Tuesday, February 26, 2019

February 2019 Shopping Reflections

This is not going to look like an impressive month, in light of this year's goal of shopping "less". (Yikes, but let's see how the next few months shake out before worrying too much.) Looking back over the past two years, I may have a recurring habit of really splashing out and splurging around February or March, with the biggest purchase usually coming from the last waves of post-Christmas sales.

For months now, I've had heavier-knit, hopefully luxe-feeling turtleneck sweaters on the brain. It all started with last January's sweater of not fully known material (worn here), which I loved wearing, despite the inherently dubious provenance of many items bought on Taobao. The seller called it cashmere, and back then, I was inclined to believe it, because I thought the material was behaving similarly to that of my other cashmere sweaters (including by being prone to pilling quicker than most wool or synthetic blends, and machine-washing well in cold water and a mesh bag). But more recently, I'm less sure, now that I have a little more to compare it to. In any case, I knew I was assuming the risk of not getting what was "promised" when I bought it.

At the same time, I'd become disillusioned about the durability of sweaters from J.Crew or Ann Taylor-ish, which was a bit of a reversal, as I'd previously said I thought the synthetic-blended machine-washable sweaters commonly offered by those retailers were great for my work wardrobe, and a practical fit for my lifestyle. The sweaters I purchased in that spirit mostly proved to be poor choices. They didn't hold up terribly well, and started pilling badly or looking worn and tired fairly quickly. One developed holes just from normal, not especially frequent washing and wear.

Separately, even before I started this blog, I'd always had a hard time with wool sweaters from that price point. Merino wool sweaters from J.Crew or Madewell had, in my experience, a remarkable propensity for shrinking up noticeably from (usually accidental) contact with cold water in a washing machine, even though I was careful about never putting them in the drier. A few months before I started tracking my shopping, I purchased two Madewell Assembly sweaters (pictured in this post), made of a thick, chunky wool. While I adored them, and wore them all winter, they pilled dramatically and started losing their shape and looking oddly stretched out, and, for lack of a better word, lumpy, even though I was careful about hand-washing them gently and laying them flat to dry. I wanted to wear them again the following year, but couldn't bring myself to, they just looked awful.

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So I was in the market for a thicker, heavier sweater, and I also expected it to cost a pretty penny, especially if I preferred it in fully natural fibers. The J.Crew-ish price point had already disappointed me repeatedly, so I was primed to look above it. I considered Everlane's waffle knit cashmere turtlenecks, but they never had the right sizes and colors in stock whenever I looked. I also tried on this Club Monaco "Kikoka" cashmere funnel neck sweater, but it didn't suit me, I didn't like the more sweatshirt texture of the fabric, and, more problematic, the website failed to disclose that it was a synthetic blend. I'd even gone to Nordstrom while in California to take a look at Vince sweaters and the new-ish and similarly pricey "Nordstrom Signature" ones. I found that both brands' thicker, heavier sweaters really did feel nice, with a heft and weight to them, and in the case of the cashmere ones, a softness that was noticeably different from any sweater I'd tried on before. That's possibly in keeping with their price (even when on sale, generally far more than double what I ever paid for any sweater previously). Note that, between the Vince and Nordstrom Signature sweaters I looked at, the Vince ones seemed nicer, the material just a bit thicker, so if it comes down to those two brands at the same price, Vince may provide better value. 

And then, while things were hectic at the office earlier this month, I started looking at the Scottish brand Brora, which I'd occasionally seen mentioned on other blogs, including Feather Factor. They have a store in NYC (though I've never been), as well as a US-based website, but I found that it was definitely best to shop from their UK site, as it ships internationally and (after factoring in the exchange rate) the UK prices were consistently cheaper, sometimes by more than $100 an item. (For whatever reason, once each transaction was processed, I got a noticeably more favorable exchange rate than what Google said was prevailing at the time of each order. I wouldn't count on that happening in the future, though, and it really confused me.) International shipping cost me 15.50 GBP per order from the UK site, and items were shipped remarkably quickly, arriving in as little as four days. Returns are, or would be, complicated and expensive, as orders from the UK site must be shipped back there fairly quickly, on the customer's dime. If one purchased from the US site, the order could be sent back to their NYC store instead. Also keep in mind that UK and US sizing are different, a UK 8 is roughly equivalent to a US 4, and that the US site uses US sizing.

