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Stu Bloom on Professional Garment Care
By: Stu Bloom
There are over 26,000 cleaners in the USA. And the overwhelming majority believe that “cleaning” is a relatively simple operation.
Let’s start with dry cleaning
Take 40 to 50 “dry clean” garments. Sort them into “lights” and “darks”. Load them into a 60 pound dry cleaning machine with little or no pre-spotting (stain removal prior to dry cleaning).
Add detergent (the cheapest one, if you’re lucky), moisture (to “deal” with any water-based stains), fragrance (to disguise the smell of the “foreign substances” in the solvent) and sizing (to stiffen your garments and render them quicker to press).
Next, toss them about in a relatively aggressive, dye-stripping, toxic solvent (perchloroethylene, synthetic petroleum or formaldehyde dibutyl acetal) for 10 minutes or less. Extract at a high RPM and dry at a high temperature for about 30 minutes to further minimize the total wash/extract/dry cycle time.
Then, machine press the garments at a rate of 20 to 40 garments per hour per presser. And, of course, don’t forget to “squirt” them with steam from a hand iron in an (often futile) attempt to conceal any evidence of machine pressing.
Finally, stuff the garments into narrow poly bags and cram them onto a holding rack or conveyor.
What’s more, many of your dry cleanable cottons and linens may, in fact, not have been dry cleaned at all. They’ve probably been washed or wet cleaned, tossed into a dryer, machine pressed, and then “squirted” with steam. Even if the care label says “dry clean only”. Even if you specifically requested “dry clean”.
Now, let’s move onto shirt laundry
Take 40 to 50 “laundry” shirts. Scrub the collars and cuffs with a hard-bristled brush. Sort them into two loads: “lights” and “darks”. Then subdivide each load into “starch” and “no starch”.
Next, stuff a load into a 60 pound shirt washer, adding hot (even boiling) water, harsh caustic industrial grade detergents and bleaches. Starch with cheap synthetic glue.
Remove the damp shirts from the washer and run them through a series of pressing machines that have all the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer. At a rate of 40 to 50 shirts (or more) per hour per presser.
Then, using a hand iron, crease the sleeves in an (often futile) attempt to conceal any evidence of machine pressing and impart that distinctive I-pressed-this-myself-at-home-while-watching-TV look.
Finally, cram the shirts into narrow poly bags so that they’re returned looking only slightly better than the day they were dropped off or sent in. Or machine fold them for that desired “slept in” look.
Voila, they’re done! With almost no investment of time or skill. They’re in by 9:00 and out by 4:00. Picked up on day 1 and delivered on day 3.
Of course, every ordinary cleaner will swear that they don’t follow this approach: “We’d never do that at Tip Top Peerless Professional Quality Cleaners!”
The world of professional cleaning
Welcome to the world of “professional cleaning”. Where almost every ordinary cleaner claims to be a true quality cleaner. Or, at the very least, well above average.
Truth is, very few are. That, of course, doesn’t stop almost every ordinary cleaner from claiming that they are, in fact, a true quality cleaner. So they’re forced to misrepresent and distort the information they provide about the quality of the product they produce in general, and the processes they employ to deliver that product in particular.
Here are two examples…
On the dry clean side, their verbal assurances, their promotional materials and their public relations professionals tell you that they pre-spot, gently dry clean and hand iron all your fine garments.
As a matter of routine.
Baloney! Bet they don’t.
Truth is, you’re paying top dollar for a garment that’s been loaded into a dry clean machine and machine pressed. And then “strategically touched up” by hand. If there’s time. If deemed necessary. If you’re lucky.
Many ordinary cleaners call this loaded/machine pressed/touched up garment a “hand finished garment” or even a “hand ironed garment” – hoping that you’ll never understand the difference between a pre- spotted/gently cleaned/hand ironed garment and a loaded/machine pressed/touched up garment.
Unfortunately, fine garment care – true quality cleaning – requires more than just a knowledge of loading and unloading a dry clean machine or shirt washer. More than just banging those garments out on a press. And more than just an assembly-line cleaning and pressing operation where every garment is bar coded and treated as interchangeable irrespective of brand and/or original cost.
Based on this definition, any supermarket stock room employee can be taught to be a dry cleaner or presser in 2 weeks (actually, in a few days).
And if you don’t believe that, consider this quote from a July 21, 2015 article in the American Drycleaner, the dry cleaning industry’s premier trade magazine:
A truly mind numbing statement.
With advise such as this, is it any wonder why dry cleaners are so mediocre?
