I recently found myself at a James Perse store trying on a $300 shirt dress. Black, ribbed, with a slight V-neck, the dress fit well and would pair seamlessly with many pieces in my wardrobe. My only hang-up? I had about a dozen cheaper versions of the same thing already hanging in my closet. Plus, the thought of dropping that much cash on a piece of clothing that didn’t feel totally special gave me a headache.
I have a love-hate relationship with high-end basics. After finally getting rid of the last cheap ill-fitting vestiges of my early twenties, my wardrobe is a happy mix of simple yet well-tailored black, white, and neutral basics and great consignment store finds. And as much as I love my olive-green Zac Posen dress, I would choose classic and foolproof basic essentials like denim jeans and a killer black shift dress over flashier trendy pieces any day.
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While I completely believe in investing in the items you’ll get the most use out of, I always seem to have the same urge to tighten my purse strings whenever an expensive piece is just too basic. Each time I reach for my credit card, I am reminded that I could simply pick up the cheaper version of that T-shirt dress at the Gap and use the extra cash on a plane ticket to catch some West Coast sun or a ridiculously impractical yet amazing pair of shoes (thanks to Carrie Bradshaw, I have a serious weakness for Manolos).
Further igniting my constant dilemma, it seems like tempting high-end basics are everywhere. Retailers like James Perse and the Line have built their entire brand on what are basically high-end versions of a Hanes tee, while fashion collectives like Vetements are catapulting the trend into the highest echelons of the high-end fashion world. Since coming on the scene in 2014, Vetements and its avant-garde take on basics have been dominating the pages of fashion glossies and street-style blogs alike. (Both have audiences who are enthusiastic about dropping $800 for a faded black hoodie.)
Major fashion houses are even starting to launch their own (très pricey) basics lines. In part inspired by the success of Phoebe Philo’s artistically minimalist Céline, these capsule collections feel slightly more personal when it comes to the details. Take Valentino for example. Earlier this year, the label best-known for its over-the-top elegance and opulent designs released the Rockstud Untitled collection, a capsule that features classic staples with Valentino’s signature edgy studs including a $2,290 crewneck sweater and a $1,195 white poplin button down (both of which I will own only in my high-end basics dreams.) Even Céline’s simplest silk shifts have Philo’s fingerprints all over them.
So how do we know when it’s worth it to drop a couple grand on a basic button-down rather than just pick up the $20 version from H&M? In some cases, the quality difference or presence of subtle-yet-covetable design details are obvious.
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For Vanessa Traina, executive creative director at the Line—which recently launched it’s own brand of upscale tees called Tenfold Los Angeles—the life expectancy of the item justifies the cost. “I tend to invest in quality, especially when they are items that make consistent appearances in my wardrobe cycle,” she says. “A higher quality item generally has a longer life cycle so you really are making an investment.” For example, Tenfold, according to Traina, developed a heavier-weight washed-cotton shirt with a more sculpted fit than what you would expect from a standard tee. “The end result makes it feel more like a fitted top than a T-shirt,” she says.
Of course the upkeep on that life cycle is more intensive. Tossing the $9 H&M tee is no biggie if it shrinks in the dryer, but you might not be so callous about your $90 investment tee. Traina swears by hang-drying her shirts and tossing her jeans in the freezer to disinfect.
“If you’re looking for quality, it’s important to check fabric content and details like the neatness and even hems, seams, and other details,” says Rachael Wang, Allure‘s fashion director. But the number-one reason to justify the price hike is simple: impeccable fit. In other words, that button-down is worth the extra money when it makes you look like the extra money.
When I tried on that James Perse dress, I felt like a million bucks. And in my book, that’s worth the investment. So I ditched a couple of the cheaper versions in my closet and went back to the store to claim the new dress—while I mentally prepared myself for all the air-drying and hand-washing in my future.
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