Photography: Alex Segre/Alamy
My favorite pair of black pants came from Jigsaw nearly five years ago. I can date them because I was on my way to the cinema to see Frances McDormand’s film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which I remember because I left the bag that contained them under my seat at the cinema and had to jump off the bus and come back and Google tells me the film is out in January 2018. I think they cost around £60.
I paid less than that for the ivory silk shirt I’m wearing with them today, which I bought at Marks & Spencer in 2016 from a collection curated by Alexa Chung. My leather belt is from Gap and may be older than one of my kids, one of whom is in college.
There’s nothing unusual about this outfit, except that we’ve come to think of streetwear as a waiting junkyard. The average garment is estimated to be worn only 10 times before disposal, according to the 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from the Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group. Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggested that the average number of wear before disposal was lowest in the United States, then China, followed by Europe and then the rest of the world. The exact figures are, for obvious reasons, difficult to pin down, but what is clear is that the number of times a piece is worn has decreased by around 36% over the past 15 years.
Such shocking statistics rightly highlight a pressing problem, but they don’t tell the whole story. Telling only about the clothes that end up in the trash risks giving the impression that haute couture fashion is inevitably disposable. If we shrug our shoulders and accept the idea that only expensive designer clothes are made to last, we normalize the treatment of couture fashion — the only option for the vast majority of budgets — as a throwaway option.
But there’s another story, illustrated by a rummage through my wardrobe, where designer clothes and streetwear go hand in hand. The beaded chiffon Dior dress I bought at the Bicester Village outlet for my 40th birthdayth the birthday party hangs between a 2014 Kate Moss for Topshop number with off-the-shoulder ostrich feather trim and & Other Stories LBD with a deep band of faux fur at the hem that people at fashion parties assume is Prada .
My shoe rack has Choos and Manolos, but for last week’s Fashion Awards I reached for, as I so often do, the classic black patent pumps from Russell & Bromley, which I’ve had forever and they’re reliably comfortable.
This isn’t just me. Lucinda Chambers, founder of the online shopping site Collagerie, has an archive of designer names gained over 25 years as fashion editor of Vogue – but also “a Mango bag that I take care of as if it were my firstborn”.
A quick survey of friends and colleagues reveals precious haute couture treasures: a crimson double-breasted wool coat from H&M, almost a decade old but like new; a Jil Sander for Uniqlo blazer that fits well, and is now irreplaceable, like couture. A timeless cropped tuxedo jacket purchased by the now late Dorothy Perkins. My sister often wears a pink and black graffiti print Tammy Girl dress that our mom bought in the 80s.
Finding couture pieces that last is about knowing how to shop. Price wars in the fast fashion space have lowered production standards and many clothes are neither as well thought out nor as well constructed as they were during Marks & Spencer’s St Michael era, or in the golden age of Topshop under Jane Shepherdson, or early designer collaborations with H&M, when limited editions were produced with minimal cost margin as a loss leader.
But there are still opportunities to be found. Buy in-store, not online, because touching it by hand is the only true way to evaluate the fabric. Look at the weight and quality of the fasteners — flimsy zippers or chipped buttons are a red flag of cut corners. A snagged or unfinished seam will sag into a misshapen silhouette after a few wears.
Think about how the garment will age: I never buy clothes with a stripe or print that includes white, because white can’t stay white when washed with other colors. Shopping in a physical store rather than clicking to buy on the screen is also a useful filter for changing impulse buys. If queuing for the locker room seems like too much effort, that’s a strong signal that you don’t like anything that’s good enough to justify the cost or carbon footprint.
And once discovered, treasures must be treated as such, whatever their provenance. Delicate silks and satins should be cold washed and air dried; party shoes take to a good cobbler to replace the tips of your heels.
The investment dressing isn’t just for the wealthy. The crown jewels of your wardrobe aren’t the clothes you spend the most on – they’re the pieces you cherish. The price tag on your new jacket makes no sense from the moment you cut it and put it on for the first time. In other words, don’t be a snob. It’s up to you to decide the true value of the clothes in your wardrobes.