On the shirt laundry side, their verbal assurances, their promotional materials and their public relations professionals tell you that they gently clean and hand iron all your fine shirts. As a matter of routine.
Hogwash! Bet they don’t.
Truth is, you’re paying top dollar for a shirt that has been loaded into a washer and then boiled and bleached (washed) and baked (machine pressed). And then “strategically touched up” by hand. If deemed necessary. If you’re lucky.
Many cleaners call this loaded/machine pressed/touched up shirt a “hand finished shirt” or even a “hand ironed shirt,” hoping that you’ll never understand the difference between a true hand ironed shirt and a loaded/machine pressed/touched up shirt.
True quality cleaning demands more
Truth is, fine garment care requires:
- an extensive knowledge of and commitment to the art and science of textiles, garment construction, cleaning and hand ironing,
- a never-ending commitment to process improvement (no matter how marginal),
- a stubbornness to reject labor (and hence cost) saving technologies that negatively impacts true quality,
- an unyielding commitment to invest in true quality rather than extract every last penny out of the cleaning, hand ironing and packaging process,
- a sense of pride in one’s work,
- a passion for perfection (to the extent that perfection is achievable),
- the time necessary to “do the job right,” and, most importantly,
- a personal philosophy that says that true quality has inherent meaning and value – for the cleaner, his employees and his clients.
More doesn’t mean glitz
Maybe, at some time in the past, cleaners used to do a fairly “decent job”.
But as competition from new market entrants and economic pressures on labor costs have increased over the past years, they’ve increasingly resorted to glitz to deflect their clients’ attention away from the only matter that really counts for the owners of fine garments: the quality of their product.
Instead of focusing on quality of product, many ordinary cleaners shifted their focus to image and style. Using cues such as color coordinated uniforms, multicolored brochures, logo printed tissue and poly, straight/thin/cheap wood and chrome hangers, granite countertops and recessed lighting, boutique- style fashion posters and picture wrapped delivery vehicles to promote the illusion of true quality cleaning.
So why do ordinary cleaners invest in image and style?
For two reasons…..
First, image and style deflects attention away from the quality of their work and fools most of their customers into believing that the quality of their product is somehow “superior” to other cleaners.
Second, by substituting glitz – the illusion of quality – for actual product quality, they’ve been able to significantly reduce production costs. Primarily by substituting an aggressive, fast process and relatively low skilled machine operators who are paid by the piece for a gentle, time consuming process and well- paid, technically skilled craftsmen.
The image and style formula worked well for a while. Then the recession hit and many of their customers sought out cheaper alternatives.
Much to their chagrin, these customers discovered that, apart from image and style, there wasn’t much difference in the quality of product. And that, over the past few years, they’d been paying relatively high prices for ordinary cleaning.
More Doesn’t mean 3 levels of quality
Clearly, the cubic zirconium strategy wasn’t working any more.
So some ordinary cleaners adopted a new approach…
Many introduced a three tier pricing system, typically dubbed their “everyday”, “expert” or “couture” service. Or their diamond, platinum or gold service, their classic, deluxe and signature service, or their basic, classic and artisan service.
The rationale was simple.
We’ll tell our customers that they can continue to receive our “existing quality” at a reduced price. We’ll call this our “everyday” service. We’ll also tell them that we’ve been able to introduce this lower priced service for their “less fancy” garments by eliminating the fancy packaging.
Further, we’ll tell our customers that they can continue to receive our “expert” service for their “fancy” garments at our current price levels.
Of course, what we won’t tell them is that, apart from the price and the packaging, there’s no real difference in quality between our “everyday” and our “expert” service. And we’ll gain by charging a premium price for what is essentially an “everyday” garment dressed up with fancy packaging.
And for their “most fancy” garments, we’ll tell our customers that we’re now offering a “new” service – we’ll call this our “couture” service – that’s a cut above our “expert” service – a service where everything is “cleaned by our best cleaner” and “pressed by our best presser.”
Of course, what we won’t tell them is that, apart from from the price and the packaging, there’s no real difference in quality between our “everyday” service, our “expert” service and our “couture” service. And we’ll gain by charging a premium price for what is essentially an “everyday” or “expert” garment dressed up with fancier packaging than our “expert” service.
It follows that when you question these cleaners about each of their 3 levels of “product quality” and the detailed processes that produce each of those 3 levels of product quality, they have no choice but to misrepresent what they do and what they don’t do.
