If you wonder how your business clothes are going to stand up to wear and tear, show them to your dry cleaner -- before you clip off the tags. Steve Boorstein, author of The Ultimate Guide to Shopping & Caring for Clothing (Boutique Books, $19.95), is a fourth-generation dry cleaner who owned a business in Chevy Chase, Md., for 15 years and now conducts clothing-care seminars. He also answers questions on his Web site, clothingdoctor.com.
BusinessWeek's Christine Summerson recently spoke with Boorstein to get his clothing-care tips. Note: This is an extended, online-only version of the interview that appears in the May 19, 2003, issue of BusinessWeek.
Q: What's should you think about when you buy clothing?
A:Think about how you will wear, care for, clean, and store the garment for its entire life. Although brand names are often synomymous with quality, they should not be the deciding factor. Fit, fabric, and style should be.
Before you shop, you should make a yes and no list of your favorite colors and fabrics, and keep it with you. People spend a lot of time shopping for clothing that they don't like. People who always wear blues, browns, and earth tones may look at the reds and greens, even though they don't like them and won't wear them.
When you shop, wear easy-on, easy-off clothing and shoes. Walk the whole floor, and try on everything that interests you. Select up to 25 pieces to try on, and ask the salesperson to give you five at a time. You'll find a higher percentage of "go's" in one fell swoop. Tell the salesperson that this is how you want to shop, and they're not going to say no.
People as a rule don't give enough deference to clothing that deserves and needs alterations. A lot of people wear poor-fitting clothing, and they don't have to. It makes a big difference in their image to have it properly altered. Once you do, you become really connected to that garment, and you make sure that you put time and effort into its care.
One of the most important things is to buy clothing that fits your current body. Too many people are still waiting to lose five pounds.
Q: How do you know which fabrics will wear best?
A:If you open your eyes and look at the clothing, you'll know. But a lot of it is, "Is this fabric well-suited for me, for what I do, for how hard I am on my clothing?" Silk and linen blends, for instance, are very high-maintenance. Gabardine tends to shine on the seat, thighs, and elbows from sliding in and out of the car or your desk, and from poor pressing.
People who are hard on their clothing should buy softer fabrics. A good worsted wool has nap or texture, is less subject to shine, and will wear longer than gabardine. Buy fabrics that breathe. If you travel often, buy clothing that resists wrinkling -- textures, soft wool, rayon blends.
Q: What about triacetate? It shows up a lot in women's suits.
A:Acetate is a very popular fabric, more for women than men, but it shines prematurely, But the beauty is, if you know that you're going to buy an acetate that is subject to that sort of wear, you can ask your cleaners to soft press and brush the areas likely to get shiny. And as long as the shine is not too severe, your cleaner can remove most of it.
Q: What can you learn from the fabric-content label?
A:The most obvious one is whether it needs to be washed or dry-cleaned. The more you learn about fabrics, you can identify the fabric from feeling it. If you can't, you look at the care label.
Q: What about stain emergencies?
A:It's what you don't do that counts. A [professional] spotter at a dry cleaners takes six months to train. There's very little that you can do in an emergency. The most important thing is to count to 10, relax, and resist the help of well-meaning friends.
All stains can be blotted with a dry white napkin. Never rub a stain. If you spill something on a silk blouse, you dip a napkin in water and wipe it, and there's 80% chance that blouse is ruined.
For oily stains, do not put water or club soda on it. Have it dry cleaned within 48 hours. Oily stains can be washed 10 times, and they won't come out. Dry cleaning usually takes it out the first time. If you know that the stain is water-based and the garment is washable, go ahead and blot it. Then wash it when you get home.
Q: What are the worst stains to deal with?
A:Lipstick and ink are two of the worst, also coffee and wine. They all require expert professional help. Uniball inks are most often permanent.
Always apply hairspray, perfume, and deodorant before you dress and let it dry completely. They all contribute to permanent staining.
Men may wear their shirts more than once between washing. When you get soil on your collar and then wear it again, the soil that [is already there] becomes more than just a second layer, it's exponentially worse.
Q: How long does it take for body oils to oxidize on clothing?
A:Any more than a week at room temperature, and you're really pushing it.
Q: How often should business clothing be dry cleaned?
A:There's obviously a misguided belief that dry cleaning isn't good for clothing. Good dry cleaning is good for clothing, and poor quality dry cleaning isn't good.
I owned one of the most exclusive dry cleaners in the country, and I dry cleaned my clothing every week for 15 years, and I'm still wearing that clothing. Poor quality dry cleaning can make new clothing look old the first time it's cleaned. And that's staggering, really.
Q: How do you find good dry cleaner?
A:To find the best dry cleaner in town, call the ritziest, most expensive clothing store and ask where the manager sends things. Those people aren't sending their clothing to the corner cleaner.
If you're spill-prone, you need a cleaner with a good stain technician. Do you wear fine woold, acetate, or silks? Better clothing requires soft pressing and hand ironing. Go for quality, service, convenience, and price, in that order. It's perfectly proper to see a sample of their work, their silks, their slacks, their dress shirts.
People are taking $200 or $300 shirts to a laundry. When people hire a contractor, they ask to see some of their work. There's nothing wrong with asking this of a dry cleaner.
You need to point out to your cleaner all stains, fabric pills, snags, minor repairs, and also point out style nuances, for instance, if you want your collar to stand up or you wear the cuffs rolled up. They're not mind readers. You're entitled to good stain removal and shine-free clothing that's ready to wear. That means that the threads are snipped, minor repairs are done, buttons replaced, garments are odor-free.
If a garment has been lost by the cleaner, it should be returned or replaced within three weeks. If a garment is admittedly damaged by the cleaners and cannot be repaired to your satisfaction, you're entitled to a "like" replacement or a cash settlement within a week. Cleaners are infamous for dragging these things out.
Q: What about storing clothing?
A:Any clothing that has been worn must be cleaned before storing it, whether in your closet or at a storage facility. If you wear a garment for five minutes and you put it back without cleaning it, it's moth bait. Moths and insects love perfume, body oils, perspiration, and foodstuffs.
Avoid basements and attics. Basements are forever moist, even if they have dehumidifiers, and moisture invites insects. Remove all plastic before long-term storage. Cover clothing with the shoulder capes or take a cotton sheet and drape it over the clothing for the season to avoid dust and fading.
Another fallacy: People think that clothing in their closet doesn't fade. They're wrong. Light exposure comes from the most unusual places, and it always affects the shoulders. Mothballs are poisonous to humans and should be kept away from kids and animals. Most people think if they have a cedar closet after 10 years it's still doing the job. Cedar needs to be retreated and sanded every year.