to them for alterations.

Now, the point of her article is that following these instructions proved impossible, for there was no address given for the return shipping - the packaging was gone, and the email contacts became progressively less communicative and more language-impaired, which the writer felt was being done intentionally, but I feel reveals the obviously non-American base of this dress company. As an alternative to sending it back, the customer asked for a refund of $90 toward the $100 alterations estimate, and the company has replied with an offer "of a $35 refund and good price for your next shopping". Really? They can't expect she'd ever want to buy from them in the future!

This mom obviously wants to do all she can for her "heartbroken" daughter to be able to wear the dress of her dreams for prom. She also seems to know the value of a good alterationist, having talked to someone about the cost of fixing this gown - and she seems willing to pay the additional cost of $50 for the 3-layer hem herself, which leads me to believe this is an expense that wasn't unexpected or considered unreasonable. So now the dress has become a $338 expense.

How could I, as owner of Janee's Originals, be of help to this family? I don't know what I could offer her, either at this point or had she come to me in the beginning. I could not have made a prom dress for her at a similar cost - that amount of money would barely pay for 8 hours of my time, without any fabric being purchased. Presented with a picture of a gown offered on the internet at a price tag under $200, I would likely have estimated my price for a similar gown at three times as much. There would be no additional alterations costs, as mine would be custom made to fit the customer.
What would you pay for this custom prom gown, made from a Bellville Sassoon Vogue pattern?

On the other side of the coin, I cannot duplicate a designer's gown from a photo brought to me by a client. Aside from the moral issues of pirating someone's design, which I won't do, I consider myself an interpreter - I will start with a basic silhouette and create a garment incorporating design elements that are similar to what the client desires. I use fabrics from all the sources I can locate in various price ranges, but I wouldn't be able to find the exact fabrics used in a designer's original - nor could the client afford to pay for them. The resulting garment might be less costly than the original, but nowhere near the reduction someone might expect.
...or this one, designed for the client by combining 3 patterns and fabrics?

The imported gown is made in a factory where the seamstresses are not paid a living wage, with the fastest (cheapest) sewing techniques, where quality control is a distant 2nd to quantity of production. I make garments one at at time, with multiple fittings along the way to ensure the design and fit is what my client expects. I've studied extensively in classes with every expert I can find to hone my skills and perfect my techniques, and I belong to a prestigious international association of sewing professionals. Consequently, I work at an hourly wage comparable to professionals like my auto mechanic, my plumber and my hair stylist.

So I have to agree with this mother, "buyer beware!" when shopping for prom gowns online. But understand where all our garments are coming from, not just the special dresses you might be willing to pay a little extra for.


  1. Bravo Janee! I read an article in recent weeks that was published in the Wall Street Journal. It was about the living conditions of so many who are producing the cheap pieces we are buying. They are being forced to live in cages and I mean cages. I would not subject a dog to the deplorable conditions these poor people are forced to live in and it is all because so many have bought into "have more, spend less."
    My main computer where I saved the article has been down, but I will try to find it and share it on my blog. Man oh man, you got me fired up Janee! But in a good way :) and about something very important.

  2. Nice post, Janee. Unfortunately, most people still approach alterations shocked that it "costs more that I paid for the dress!" in some cases, and sometimes, when the construction is really bad, it will cost more than alterations on a similar dress that was made well in the first place.

  3. Janee, well said! I see it all the time! I'm so sick of seeing inferior quality garments sold for expensive prices. My sewing students are learning to discern quality garments. I love it! We have weekly discussions about it.

  4. Great post, and so true! Pity the poor mum had to learn the hard way, but at least she has been brave enough to put out the warning to others...