What they’re overlooking, of course, is that clients with a significant investment in their wardrobe tend to be quite savvy and aren’t easily fooled. These clients know that glitz and premium packaging has it’s place: as a complement to true quality cleaning, never as a substitute for true quality cleaning.
It’s the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.
7 key points to consider
Now that you’ve got a feel for the nature of ordinary cleaning and how cleaners attempt to pass off ordinary cleaning as true quality cleaning, here are 7 key points to consider before you entrust your fine garments to an ordinary, bang and hang cleaner ….
1. THERE ARE NO “SECRETS” OR S”SECRET PROCESSES” IN GARMENT CARE
While knowledge, expertise, skill and time is critical to delivering true quality cleaning, there are no “secrets” or “secret processes” in garment care. And any cleaner who implies that there are should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. And then challenged.
You see, cleaners hate disclosure. So they provide little or no information. Often citing “trade secrets” or “proprietary processes” as an excuse for not providing their clients with detailed information about the “ins” and “outs” and “hows” and “whys” of their processes.
Consider this description of their dry cleaning, pressing and inspection process from the website of an Arizona cleaner:
It’s equivalent to opening the quick start guide that comes with every new car today and finding that the guide comes with a single paragraph: Insert the key in the ignition, turn the key, place the car in gear and step on the gas.
I’ve always been curious as to why so few cleaners are willing to disclose detailed information about their processes. Either verbally, or better still, in writing.
I’d suggest that there’s only one reason: they simply don’t want you to know.
Because, if you did, you’d be better positioned to evaluate the relative quality of the product they deliver.
You’d realize that their product doesn’t meet their verbal assurances, the hype in their glitzy promotional materials or the bluster of their public relations professionals. You’d figure out that their “exceptional”, “exquisite” and “award winning” cleaning – minus the fancy packaging – is no different from the “bang and hang” cleaning offered by any other average cleaner across the street or across town. And, you’d understand that you may not be getting the quality you thought you were paying for.
True quality cleaners, on the other hand, have nothing to hide.
Quite the contrary.
They believe that the more you understand about their processes the better. So they:
- Distribute ebooks, position papers and white papers.
- Provide informative, content heavy websites.
- Conduct educational seminars for clients, retail store employees and custom clothiers.
- Invite you to tour their facility so that you can learn as much as possible – or as much as you want to know – about their processes.
All this before you turn over your fine garments to them.
2. TALK IS CHEAP. EXECUTION IS TIME CONSUMING AND EXTREMELY DIFFICULT.
It’s been said that talk is cheap because supply always exceeds demand.
There’s a huge difference between a cleaner talking about the “ins” and “outs” and “hows” and “whys”
of their processes and a cleaner actually executing all those detailed process tasks.
Every day. On every garment they handle.
Sure, there are cleaners who claim to perform at a high level. After all, they swear it’s so. Their public relations professionals reinforce that claim. And they repeat it in their promotional materials and on their websites. So it must be true!
Dig a little deeper and you’ll probably find that their product – minus the fancy packaging – is probably just average or slightly above average. At best.
3. EDUCATING THE CLIENT AND ANSWERING QUESTIONS IS THE PRICE PAID FOR YOUR CUSTOM
If a fabricare specialist or true quality cleaner didn’t provide you with detailed information about their knowledge, expertise and skills, their stain removal, cleaning and restoration processes or their specialized equipment, technologies and facilities, you’d have no reason to entrust your fine garments to them. Or any other cleaner for that matter.
Detailed information about the “ins” and “outs” and “hows” and “whys” of a cleaner’s processes and craftsmanship is the service equivalent of the “extended test drive.” After all, you wouldn’t buy a new vehicle without first “kicking the tires” would you? So why would you entrust your fine garments to a cleaner without first asking the probing questions?
Truth is, detailed information about processes and craftsmanship is the exact opposite of the tired, meaningless cliches you’re accustomed to hearing from almost every cleaner:
- we meet or exceed the industry’s highest standards
- we focus on the details
- we provide great cleaning, fabulous service and quick turnaround
- we work hard to earn compliments from our customers each and every day
- we treat your everyday wear as if they were fine couture pieces
- we give your garments the care that only we can provide
- our packaging is the talk of the town.
You’ll also notice that, consistent with these meaningless platitudes, their testimonials tend to focus on the friendliness of their staff and the broadness of their smiles. Not a whisper about their processes or craftsmanship.
It’s enough to make one throw up!
4. TRUE QUALITY IS ALL ABOUT THE COMBINATION OF HUNDREDS OF DETAILS
There are over 26,000 cleaners in the USA. And every single one will tell you that they “focus on the details.”
