Style Showdown: $1,000 Sweater Faces $100 Rival


    Style Showdown:
    $1,000 Sweater Faces $100 Rival

    It's one of the abiding mysteries of fashion: Is it really worth paying $1,100 for a white cotton blouse or $750 for one of the turtleneck sweaters we see in high-end stores and magazines?

    If the labels fell off, would these basic items still feel like they're worth so much? The question arises more often these days, as stores like Zara and H&M thrive on selling inexpensive fashions that resemble those of high-end designers like Chanel and Dior.

    [​IMG]A $950 cashmere sweater from Brunello Cucinelli
    With the holiday gift-giving season upon us, I decided to put a couple of standard sweaters to the test. While I anticipated differences in style and quality, I was unprepared for the political issues that arose from my study of these two sweaters. What started out as a look at fashion choices turned into a lesson on globalization.

    For this test, we chose two cashmere sweaters from clothiers with excellent reputations for quality and service, one at each end of the price spectrum. One came from Lands' End and cost $99.50 before tax and shipping. The other, from Italian luxury cashmere maker Brunello Cucinelli, cost $950 before tax and the valet parking fee at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.

    The sweaters are outwardly similar: long-sleeved black mock turtlenecks, knitted with two-ply yarn, which means each string is made of two strands that have been twisted together. Both sweaters are made of cashmere combed from Mongolian goats, which are said to grow fine, long hairs to survive the tough winters. The long hair leads to less pilling, which is a real sweater killer.

    And both garments arrived with deficiencies. My Lands' End sweater felt stiff and glossy. After wearing it twice, I tossed it in the delicate cycle of my washing machine, and it emerged soft and supple.

    I chose a style called a "cashmere tee" that is trimmer and more feminine than the company's core big and snuggly cashmeres. New this fall, the mock turtle is cut to layer under a jacket. Despite the fresh styling, it lacks sophistication, and the fabric tends to wrinkle, particularly at the crook of the arm. Still, it's an attractive, basic sweater -- soft, comfy and, hey, the price was right. According to Michele Casper, a spokeswoman for Lands' End, it should last for many years. If not, she noted, I can exchange the item or get a refund. "Everything we sell at Lands' End is guaranteed. Period."

    The Cucinelli sweater has a springier weave that drapes gracefully and hasn't wrinkled or bagged at stretch points. It was a little more uniformly soft than the Lands' End fabric. While all Mongolian goat hair is prized, prices vary according to quality, and some Italian manufacturers pride themselves on buying the best grades of cashmere at auction -- one reason for some sweaters' higher prices. The sweater also has subtly stylish details -- such as small buttons at the back of the neck that make it easy to pull the sweater over a hairdo and makeup.

    That's a nice feature, but when I got it home, I discovered the sweater had unraveled at the teardrop opening at the nape of the neck. This required a tiresome trip back to Saks, where they repaired the tear, telling me that if it happens again, I should bring it right back. At that price, they can count on it. But Cucinelli should probably incorporate some sort of reinforcement at that pressure point. A spokesman for the designer called the flaw a "fluke" and said Cucinelli has a damage-return rate of just 0.005%.

    The standout facets of the Cucinelli sweater are sleeves that taper at the forearm and then flare at the wrist, and layers of silk chiffon that have been hand-sewn at the neck and wrists. My friend Roberta tried it on. "It does feel really nice on my neck," she said, noodling her head around. These style details drew attention as I wore the sweater (the Lands' End sweater garnered no compliments). But people looked stunned if I told them the price.

    [​IMG]Clockwise, from upper left: back view of Brunello Cucinelli's sweater; a detail of the neck (top); Lands' End's sweater (right), the Italian factory that made the Cucinelli sweater; raw cashmere.
    So there were style differences between the luxurious designer sweater and its counterpart, however solidly made. Another sort of distinction emerged as I learned how each sweater was manufactured. The goat hairs took very different paths after being bundled into bales and taken to auction in Mongolia.

