A hole-y fashion statement? This $1,880 ‘distressed’ cardigan features ‘handmade punctures’

Welcome to the latest edition of Big Spender, which explores the world of big-ticket products and looks at the less-expensive alternatives. Have an item to suggest? Email cpassy@marketwatch.com.

The pitch

Fashion-conscious folks may already be looking ahead to sweater-weather season and seeking out the perfect cardigan for those chilly fall days. Khaite, a women’s fashion label that prides itself on a collection that “reimagines classic American sportswear for the twenty-first century,” offers one possibility: an $1,880 all-cashmere “distressed” cardigan. In other words, a sweater that has holes in it, and not the kind that are for buttons.

On its website, Khaite describes the v-neck sweater’s patina as “both daring and playful.” It also points out that the distressed touches go beyond the holes (or “handmade punctures,” as it describes them). Consider the “frayed cuffs” and “ravaged hem,” the label notes.

Khaite has been in the news for another cashmere item — namely, a $520 bra made from the fabric (Katie Holmes was spotted wearing it and the look soon went viral). “It’s amazing what you can do with an idea,” said Khaite designer Catherine Holstein. (Khaite officials declined MarketWatch’s request for comment about the cardigan.)

The reality

The distressed look is hardly new to fashion. Decades ago, it was common to take a new pair of jeans and make them “old” through repeating washings or by cutting holes in them. But in recent years, the idea has become a movement with designers. Hence, you’ll find everything from $530 sneakers that have been artfully scuffed and damaged to a $1,235 skirt with a bedraggled look.

Fashion experts say it reflects a retro sensibility, because the style indeed emerged as far back as the ’70s. It’s also a reaction to the idea of “fast fashion” — that is, clothing produced to take advantage of sudden trends. If something looks old or worn, it defies the idea of fashion as flavor-of-the-moment. “We crave items that have the mark of time, even if it’s fabricated,” says Patricia Maeda, director of women’s wear for Fashion Snoops, a trend-forecasting agency.

The distressed trend has faced its share of backlash, however. Some find it concerning that fashion pieces being targeted for consumers with plenty of cash co-opt the looks of items worn by people of little means who can’t afford to buy new. “Distressed clothing tends to be insensitive to the humble sources it is inspired from,” wrote Ethan Masucol in Spark Magazine, an Austin-based fashion publication.

The Khaite label does have its fans. “It’s wearable clothing that has a little bit of edge,” says fashion stylist Lindsay Brooke Weiss. But Weiss and others say the Khaite $1,880 cardigan may be taking the distressed concept to an extreme. “I think it’s maybe one hole too many,” says Kristen Turner, founder of Mae Jones Magazine, a fashion and beauty magazine. Perhaps more to the point, says Turner: “My mom wouldn’t let me leave the house looking like this.”

Still, fashion experts say the distressed look can have its place — and the look can be had for a lot less. One idea they offer: shopping for clothes in a vintage or thrift store, where the items are naturally aged and can cost a fraction of what a new, designer distressed piece does.

Of course, if you’re all about cashmere without the holes, you don’t have to spend nearly two grand for a sweater, either. Good cashmere items can be found for well under $500. Turner points to a $98 crewneck cashmere sweater from J. Crew or even a $75 one from the Naadam label as alternatives.  

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