Having just left college and being in the midst of starting up my own label, the words of my lectures are echoing in my head, reminding me of all the do’s and don’ts and the multitudes of pitfalls and hardships that await me.

Chief amongst them are those of my business lecturer, whose constant reminder concerned the need for a business to clearly define its market, and in turn their needs, in order to make sure the product hits the sweet spot.

A potential dilemma can arise when you think about what your market might want and realize that it might not be what you want. Now ideally one would think that in the case of a small enterprise, your customers are essentially like you, the owner. You choose to design and produce clothing that appeals to you and your market – if you had a clone, it would be a member of your target market. This is essentially how I view my business, but there is one area that is causing me a lot of bother. It is the question of quality.

Quality is of the utmost importance to me. Of course all people admire it, and in an ideal world would have only the best. However, high quality comes with high cost, and therein lies the problem. At what point does the increase in price stop being justified by the gains in quality? Most people hold truth to the saying, “You get what you pay for”, but only up until a certain point. As consumers, we know that we will pay more for a dress at Woolworths than we would for a similar one at Mr. Price, the quality is better, it’s a given. But in many cases and for a great many people, that knowledge doesn’t matter because it is the price that is the far greater concern. As a whole, the South African market is very price conscious and is more than happy to buy the low-cost, low quality, ‘Made in China’ clothing that has caused so much contention within the industry.

As with everything in life, it all comes down to economics. In order to compete with this influx of cheap foreign goods, South African manufactures have had to try and cut costs, a move with inevitably leads to a loss in quality. Perhaps it has just happened gradually, and consumers have unknowingly come to accept it as the norm, or equally likely, they simply don’t mind. In a world where trends are born and then die within a matter of months and mass consumerism continues to rise, what is the point of paying a lot of money for a high quality piece of clothing that you’re only going to wear for one season anyway? Why pay lots for one garment when you could have 10 cheapie ones? It is a market ruled by quantity, not quality.

So this is the position I find myself in as I begin the process of manufacturing clothing for my label. Just how important is quality to my market, and when is ‘good enough’, good enough?

Should I take on the task of sourcing high quality fabrics and then constructing the garments with my own hands? It is one way to ensure the quality of the finished product meets my standards, but it is far from being the most practical and economic solution (and for a start-up, economy is vital) as speed of production and final numbers would be very limited.

Should I take the route of entrusting construction to a CMT, after all, that is what they are there for. But for them, the old adage that “time is money” has never been truer. In that environment, can they take the care to produce items that stand up to close inspection, and if so, can a small start-up afford to pay for all that effort? Will the customers be looking for that extra quality and be willing to pay for it?

That then leaves the option of hiring the most skilled machinists, careful seamstresses and gifted tailors. But unfortunately for everyone, these skills are generally not as highly regarded as they should be and thus are in very short supply. This is not helped by the fact that on the whole these are not jobs that people really want to have. Speak to any graduated fashion student and most of them would be more than happy never to have to sew or make a pattern ever again. That’s somebody else’s job, it’s certainly not the creative and perhaps glamorous job they are seeking. The true art of garment construction has been lost; it is viewed as simply a technical skill, menial labour which must be done as cheaply & quickly as possible. Perhaps this is the root of the entire quality debate.

Ultimately, it seems there will always be a compromise - the search for perfection does not always mesh well with the realities of economy. All I can do is try my best to maintain my integrity, hold on to the aspects that are important to me and produce the highest quality I can, while at the same time reconciling that with the fact that my customers will not be inspecting the seams with a magnifying glass and would not want to pay for the privilege, and perhaps that’s ok. We can always dream of a future society that is less disposable, less obsessed with trends and where things are made with care, made to last.

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