Outlet, or factory, stores have long been considered a secret spot for designer bargains. Today, however, outlets embody the exact opposite of what people want in a company: overstock, off-color, off-brand, even. If you've never been to one, these outdoor malls are usually found in large complexes at the end of the world: A tourist bus from Port Authority will provide extra deals upon arrival at Woodbury Commons; a shuttle from Anaheim, CA, will take you to East Los Angeles near Commerce, where the Citadel resides off the 5. There, everything is designed to promote buying: The Starbucks at Citadel lacks not only indoor tables and chairs, but even electric outlets are obscured. A store with some kind of special promotion or item can cultivate the kinds of lines you’d see on a summer Friday night in the Meatpacking District. One place at Woodbury was even handing out scratch cards with surprise extra percentages off.
Places like Woodbury promote several higher-end shops: There's a Barney's Warehouse, Saks Off-Fifth, Stuart Weitzman, Marni, Rag and Bone, and La Perla, most of which sell shoes, bags, and clothes a season or two behind that come by way of their Manhattan stores. But many large, mid-range brands produce another kind of line — geared, presumably, toward the changing fashion marketplace. At an outlet, a wool blazer may indeed be real wool, Julia Poteat, assistant professor of fashion methods at The New School, explains. But the pattern, she suggests, might be altered to fit a different economic price point (i.e. cut to use less fabric, use fewer stitches, include less construction). There, products not picked up for general retail may also be featured, or, the goods might be specifically geared toward a younger or lower-income consumer. Stores like Coach and Kate Spade, which do well as big brand names abroad, divide their outlet stores between higher-quality leather pieces found in regular retail shops, and made-for-outlet merchandise. Both were nearly packed every time I went — even on a weekday — with some visitors carrying suitcases to fill with goods, or arriving with printed-out inventory lists, leading me to mistake one for an employee.
J.Crew Factory, which also maintains a website of the same name, seems to sell a slightly alternate version of nearly every item I’ve bought over the years; for example, my J.Crew "Minnie" pant is a Factory "Winnie." At a Gap Factory store, a salesperson told me that even the socks I buy might be different than the ones I’ve sought at Gaps throughout the Northeast. True enough, the retail three-pack for $15.95 was a different cotton blend than my $6.99 factory pack (at 30% off list price), though I haven’t yet felt the difference. You also cannot, for example, return a Banana Republic Factory shirt to the store in Manhattan; while the items may be similar, some of the cuts or detailing tend to be different. We exist in a retail world where, for a long time now, a handful of different stores have existed under one umbrella, and many have felt the need to constantly reinvent. While shopping in the past five or so years, I’ve often wondered if, for my generation, there was a single quality marker to begin with. Gendered psychology comes into play here, too. Men I know regularly negotiate and consider the amount they're willing and asked to spend on things like shirts and fancy cheese. When they look over a bill at a restaurant they're seen as sharp — the opposite of a sucker. In certain circles, when a woman — the driving force of the consumer economy — engages in similar behavior, she's often seen as cheap.
As kid, I hated when my mom dragged me to Target. It felt tacky. But as an adult, I can’t remember the last time I felt a blouse from a traditional mid-market store was worth the retail price. As one costume designer told me, many fabrics used across the industry these days already teeter on overly synthetic. Outlets provide another option in an ever-expensive mid-range market that has alienated many customers against its better judgment. If the fabrics are lesser, it works into the company’s bottom line, Poteat explains, and while I felt uncertain touching jackets and jeans at the factory equivalent of my go-to stores, I also felt silly for dismissing a cheaper cotton shirt that might only have a slightly different cut. In an industry that's more and more about the bottom line, it's become crucial for brands to figure out how to cut corners while offering the illusion that consumers are still getting all the benefits of big-label product. Whether it's a dishonest strategy or an inconsequential practice is up to the shopper. And, like most things today, the individual consumer has all the resources to make up their own mind. Outlets just provide another option in the modern fashion economy.