1. Using man-made fabrics instead of 100 percent natural fibers.
At best, synthetic and blended fabrics can only attempt to imitate high-quality materials, and the effect is never flawless. Even if you can find a synthetic that looks good, takes color well, and drapes nicely, it will never breathe as well as the same garment made out of 100 percent cotton or silk or wool. However, not all natural fabrics are created equal. For example, there are many grades of cotton. Egyptian cotton and Supima cotton are generally the best, then there are a whole bunch of other, much coarser and cheaper cottons that are used with much greater frequency, at both the high and low ends of the fashion spectrum. You can generally the difference just by touching them. Better cottons feel softer and they have an almost slinky quality to them, depending on how they are woven or knit into cloth.
2. "Made in Italy" doesn't actually mean that a piece is 100 percent made in Italy.
Although a silk shirt might say that it is "made in Italy," the materials could be (and usually are) imported from other countries. Fabric might even be cut at that foreign factory and initial sewing completed there before the pieces even make it to Italy, where only the final finishings are applied before the "made in Italy" tag, which is also imported, is sewn in place.
Not that there is anything wrong with or inferior about products made in Asia or any part of the world. There are skilled artisans and craftspeople all over the globe, and to presume that Italians possess some innate ability to make clothes better than people in China or South Africa is discriminatory and unfair.
3. Embellishments are used to distract you from poor quality designs, materials, and construction.
Its hard to see pulled threads, unfinished edges, and crooked seams when you are distracted by a bunch of shiny baubles and ruffles and studs all over the place.
4. Not all leathers are created equal.
Low-grade leathers are often sanded, embossed, and coated with special dyes and sealants to make them look more like high-grade, full-grain, or top-grain leathers. PU leather, for instance, is real leather that has been split, making it super thin, so you can get more sheets out of a single hide. The under layers from the split are then coated with polyurethane and embossed to give them the look of higher-grade leather. Splitting leather makes it weaker, so the structure of the material may have to be reinforced by having a fabric lining glued to the back. The problem is that these heavily processed leathers don't wear as well, last as long, or improve with age, like higher-grade leathers.
PU leather on the left, embossed to look more like the full-grain leather on the right.
5. Good marketing tricks you into thinking low-quality materials are actually desirable commodities.
Take neoprene, for example. It is a thin piece of fabric, often synthetic, glued to a piece of foam. Within a few wears, it develops wrinkles that will never come out. A few more wears or an ill-fated trip to the washing machine, and the fabric and foam begin to separate. Neoprene is a cheap fabric, but high-end designers charge top dollar for it. That's not to say that there aren't different qualities of neoprene out there, but it is not an expensive fabric in general.
The truth is, you can buy a printed wrap dress from Forever21 that is exactly the same as one from a designer brand, but costs literally one-tenth of the price. And there are quilted leather bags that can be bought on the streets of New York City that even the CEOs of some of the most prestigious fashion houses in the world will admit (although never publicly or on the record) are actually better-made than the real thing they themselves are selling for 15 times as much.
6. Stretchy fabrics are sometimes used as a substitute for good tailoring.
Stretch is a wonderful thing, but not when it is used as a substitute for precise tailoring. Brands love stretch fabrics because garments with a lot of stretch can be worn by a larger variety of body types and sizes. Fabrics without stretch, on the other hand, have to be tailored in order to fit properly, and the more tailored a piece is, the fewer people it fits and the harder it is to sell in large quantities. Tailoring a garment also requires skill and precision, and that means higher production costs and a higher overhead for the company making it. Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't buy pieces with stretch in them. Just keep in mind that stretch fabrics can sometimes serve a company's bottom line more than they serve your look. There really is no substitute for fine tailoring.
7. Prints don't line up and brands call it a "design detail" when really it is just shoddy workmanship.
It is time-consuming to cut and sew a pocket onto a shirt so that the print on the pocket aligns perfectly with the print on the rest of the shirt. It is much faster (and cheaper) to just rotate the print 45 degrees and call it a design feature.
The designer shirt on the right costs almost three times as much as the Gap shirt on the left.
8. Using plastic and coated metal alloys for buttons and hardware.
Plastic is always cheaper to use than metal or bone or stone or wood. (It's also horrible for the environment.) Cheap metals like iron, nickel, zinc, and copper, which are abundant and malleable, are often coated with gold or silver to make them look more expensive than they are. Over time, this coating wears off, exposing the metal underneath to oxygen in the air, causing it to discolor. But you don't have to wait for the coating to wear off to know you are dealing with an inferior metal. Just hold it in your hands. If it feels flimsy and lightweight, that's because it's cheap.
9. Glue is used in place of stitching or to reinforce shoddy sewing.
You know how on Project Runway when the designers are down to the wire and they just start hot gluing their clothes together rather than actually sewing them? They do that because it is fast and cheap and they don't need it to last; they just need it to make it through the runway show. That's the same reason real designers use glue on everything from bags to shoes to embellishments. They only really need it to last long enough for you to get sick of it and buy something new.
10. They don't take the time to finish the inside, because most people will never see it.
Want to know if something is really, truly well made? Turn it inside out. If it is lined, just feel around the seams and button backings. Loose threads, edges that haven't been rolled and sewn in place, and buttons and embellishments without reenforcement to help hold them in place and protect the fabric, are all signs of cheap construction.
The garment on the left is so well made that it can be worn inside out, but the garment on the right just looks like a big mess.
The moral of the story? Don't assume that paying a lot for something ensures quality or that paying very little for something ensures the opposite. No designer will ever show you where they cut corners. It's up to you to figure it out for yourself or live with the poorly made and overpriced consequences.