Your intuition and experience should tell you that the vast majority of these claims are, at best, nothing more than puffery. So couple your intuition and experience with this thought: true quality is not about a few details. It’s about hundreds of details. And, specifically, it’s the combination of those hundreds of details (coupled with time) that produces true quality.
It’s the difference between a bespoke shirt from Alexander Kabbaz and an on-line, send-us-your-own- measurements shirt from Shanghai Custom Shirt Makers. And it’s the difference between a bespoke suit from Rubinacci and an inexpensive knockoff from Sammy’s Hong Kong Custom Tailors.
Here’s another key point: how can a cleaner claim that he “focuses on the details” when his entire operation is geared to same or next day service? How can a cleaner claim that he “focuses on the details” when your garments are in by 9:00 and out by 5:00; or picked up on day 1 and delivered on day 3?
5. TRUE QUALITY CAN’T BE DELIVERED IN A DAY OR TWO (OR EVEN THREE)
Your cleaner tells you that they “meet or exceed the highest industry standards” (even if they have no idea what those standards are and they’re not in writing). That they “focus on the details” (even if they have no idea what those details are and they’re not in writing). And that they have “detailed quality standards” (even if they can’t identify those standards and they’re not in writing).
Then they tell you that they routinely offer same and next day in-store service and 3 day pickup and
How do you spell CONTRADICTION?
A fabricare specialist or true quality cleaner doesn’t offer same or next day in-store service or 3 day pickup and delivery service. Not as a matter of routine. Not unless it’s an emergency and the client is well-known to them.
And here’s why.
Every major city has numerous cleaners. And almost every single one would be delighted to accommodate your request for same or next day service. And every single one who offers pickup and delivery service will be delighted to pickup your cleaning on day 1 and deliver on day 3. That’s because their entire modus operandi is geared to getting your garments into a machine, onto a press and into a bag. ASAP.
At ordinary cleaners, same or next day in-store service and 3 day pick up and delivery service is standard operating procedure.
Fact is, they’re so proud of their same or next day in-store service and their 3 day pickup and delivery service that they constantly promote it – right next to their claim that their “exceptional”, “exquisite” and “award winning” dry cleaning and laundry service is a direct result of their “attention to detail”!
Truth is, you can’t have it both ways: true quality in garment care is simply not compatible with speed. Period. End of story. No ifs, ands or buts.
(If you’re a dry cleaner and you disagree with this specific statement, please contact us. We’d love to hear how you’re able to produce a true quality product in a day or two. Please be as specific as possible. We’re slow learners!)
On the other hand, a fabricare specialist or true quality cleaner takes an entirely different approach to garment care. They focus all their resources on consistently producing the finest in garment care.
There are no compromises. No shortcuts. No ordinary cleaning. No bang and hang work. No same or next day service work. No pickup-on-day-1-and-deliver-on-day-3 service work.
Fact is, same or next day in-store service and 3 day pickup and delivery service is the very antithesis of true quality cleaning.
When you provide same or next day in-store service or 3 day pickup and delivery service, it really doesn’t matter if you understand that Kabbaz is a type of Eastern European sausage, if you think that Attolini is a brand of microwave pizza, if you believe that Oxxford is a community college in California, if you were told that Lagerfeld is a new micro beer, and if you’re convinced that Hermes is a contagious social disease.
In a hectic world of same day and next day in-store service and 3 day pickup and delivery service, you can take comfort in the fact that a true quality cleaner takes the time to do it right.
Because when it comes to caring for your fine garments, faster isn’t better.
Never has been. Never will be.
6. TRUE QUALITY IS NOT INEXPENSIVE
Fabricare specialists or true quality cleaners are not “value priced” or “competitively priced” cleaners. There are no volume discounts, coupons, specials or loyalty programs. Their prices are set at a level which affords them the opportunity to concentrate solely on the quality of their work.
By contrast, the focus of the vast majority of ordinary cleaners can be summed up in two words: quantity and speed. Essentially, this means pushing more and more garments (quantity) faster and faster (speed) through their “production system.” They’re in by 11:00 and out by 5:00; picked up on day 1 and delivered on day 3.
By the way, cleaners that heat seal or glue bar codes onto all your fine garments as if they were uniform rental garments exhibit this production mentality.
At ordinary cleaners, production efficiency is the holy grail of their entire operation.
Of course, no ordinary cleaner will admit to this. Every cleaner will tell you that they produce “top quality at a competitive price” or “exceptional quality at a fair price”. But given their consistently lower price structure, it’s clear that the long-term economic viability of their business depends on quantity and speed. Not on the quality of their work.
