Cost v quality: Which is more important?

I grew up with an apocryphal Chinese proverb: Good t’ings no cheap. Cheap t’ings no good.

When building your gentleman’s wardrobe the question of cost v quality will inevitably arise.  It will arise perhaps most sharply in year 1 of your 5-year project as you seek to cover the bases, not least if you are starting from a virtually empty wardrobe.  However it will always be an issue, especially if you are a man of modest means.

But which is better value?
There an app for that...
There an app for that…

Many menswear magazines or blogs advise that we buy the best that we can afford. After all ‘good t’ings no cheap.’ Moreover, the argument is made that to do so represents better value in the long run.  Broadly speaking, a suit for £250, which you absolutely love, and wear happily and regularly for the next 10 years represents better value than a suit for £50 which you regret buying and throw away after a couple of years.

It’s all to do with the cost per wear (CPW).  A £50 suit worn every other week for 2 years will be worn about 50 times and thus cost around £1 per wear.  In contrast a £250 suit you wear once per week for 10 years will be worn over 500 times and cost you less than 50p per wear. CPW is the big idea that helps us justify the purchase of high quality expensive clothing.  Predictably, ‘there’s an app for that’ for iPhone users to help you work out CPW.

So we are encouraged to buy good quality and expensive shoes, ties, coats, umbrellas, suits, etc., all on the basis that quality costs but will be worth it in the longer term.  But do these arguments stack up?

I am unpersuaded. The argument assumes that if you buy something at low cost you won’t love it. It also assumes that if you buy something at high cost you will not only love it, but also wear it often and keep it for ages. It further assumes that your tastes will not change over that period and that the item will still fit in 5 or 10 years.  The reality is, if you bought a £50 suit and wear it once per week for 2 years that will bring your CPW down to under 50p easily and you would have an extra £200 in your pocket than if you bought the £250 suit.

However, what is least persuasive about this approach is not that the arithmetic does not necessarily work, or that the underlying assumptions are open to question.  What is least persuasive is that it seems to me to be entirely the wrong rationale.  Ultimately you build a gentleman’s wardrobe because you wish to, because style matters to you, because you want to raise your confidence levels, because you like beautiful things, whether it is a piece of art or the weave of a silk tie.  You do it because your day is brightened every time you catch sight of your favourite pair of shoes or feel the fabric of a beloved and well-worn shirt, or because you admire the craftsmanship in a pair of cufflinks. You don’t do it on the basis of some financial formula, however well conceived.

This is not to suggest that cost v quality is an entirely meaningless debate.  Rather it is to say that CPW is a rather blunt instrument.  Ultimately, the cost v quality debate will matter to some people more than others.  If you are someone for whom perceived quality matters, who appreciates craftsmanship, who can get quite interested in the details of seams and stitching, materials and fabrics, then you may prefer to buy fewer items at twice the price and keep it for twice as long. Others who appreciate variety may prefer to buy a greater number of lower quality less expensive items which are kept for a shorter period. They won’t understand why anyone would buy one suit (feel free to substitute pair of shoes, briefcase, coat, or watch) for £500 when they could buy half dozen.  The real value hunters out there will simply buy one at £100 and pocket the rest.

The critical question, of course, is What can you afford?  The advice to buy the best that we can afford is, I think, probably sound. However, the hope that this will somehow work out cheaper in the long run is, like the quest for the Holy Grail, ultimately futile.  You can’t have wardrobe items which are both the best and the cheapest.  That ‘Chinese proverb’ might not be so far off the mark after all.


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