    The label of the Lands' End sweater says "Made in China." Lands' End gave me an extensive primer on its Mongolian yarns. But it turned out that the company isn't involved in that part of the process. It purchases the finished sweaters from a factory in China -- and it's the factory that buys cashmere at auction. Ms. Casper said the Chinese factory spins, cards, combs, and dyes the yarn and weaves it into garments according to Lands' End's specifications. Lands' End, she said, tests the results and requires the factory to meet "all compliances" from Sears Holding Corp., which owns Lands' End. She declined to elaborate or to divulge the name of the factory or even the region of China where it's located. She did say: "The cashmere factories are very clean and feature all state-of-the art, updated equipment. The employees feel honored to be employed there."
    I was troubled by the company's reticence about the factory that made my sweater. This came against a backdrop of news stories out of China's industrial sector that included recalls of toys, toothpaste and other consumer products. Many people have seen film and photos of Chinese factory workers living in sparse dormitories far from home and working long hours. Concerns about Chinese labor and manufacturing standards have led to the recent increase in "Made in the USA" labels on products made here.

    All this contrasts sharply with Brunello Cucinelli, a company founded in 1978 by 54-year-old designer Brunello Cucinelli. Both the Saks saleswoman and Massimo Caronna, Cucinelli's U.S. spokesman and owner of Italian fashion distributor IMC Group, eagerly elaborated on the manufacturing. Mr. Caronna even invited me to visit the factory where my sweater was made, in the tiny Italian village of Solomeo in Umbria, though I didn't make the trip.

    According to him, the goat hairs in my sweater traveled in bales from Mongolia to one of several factories in Italy where it was made into yarn. Cucinelli buys about 70% of its yarn from the Italian luxury thread purveyor Cariaggi.

    The yarn was then shipped to the Cucinelli factory, which is in a 17th-century castle. Each of its 1,500 employees has a key, says Mr. Caronna. They work each day from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., breaking for a 90-minute lunch. Many go home for lunch, but Mr. Caronna says that those who stay are served a free three-course meal cooked up by three local women who shop for fresh groceries every morning. Employees return to work from 2:30 until 6 p.m. and then head home.

    Mr. Cucinelli wanted to improve on the conditions he saw his father endure as a farm laborer, Mr. Caronna says. The designer has donated some company profits to improvements in Solomeo, such as restoring the town square, building a local school and, most recently, constructing a town theater. The company, which competes with Loro Piana and also owns the Gunex and Riva Monti fashion lines, expects revenue of $163 million in 2007, Mr. Caronna said.

    The Italian manufacturing process also explains a little more about the cost of my $950 sweater. Hand work allows sophisticated design details, like the chiffon, that would be impossible in a garment made entirely by machine. And 25% of the factory employees are devoted to quality control. Before leaving the factory, every item is washed by hand -- one reason the Cucinelli sweater arrived softer than the Lands' End.
    Lands' End won't tell us details such as whether its Chinese factory has paid for local schools or serves its workers free three-course meals. But it's safe to say that the Cucinelli is the superior sweater when it comes to style, quality and global social awareness.

    Whether it's worth nearly 10 times the price, though, is a matter for you and your wallet.

    Write to Christina Binkley at
  2. My two cents: I will never, ever buy a Cucinelli-made sweater now that I know this. While I am certainly not willing to knowingly buy anything made in a sweatshop or in a factory where workers are not fairly paid, I think it is completely crazy to pay $1,000 for a sweater that was made by people who are served three-course lunches everyday. I want to see that $1K in the material and cost of production (and to a certain degree, branding), not in maintaining a 17-th century castle or providing three-course meals daily (that many workers apparently turn down).

    I guess I am too pragmatic for luxury.
  3. Cashmere generally commands a premium price because of it's limited availablity. However, the detailing on the more expensive one really doesn't justify the price to me. Any good seamtress, and there are many, could easily modify the Land's End one to have the same detailing as the Italian one for less than $100.

    90 minute lunches? Freshly made 3 course meals!?
    That's it. I'm getting out of the Army and moving to Italy!!!

    Thanks for posting this article, it was awesome to read!