Which is fine if you’re manufacturing standardized widgets. But absolute heresy when you’ve been entrusted with the custom cleaning and hand finishing of a client’s fine garments.
You see, garment care at the bespoke, made-to-measure, designer, high-fashion, specialty and couture level involves lots and lots of technically skilled labor coupled with expensive, specialized equipment.
So, if you encounter low to moderate prices at this level of garment care, you can be absolutely assured they’re cutting costs by cutting corners. In every facet of their operation – from cleaning and hand finishing to inspection and packaging.
When it comes to fine cleaning, it’s important to know WHAT YOUR’E PAYING. But it’s even more important to know WHAT YOUR’E PAYING FOR – knowledge, expertise and skills; stain removal, cleaning and restoration processes; hand ironing; and specialized equipment, technologies and facilities.
At a fabricare specialist or true quality cleaner, setting prices is the easy part. Consistently delivering on their commitment to extraordinary care – every item, every order – now that’s the complicated part. And that’s the difference between true quality cleaning and ordinary, bang and hang cleaning.
7. MYTHS, MISREPRESENTATIONS AND DISTORTIONS ARE COMMON
There are over 26,000 cleaners in the USA. And they all believe that they are above average and that they produce “top quality work”. Obviously, they can’t all be above average and very few can claim to produce “top quality work.”
But that doesn’t stop them from claiming that they are. So they’re forced to misrepresent and distort the information they provide about the quality of the product they produce in general, and the processes they employ to produce that product in particular.
Take dry cleaning, for example.
They claim that they:
- pre-spot every garment when, in fact, they no-spot or post-spot (post-spotting is generally too little too late as the stain might have already been set by the heat of the dry cleaning machine’s dry cycle).
- clean your garments in a gentle dry cleaning solvent or fluid when, in fact, it’s relatively aggressive and dye-stripping.
- don’t inject moisture, sizing or fragrance into their dry cleaning solvent when, in fact, 70% of dry cleaners do.
- dry clean your cottons and linens as you requested when, in fact, they’re washed or wet cleaned.
- hand iron your garments when, in fact, they’re steamed out on a steamer, machine pressed and then “squirted” with steam from a hand iron in an attempt to conceal the evidence.
- conduct detailed inspections of your garments – inside and out, top to bottom – when, in fact, they just get a cursory look over (maybe, if your’e lucky).
- move your garments around their plant – gently by hand – when, in fact, they’re shuttled around on a roller-coaster-like automated system.
- utilize the finest packaging materials when, in fact, those materials – although they may look pretty – are not technically aligned with and supportive of your garments over the short or long term.
- operate an “environmentally friendly” dry clean operation when, in fact, they’re heavily regulated at the federal, state and local level.
The list is endless.
I could go on and on. But I won’t. I’ll leave that up to you to discover by questioning your dry cleaner.
Now consider shirt laundry.
They claim that they:
- don’t abrade your collars and cuffs by scrubbing them with hard-bristled brushes when, in fact, they do.
- don’t wash your whites, creams and pastels in hot water when, in fact, they do.
- don’t use harsh, caustic, industrial grade detergents when, in fact, they do.
- don’t add fabric-destroying bleaches when, in fact, most do.
- don’t starch your shirts with cheap synthetic glue that coats your shirt’s fibers when, in fact, most do.
- don’t bang ‘em out on pressing machines at a rate of 40 to 50 an hour (or more) when, in fact, they do.
- hand iron your shirts when, in fact, they’re machine pressed and “touched up”.
- don’t return your laundered shirts with puckered seams, wrinkled underarms, wrinkled upper back pleats, wrinkled sleeve pleats, wrinkled front plackets, wrinkled sleeve plackets, and wrinkled cuff/sleeve and sleeve/body joins when, in fact, they do.
- don’t crease the sleeves of your shirts when, in fact, the overwhelming majority of shirt laundries do.
The list is endless.
Again, I could go on and on. But I won’t. I’ll leave leave that up to you to discover by questioning your shirt laundry.
Here’s the takeaway from this White Paper: Remember that fine garments are valuable assets as well as beautiful works of art. To keep those garments looking, feeling and smelling great and lasting much, much longer, you’ll need to locate a skilled cleaner. And to successfully do that, you’ll need to ask questions. Insist on straight, jargon-free answers. And invest some time assessing the “truthfulness” of those responses.
Your image and your fine garments will love you for that.
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