Grade Six

Posted: Feb 17 2014

Browse through online clothing forums today, where tailored clothing enthusiasts congregate, and you’ll find dozens of threads where people argue over which makers produce the best suits. In fact, in one StyleForum thread, there’s a working hierarchical list that aims to organize producers according to tiers. One user suggests that Kiton be placed under the “Excellent” category, while Canali is just “Good” and Brooks Brothers is simply “Satisfactory.” A couple of posts later, one happy Canali customer bravely bumps up the Canali ranking to “Very Good,” and no one seems to object.

The problem with these rankings is that they mostly rely on untrained judgments. It’s not that consumers can’t judge the quality of suits; it’s that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to make these assessments without some education and background. Harder still when people are not able to cut open a garment and examine its “guts.” With what technique was the stitching done? What kind of material was the padding composed of? What grade was the canvassing? Without this kind of information, many of these lists come off as little more than price rankings. A $5,000 suit is assumed to be better than one that costs $3,000, which in turn is said to be better than a suit that costs $2,000.

There are some rankings, however, that are considerably more reliable. An old one traces back to the late-1890s, when the United Garment Workers sought to create an industry-wide compensation system that benchmarked pay scales to a garment worker’s knowledge, talent, and skill level. That way, each worker would be fairly paid for the value he or she brought to the production process.

This system created six “grades” – one being the lowest and six being the highest – which distinguished makers by the type of skill they employed. A Grade 3 brand, for example, was one with the highest employee-percentage of Grade 3 employees. This system became so widely accepted by the 1930s that it created a sort of industry pecking order – one where companies would use their ranking as a way of distinguishing their products from others. “Grade 6 brands,” for example, often advertised themselves as such in order to show that they occupied the highest echelon of clothing quality.

Unfortunately, by the 1940s, this system lost relevancy. The “grade six” mark – which once distinguished a company as being at the top of its class – became too conspicuous under wartime production efforts. And, after the war, the garment industry was so transformed by automation and computerization that it became difficult to judge garments by the type of labor that went into them. What was once produced through traditional techniques is now made within a matter of minutes by robots.

Grade 6 makers still exist, but where there used to be hundreds of them in the United States, there are now only two – Adrian Jules and Oxxford. These are the last ones where the term “handmade” is not a marketing buzzword, but rather an actual, meaningful description of how garments are produced. However, you wouldn’t know that unless you were an industry insider – privy to what’s now become a very obscure ranking system – or able to rip open a suit and be able to judge its contents and how things have been put together.

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