You might think that I am a person who would pass over an article about $4,000 suits in the New York Times, but you would be wrong. Because the thing is, this article has a hell of a lot to say about higher education, I think, at least from my perspective.
Two things stood out to me. First, this passage.
When I learned about Frew, I assumed he was some rich designer in an atelier on Madison Avenue. That’s what Frew hopes to be one day, but for now the 33-year-old Jamaican immigrant works out of his ground-floor apartment near Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn, and makes around $50,000 a year. His former living room consists of one large table piled with bolts of cloth and a form with a half-made suit. As Frew sewed a jacket, he explained how he customizes every aspect of its design — the width of the lapel, the number and size of the pockets — for each client. What makes a bespoke suit unique, he said, is that it’s the result of skills that only a trained hand can perform. Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.
As I watched Frew work, it became glaringly obvious why he is not rich. Like a 17th-century craftsman, he has no economy of scale. It takes Frew about 75 hours to make a suit — he averages about two per month — and he has no employees. A large part of his revenue is used to pay off his material expenses, and because his labor is so demanding, he relies on an outside salesman, who requires commissions. (Frew can’t even afford to make a suit for himself. When we met, he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.) While he hopes to one day hire full-time assistant tailors and rent a Manhattan showroom, he knows it will be a huge challenge to get there.
A couple of things about the above. First: Maybe it’s ok to make $50K a year if you’re doing something you believe in. That ain’t exactly poor, folks. Now, I’m willing to admit that in NYC it’s probably dangerously close to not being middle-class – I mean, I get the whole cost of living thing – but still: one will not die if one makes $50K a year, even in NYC, whatever the NYT might indicate. I will also note that it would be utterly ridiculous to wear a suit while one would be sewing suits. (See: Project Runway. Who the fuck is decked out in a suit while doing the hard labor of sewing? Nobody, because it would be completely uncomfortable. So that is a dumb comment on the part of the author, talking about the guy wearing shorts and a t-shirt. But then, he’s a poor black immigrant who cannot wear a $4,000 suit, and we all should note that, regardless of his comfort in doing his job.)
But the phrase “no economy of scale” sure did stand out to me and ring a giant bell in my head. And then I glanced back up at the preceding paragraph (the joys of reading on paper rather than electronically: you can return to a thing you otherwise would have glossed over), and I noted the following: “he explained how he customizes every aspect of its design” and then, “Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.”
Does this sound familiar to any of y’all? ‘Cause it sure does to me. Wearing non-fancy clothes to do heavy lifting? Check. Customizing every aspect of the design for the individual? Um, check. That is, in fact, the entire pedagogical premise behind “active learning” in the classroom. The inability of modern technology to create the particular product that Frew is selling? Um, YES. Look, I’ve taught online, and I have many students who’ve taken courses online, although not all of them have done so with me. They and I will tell you that it is not the same fucking thing as doing it face to face. So the question then becomes, does a $4 suit do the same thing that a $4,000 suit does?
Not, can it “work”? Sure it can. Just like a suit bought used from the Salvation Army can work for, say, an MLA interview. It looks like a suit. It doesn’t fit as well, and it’s not designed to do the best ever for you, but it’s fine, right? There may be stains, and sure, it might smell funny. But the price is right. Close to free, even. Beggars can’t be choosers. But is it the Platonic essence of suitness? No, surely not.
Now, you might say, do you really need the Platonic essence of suitness? Perhaps not. But isn’t the very problem that some people have the privilege of getting a real fucking suit, and going on their interviews in it, while others are left with the “close to free” option?
Now, maybe that’s fine, when we’re talking about suits. Maybe it’s fair to talk about the finest suits as a luxury item, that not all people can or should have access to. Are we willing to say that same thing about education? Some people surely are. I’m not one of those people.
Now, you might be saying, “But you are presenting a false dichotomy, Dr. Crazy! It’s not a bespoke suit vs. a Salvation Army one! You can get a suit that is decent and that is mass-produced! Think Macy’s! Think Ann Taylor!” To that, I say this:
Greenfield’s factory makes custom suits, which are known in the business as made-to-measure. Customers can go to a third-party boutique, like J. Press, to pick a fabric and be measured. The cloth and measurements are then sent to Brooklyn, where patterns are created, fabric cut and then sent through the production line of cutters and tailors. Just as Adam Smith described in “The Wealth of Nations,” there are huge efficiency gains when one complex process is broken down into constituent parts and each worker specializes in one thing. At Greenfield, one worker sews pockets all day long, and another focuses entirely on joining front and back jacket pieces. The labor involved in each suit’s construction is about 10 hours. The suits Greenfield makes typically retail at around $2,000.
Even with all those efficiency advantages, Greenfield isn’t without its difficulties. Demand has fallen just as the cost of raw materials has gone up. Manufacturers in China, where a suit can be made in about 30 minutes at a cost well below $100, are driving up the price of wool, which increases the prices of fancier fabrics too. A few decades ago, there were thousands of clothing factories in New York. Now Greenfield’s is one of only a handful left. He and his sons, Tod and Jay, who run the business with him, say there are several ways they could have made more money, but their two best bets are selling their building to a residential housing developer or moving their manufacturing operation to Asia.
Sentimentality aside, Greenfield told me that he has not even considered moving. Suiting is an apprenticeship business, and new employees learn their craft by watching the many people who have worked there for years. If they started over, they could never replicate that institutional knowledge. At the end of the day, he said, their only competitive advantage is that knowledge.
When I spoke to Frew, Rowland and the Greenfields, they talked about how there is now a large difference between what is monetizable and what is actually valuable. One of the defining attributes of capitalism is that the market determines what succeeds even if it means that the Kardashian Kollection might bring in more money than all the bespoke suits in the world.
So you see? Here are the problems: 1) value is not equal to price; 2) our business, the business of learning, just like the business of making a quality suits, relies on an apprenticeship system, because you can’t really learn how to do it without doing it while other people watch over you; 3) having a product available, i.e., the Kardashian Kollection, basically sets it up that people without certain kinds of resources will buy crap rather than saving up for something that isn’t crap.
The future of quality higher education is not MOOCs, just as the future of quality suits is not the Salvation Motherfucking Army. The future of quality higher education is not “increased online offerings,” just as the future of quality suits is not buying a fucking suit online from a department store. Sure, those are “options.” Whatever. Do you think that’s all the options that your kids deserve? Do you think that’s all the options that you deserve? Really?