Spend or splurge? Why £300 has become fashion’s price-tag sweet spot
One good item that fits your body shape and lifestyle is worth more than several cheap versions.
Ironically, women who work in the fashion industry, including journalists, tend to be the worst people to ask for practical advice about clothes. Why? Because either they think nothing of dropping £700-plus on a pair of Céline trousers or they think something about it but go ahead and buy them anyway. (That “something” usually goes as follows: “Yes, those trews cost a lot but they will be worth it.” It’s reasoning that may resonate with some but will enrage others.)
Yet this is far removed from the reality of every other woman I know. Even my more affluent non-fashion friends — be they civil servant or property developer, writer or QC — would never spend that kind of money on a pair of trousers. Some could afford to, but they just wouldn’t. Most would balk at that sum even for a so-called investment purchase such as a bag.
Quirky details date faster so at the £300 price point I go classic
January is always when I am most reminded of this truth because it’s a time when my friends — like you, like me — are looking for a sartorial refresh to make life seem less bleak and tend to check in with me for advice. What they are usually interested in almost without exception is the three-something sweet spot. Which are the best bags, shoes, jackets at about £300 to £400 — maybe a bit more or, even better, a bit less? That is what they want to know. Which brands reliably deliver in that price range?
These friends of mine, ranging from their thirties to their sixties, have grown out of buying lots of cheap things, aside from the odd fun flourish. As the civil servant, Frances, observes, “I have reached the stage where I would rather spend £350 on something great rather than four or five just-OK things. If I see a coat and can imagine myself wearing it in two years’ time, I will take a deep breath and open my purse.”
These women have other things to spend their money on, and dropping £300 on an item of clothing represents a splurge — if it weren’t that such terminology would intimate the purchase to be a frivolous one. In fact, they don’t spend such sums lightly.
Frances again: “I think it is still the student in me who sees £300 as a plane ticket to somewhere interesting, so I have to justify it to myself.” And that’s not all. “I know I could leave something really expensive on the bus or spill something down it,” she continues. “So I don’t feel I can spend more for those reasons too. Is it that I don’t think I am worth it? That I am stingy? No. I am happy, generous and vain. It’s a weird state of affairs.”
Au contraire. Or rather, quite the reverse. I would argue it’s a British state of affairs. We Brits are hardwired to look for value for money when shopping generally, but especially for clothes. We brag about how little we pay for something in a way that French and Italian women of my acquaintance find baffling. (That’s why the sales in those countries can offer such rich pickings — the locals aren’t that interested.) The recent spat over Theresa May’s leather trousers is a reminder of our Anglo-Saxon uneasiness about being seen to spend proper money on “mere” fashion as opposed to property, travel, cars, art and life generally.
When I ask my legal eagle friend what clothing she last bought for £300 she responds as follows: “I am sorry to disappoint you as the cheapskate QC but I cannot think when I spent that much on a single item.” I’d wager her Parisian equivalent would not answer so parsimoniously. In terms of clothes, at least theirs is a very different idea of value. A friend who works in Paris has come to realise that her female colleagues have remarkably few clothes but what they have is as good as they can afford.
Another friend, the writer, is all too well aware of the quirks of her sartorial economics. “I think £300 is about right for special things for me,” she says. “If I spend more than that I feel bad. My problem is that I like quirky details that set something apart, but twiddles also date faster, so at this price point I am more likely to go classic.
“Recently there was a Baum und Pferdgarten jacket with leopard bands on the sleeves that was about this price and that I coveted for ages. But the reasons I liked it were the same ones that kept me from buying it. When it went on sale at £150 I snapped it up. It’s madness, but this is how the abacus of one’s Protestant brain works.”
Luckily, increasing numbers of fashion retailers are cottoning on to what kind of price represents a big purchase for most of us. The fashion search engine Lyst, which aggregates more than 12,000 online fashion retailers, has 20 per cent more items priced between £300 and £350 than it did last year. The majority of coat and bag searches on the website have a maximum price set of £350.
The personal stylist Annabel Hodin, who overhauls the wardrobes of women who tend to have well above the average household income, talks about what she calls “the guilty £500”. This is the price tag, she tells me, which is often “too much of a squeeze” for her clients.
Hodin herself has high-end fashion flowing in her preternaturally chic veins and indeed has a pair of Céline trousers in her wardrobe to prove it. (“I felt sick when I paid for them, but they are better than every other pair I own and transform every outfit.”) She understands the good sense in buying what she calls “core pieces” at about £300 to £400 and notes sternly that one should pay nothing more than Zara or Cos prices for more trend-led items.