Oh and in terms of more modestly priced sweaters I think provide the best value, I've generally been most satisfied with Uniqlo's more classic sweaters, the cotton, merino wool, or cashmere ones they offer in basic style every year in a wide range of colors, and also some of their cotton-cashmere blend sweaters. I don't have as much experience with the other, trendier sweaters they sometimes do, but had some isolated bad experiences with the durability of some in the distant past. I was extremely satisfied with the linen and rayon-blend long open cardigans I bought last year, though. 

Fashion - (TOTAL: $706.70)
  • Italic "Albee" Leather Card Case - $50.00* - wrote about and photographed this item recently, and also discussed my general impressions of Italic, a paid membership-based (fees currently waived) online retailer startup claiming to sell goods manufactured at the same factories as Prada, Celine, and the like. Most of their product line is quite dull, and this particular item likely a bit too transparently a copy of the Saint Laurent Five Fragments card case. It's not a 100% copy, there's an extra pocket in the back that isn't present in the original, and there's no logo on this. But the similarities are certainly undeniable. 
  • Brora Donegal Cashmere Polo Neck Sweater - $268.30* - For the Brora purchases this month, I had pinned similar-looking items onto my wishlist, sometimes only briefly before these orders, but chose to buy these instead. Part of what inspired me to start looking at Brora was that I didn't think Vince would restock the funnel-neck sweater I was interested in this season, and it didn't seem like the Nordstrom Signature asymmetric funnel-neck sweater I was also looking at would be discounted for the post-Christmas sales. I'm also easily convinced to try a brand if I see it regularly being complimented as "high quality" or a bit special in trusted internet circles, and I also trust Kathy's tastes. When I received this and tried it on, I was indeed impressed. It was so soft! And I thought the pale blue "Air Force" color was beautiful, rich, and more complex than it looks in the store photos. Brora's styles and colors may not be for everyone, many of their items have a more "boho" or quirky feel to my eyes, somewhat reminiscent of things Anthropologie would stock, or of Boden's aesthetic. There also weren't that many neutral shades available in their post-Christmas clearance section. 
  • Brora Gauzy Knit Cashmere Poncho - $116.80* - These other two items were part of my... second order from Brora this month. I'd been stuck in the office most of the weekend I put in this order, so there probably was some stress-induced retail therapy at play. Also, the prices from Brora's US site for both orders combined would have been a whopping $1079 dollars before tax (and sales tax likely another ~$100 on top of that), so the feeling of getting a huge discount (a total steal!) may also have played a role. I do love these purchases, and I do that thing where I admire them whenever I wear them, in this case by marveling at the softness and the colors of the poncho and donegal sweater. But this is also such a dramatic step up in price compared to any knitwear I'd previously purchased that I can't say for sure that I can accurately assess how good a value I'm getting. I couldn't get an exact photo of the "Ocean" shade of my poncho, which is a bit brighter and closer to teal than the picture above. I think this two-ply "gauzy" material, which Brora also uses for sweaters, is an adequate thickness and warmth to be part of outfits for most climates I'm familiar with. The four-ply funnel neck sweater below (which has a textured, chunky knit that adds to the thickness) is heavy, enough that I sometimes start feeling a little overheated once I get indoors, even though my apartment and office aren't that aggressively heated. In comparison, the three-ply material of the donegal polo neck sweater above is maybe a better, slightly more versatile weight and thickness.  
  • Brora Textured Funnel Neck Sweater - $271.60* - This "fig" color was a bit less exciting and complex than the others I picked. I took a UK size 12-14, the equivalent of US size 8-10, in both sweaters, and they are a slightly more relaxed fit than I expected. Though I also suspect that the next size down, UK size 8-10, may have run the risk of being too fitted in the bust for my tastes. This sweater is also a little long on someone of my height (5'3''), which I probably should have guessed, as it already looks a bit long on the model, who must be significantly taller. I still enjoy this sweater, even though it's maybe a bit too thick and warm to be fully practical on any but the coldest days here (about two to three days a week this winter so far). And if I ever moved back to California, this sweater might not be practical anymore.
*Indicates that price includes shipping costs, which in the case of each of these purchases, were all quite substantial.

What brand makes your favorite sweaters? Do you regularly shop from brands or retailers for which you need to pay international shipping and/or might encounter more difficulty shipping back returns? Does anyone else ever feel a bit... insecure about their ability to fully assess whether they're getting a good value from items that are outside their typical shopping "comfort zone", whether in terms of price, or maybe the genre of item? (Like if it's your first ever business formal suit when interviewing for a new job, or a heavy winter coat when first moving to a new climate, or something like that.) 

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