February 3, 2012
They're the BFF of our wardrobe. The first thing we grab when we need to look presentable but don't want to think hard about it: our go-to pants.
It doesn't matter if we're male or female, young or old, a pair of dark trousers is the one thing we all rely on.
For a few years now I've counted on the Max Mara pants I bought at a consignment store for $60. By "counted on" I mean worn way more than I should. In fact, a while back, I wore them to work 10 days in a row.
With that kind of a work ethic, my pants deserve a comfortable retirement. So, finally, I'm thinking about investing in a new pair.
Because I was clueless about what to look for when shopping for this essential, I went to an expert to find out.
He's Don Deisch, the chief operating officer of Oxxford Clothes (oxxfordclothes.com), the high-end suit-maker that has outfitted presidents (George W. Bush), sports icons (Joe DiMaggio) and discerning political felons (former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who dropped $205,706.72 there).
Deisch, a tailor by training, knows his way around a pair of pants. If he employed the very finest fabrics, he said, "I can sell you pants for $3,000." I declined.
But he took a pair of Oxxford's $695 trousers off a hanger and painstakingly used them to illustrate what I (and you) should look for. Deisch gets it: Most of us wouldn't dream of spending that kind of money on a single pair of pants. But his tips can help both men and women who want value at whatever price.
"Fabric is key," says Deisch. "All wool is not the same. Short, stubby fiber is going to be less expensive wool. That's why you're going to have $70 pants and $700."
Higher-end fabric is soft, will breathe, last longer, be more comfortable, drape nicely, and the wrinkles will hang out better overnight. (By the way, always hang pants by the cuffs for best wrinkle removal.) Oxxford uses only all-wool fabric, but most women's pants for sale in retail stores have a little stretch fiber in them.
Tip: Feel the fabric of pants you're considering and you'll soon be able to discern bad, better, best quality.
Tip: Patterned fabrics, such as plaids, stripes, should line up perfectly along front and back seams.
Seams and stitching
Check the leg seams to be sure they're flat. There should be "no ridges or bumps. … Does it look like the two sides are fighting each other?"
Where the waistband is attached to the rest of the pants, the seam should be flat, with no ripples or bunching.
"Are stitches nice and even and straight? ... Most people can tell the difference between sloppy sewing even if they don't sew."
Raw, fraying edges at any seam is a lower-quality tipoff. So are threads hanging instead of clipped off.
Tip: You can tell a lot from looking at belt loops (more common in men's trousers). "They should be straight! That means they (the makers) cared. They took the time to get them straight." Also, raw edges inside the belt loop where most people wouldn't look suggest cost-cutting, perhaps in more crucial areas.
Tip: Check the buttonholes. "The hole should be encased with stitches." Gaps in stitching suggest poor manufacturing.
"You put your hands in. Is the fabric stiff and crunchy or is it soft? It does make a difference." You want soft.
Reinforcement at the top corners means durability.
Do pockets front and back lay flat? "Are there ripples? Do they look sloppy? A really cheap pair of pants is going to have a more sloppy look to these things."
Tip: Try the pants on and check that back pockets are straight across; front pockets shouldn't show "twisting and pulling."
"Most manufacturers use a nylon zipper. A metal zipper is more expensive and more durable."
Tip: "If you see a metal zipper it's an indicator that it's a better pair of pants."
"Zip the pants up and button or close the hook. When you close everything, do they line up?"
This whole area should look neat and flat. Where the left and right parts of the waistband meet above the zipper, seams should be even and straight across the body.
Tip: Bumps, puckers or gaps in the closure area are a sign of low-quality construction.
After Deisch walked me through Oxxford's Trouser Shop, I asked him to give me an honest appraisal of my Max Mara pants, the ones I have always thought were the highest quality in my closet.
"They have been dry-cleaned," he said as soon as he touched them, detecting the harsh effects of chemicals. People tend to dry-clean way too much, he said.
He told me to stop wearing the same pants all the time.
He recommends spot cleaning when needed but full dry cleaning only after about 25 wearings and pressing, not dry cleaning, "to get the shape back."
"The seams look good," he said. But then he got to the closure, with its bunched-up stitching where the waistband meets the pants. "You could always press some of that out," he said, not sounding convinced.
Noting that where the two sides of the waistband meet, one was an alarming, noticeable quarter-inch higher than the other. "I'm a little disappointed with the front," he said, sounding very disappointed with the front.
"It's a nice machine-made (pair of) pants," he concluded. On a scale of 1 to 10, he gave my favorite pants a 6. But I didn't think he meant it. "Maybe I'm being kind," he said.
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