    Old Navy's cashmere doesn't feel too bad.
  5. Just in case anyone's curious about how the mod's on the Land's End could be done:

    #1 Buy a Land's End one size up
    #2 Get a picture of the more expensive one
    #3 Take both to a good seamstress and tell him/her that you want the Land's End to look like the Italian
    #4 After taking your measurements, the seamstress will trim down the sleeves, neck and the body to match the tapering of the Italian.
    #5 The seamstress then adds layers of silk chiffon the neck and wrists, and buttons in the back of the neck

    Easy peasy!
  6. I think the author should have chosen to compare two simple, unembellished cashmere mockneck turtleneck sweaters.

    Also, I think there is a difference between a famous designer not known for its cashmere (ie Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana) selling these types of sweaters, verses like Loro Piana or Malo, brands known for its cashmere. Chances are the author would find a simple Gucci cashmere turtleneck sweater more overpriced than a Loro Piana.
  7. I actually like the Land's End one more. The other one's neck is bit too much for my taste.
  8. I just visited the Brunello Cucinelli area in Saks in NYC which further prompted me to check on the BC store in the West Village and all I can say is OMG!! I have seen lots of beautiful clothes in my life but nothing and I mean nothing compares to the quality and styling of this stuff. The prices are off the charts. No doubt about that but after trying a few pieces on, I am in love.
  9. Thanks for posting this. I think it was a great article. I don't have a problem with the Italian workers being treated so well. The company owner could just pocket the profits, but he chooses to invest in the community and enrich the quality of life of his workers. There are plenty of business people in the US who (time permitting) go out for expensive multi course lunches. And don't forget, lunch is free in the Google cafeteria too! It's nice to see that an Italian factory worker can have the same benefit. It keeps them at work and probably improves morale too. I wish that Chinese factory workers were better treated.
  10. ^ I agree with the above poster. Quality of life are important issues. Knowing all of this would not make me choose the italian sweater. how the sweater looked on me would be the deciding factor. The rest would be a nice bonus...
  11. What happened to apples to apples? She's comparing apples to oranges.
  12. That was an interesting read. I would personally like to buy from happy, well compensated workers that work in a good work environment. It's hard to say if the workers in the Chinese factory feel the same since the higher ups wouldn't let the author check it out, but to me, the fact that they say no tours says they have something they don't want everyone to see. I'll still probably never really be able to buy a sweater that expensive, unless it's a one time splurge, but it's nice to know people still can work like that. I like that it's apparent that the owner cares about his employees, and probably a higher proportion of the selling price winds up in the employees' pockets or improving working conditions. It's about ethical treatment for me, not so much a small price tag. That's why I'm starting to choose quality over quantity for what I buy now. And not everything is going to be free of defects or flaws, but that's why you get to know a good seamstress that can fix things when they go wrong.
  13. Not that this has anything to do with whether or not the Cucinelli sweater is worth the price, but I felt the need to point out that most Italians have 3 course lunches, no matter their salary. It's not a luxury, it's a way of life there. This is coming from experience, as I am half Italian, and have family and friends there, and DH is 100% Italian and his parents moved to Toronto from Calabria, Italy (he is a first generation North American). ALL of our meals are 3 course meals when we eat at his parents'/sisters'/brothers' houses. They make everything from scratch and grow their own herbs and vegetables in their backyard. All traditional Italian meals consist of a pasta, a meat and a salad (usually in this order). :yes:

    So, in short, this is not "special treatment" for their workers. Nor is the extended lunch period. This is also the norm in Italy, and almost ALL businesses shut down for a couple of hours mid-day for lunch and relaxation. It was strange to get used to, visiting there, but after a while you start to realize how much it makes sense and how much less stressed and family-oriented everyone is there.

    Just my .02
  14. ^^ I was thinking that was normal also, but since I'm not Italian, I didn't want to say something that I'm not positive on :smile: Meals do usually last awhile, I know that for sure. When in Europe for a month with my aunt, dinner always seemed to last at least 2 hours, usually closer to 3 or 4. Very different compared to meals I'm used to; I'm lucky if I can get dinner to last 20 minutes at home before fiance gets bored and gets up.
  15. Seriously, how could anyone with basic human decency have a problem with workers being treated well? I have no problem paying high prices for handmade goods - someone spent their time making my clothes, I think they're my equal, not my inferior. I like to be paid well for what I do. So why shouldn't I have to pay others well for doing whatever it is they do?