Which brings me to another email correspondence of mine this week, with a glamorous friend in her sixties — the property developer — who, at odds with her normal comparative abstemiousness, bought a £650 little black dress. It was fabulous, she could afford it and it would be the star turn at a party, but she couldn’t get her head around how much it cost: the even more guilty £650. She sent me a picture of her wearing it. Should she keep it?
Suffice to say, it’s going back to the shop: we both agreed that its on-trend statement sleeves would make it date in no time and her relief when we reached this conclusion was palpable. (Another reason why most fashion professionals are the last people to offer practical advice: statement sleeves and all the other whirligig trends are their sartorial bread and butter. They never say no whereas most of us should, most of the time.)
Hodin’s top three go-to brands for clients are Theory (“such a good cut”), Joseph (“it has a trouser shape that works for everyone”) and LK Bennett (“it looks carefully at what the catwalk designers are doing then interprets it to work for the rest of us”). All offer higher-priced pieces, of course, but there is plenty around the three-something mark. I have my eye on Theory’s grey, wide-leg tweed Asamaris trousers (£305, selfridges.com), Joseph’s sailor-stripe cashmere sweater (£345, joseph-fashion.com) and LK Bennett’s budget-edging red and gold silk Elowen dress (£425, lkbennett.com).
She has another trio of labels up her non-statement sleeves for clients with more specific needs: “If a woman wants casual clothes I rate Massimo Dutti. If she is in a corporate world I always look at Reiss, and if she is creative there are great things in that price range at Tara Jarmon.” She tells me she also keeps an eye on Jigsaw and DKNY.
Interestingly, Hodin argues that it is usually unrealistic to expect any purchase to last beyond three years. “That is how long the cycle of trends lasts and things can start to look slightly wrong after that.” Certainly in my experience even the most investment-y brand of jacket or bag can — annoyingly — begin to look slightly “off” after a while. Another reason not to spend too much.
Hodin also argues in favour of shopping in store rather than online. “Otherwise how do you know what the quality or the fit is? Online shopping is terribly dangerous.” And, relatedly, that we should be prioritising fit over every other consideration and focusing on spending more on the items most relevant to our lives. “If you work in an office you want a really good jacket because that is what gets seen above your desk. That is what will make you look both sexy and powerful.” Well, quite.
Anna Berkeley, another personal stylist to assorted alpha women with an eye to the bottom line, is also a fan of Theory, plus she rates Sandro, Maje, See by Chloé and MHL by Margaret Howell. She says: “Spending at about the £300 mark allows you to feel the item is replaceable, eventually, but that it could last if you have chosen wisely.”
Mansur Gavriel made its name with handbags and is just one of the boutique brands that has built its success on a keen awareness of just how much most women are prepared to spend on arm candy. Sophie Hulme’s Milner Mini Crossbody is £350 (sophiehulme.com), Manu Atelier’s Mini Pristine is £330 (selfridges.com), and the Mansur Gavriel Leather Bucket Bag is £395 (net-a-porter.com).
Admittedly you don’t get much bag for your buck with any of the above, but luckily — what with our phone-centric lives — it’s all about the so-called micro bag for the foreseeable. Selfridges’s director of accessories, Eleanor Robinson, talks of £300 as the “sweet spot where special and attainable meet. Still an investment rather than a fast-fashion purchase, it’s a figure that suggests a piece is good quality and often means it has been produced in smaller quantities and is therefore more individual and interesting.”
Clothes-wise, a big seller for Selfridges in this price range is the special-occasion dress label Self-Portrait, which has created a whole new market sector by producing lace showstoppers at comparatively affordable prices (I love the navy and black Star Repeat midi dress, £320, selfridges.com). Other labels that are performing well for the store are the Danish brand Ganni (particularly good on pattern and embellishment), the Chinese brand MO&Co (its just-cool-enough modernity often checks in at closer to two-something) and the home-grown modern-statement dress-focused labels Solace and Paper London.
Let’s be clear: £300-something is a lot of money. And once you factor in shoes, bag and two or three other pieces you are easily looking at £1,500 for an outfit. But Hodin argues that if you shop with a plan, buying only things designed to fit with what you already have and that work with your body shape and your lifestyle, you will — over time — end up spending less than if you take a more scattergun approach to buying more that’s cheaper. I am inclined to think she is right. And if that means shopping more like those darned Parisiennes, well, much as it pains me, so be it.