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On a recent New York afternoon, I went window-shopping in SoHo. I canvassed a handful of boutiques, paying particular attention to an item that’s become the common denominator of fashion — the logoed cotton T-shirt.

With the rise of streetwear and its penetration into the upper echelons of fashion, the T-shirt has become loaded with meaning. Today, a logoed tee is many things; an instant billboard that telegraphs your financial status (real or perceived) and a cultural signifier that lets people judge whether you’re in the know or not. Most of all, the T-shirt has become a vehicle for democratizing fashion — until it’s not.

As I walked into the stores of Dior, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Loewe, I kept wondering about the high price tags attached to these tees. Surely there must be a reason why a Gucci T-shirt costs almost 40 times more than one at Uniqlo? We tell ourselves that luxury goods are worth the premium, because along with signaling status, they offer superior quality of materials and construction methods, as well as ethical production. We use words like “craftsmanship” and “heritage” to justify our purchases. But how superior can one cotton T-shirt be over another? Does the big difference just come down to a high profit margin that pays for expensive marketing campaigns? Are T-shirts simply fashion’s new cash cows, that allow luxury brands to experiment with the less sellable garments? Or does it all boil down to the profit that CEOs get away with, just because they can?

I carefully felt the materials and looked at the stitching, but failed to discern any superiority of luxury T-shirts over what a brand like Uniqlo offers. The $550 ($590 on its website) white cotton Dior T-shirt with the stitched “CD” logo felt flimsy. Ditto one at Louis Vuitton ($420), which would be better off in a three-pack. The $480 one at Gucci was equally unappealing. The $490 oversized tee at Balenciaga was made of cotton that recalled my high-school gym T-shirt. The $380 Portugese-made tee at Loewe at least had chain-stitched back shoulder seams. But so did the $14.90 tee I was wearing. There was also a $390 Burberry logoed cotton T-shirt at the Webster, made in China (coyly labeled “Imported” on Burberry’s own website).

I asked my shopping companion, designer by training, if I was missing something. She rolled her eyes at my professed naïveté and offered her verdict in unprintable words. Our last stop was Acne Studios, where another T-shirt made (in Portugal) from silky-feeling long fiber cotton retailed for $130. “In terms of quality, this is the best one we’ve seen today,” my companion said. For my money, though, I’d rather go with the $49 US-made pocket tee from Noah I saw the previous weekend.

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