By Julie Earle-Levine
So there you are, ogling all the fantastic gowns on the runway during fashion week, planning what you'll buy for this season, and modelling your spring frocks just in case – when, shock! horror! you see the a large, dark stain that could be steak au poivre, or perhaps red wine, across the front of your dress.
Observing your resolution to Deal With It Now, you immediately send said garment off to the best dry cleaner you know, which successfully removes the stain, but also sends your dress back with a large tear, right across the front. Ruined.
Your dry cleaner insists it must have come in like that, but you know it didn't. Who is to blame? What recourse do you have?
Consumers often hold dry cleaners responsible for stains, shrinkage, melted buttons and tears, and missing clothes. The number of complaints against dry cleaners in the US alone jumped to 5,584 in 2003 from 4,380, the previous year, according to the Better Business Bureau, an independent group run by the US Chamber of Commerce.
But talk to the cleaners themselves, and you (not surprisingly, but maybe begrudgingly) hear a different story.
John Mahdessian, president of Madame Paulette, a New York dry cleaner who looks after classical gowns for Sotheby's and the Metropolitan Opera, says customers who try to remove a stain can cause irreparable damage. "Red wine is a big culprit, but it is not a problem for dry cleaners," he says. On the other hand, "If you use water, or an at-home stain remover, or rub instead of blot, you might get the stain out but the fabric can't be restored."
Indeed, that old stand-by, club soda, turns out not to be such a great idea at all.
"Club soda can be great – God love it – but it is nothing more than water. It is one of the things your grandmother told you and unfortunately is not great advice," says Nora Nealis, executive director of the National Cleaners Association, an industry group.
Water on silk can also create problems. Mahdessian recalls a water leak that damaged 14 Valentino gowns - or $150,000 worth of silk and sequins. Luckily, the water rings were able to managed to be removed, the beads re-stitched and the dresses restored.
According to Mahdessian, dresses can also be defective, or manufacturers fail to provide the right care instructions; indeed, many one-off designer pieces do not have care labels inside at all, leaving it to the cleaner and garment owner to guess how to clean.
Deborah Kravet, the owner of Fashion Award Cleaners on Manhattan's Upper East Side, says there are also "invisible" stains. Clients are often surprised to see new stains, caused when dry cleaning solution interacts with perspiration or other substances. "People put their clothes away dirty. This happens a lot with men's tuxedo shirts."
If Madame Paulette can't fix a garment using conventional cleaning, the client is informed.
"We tell them, you can't wear this the way it is, but we could try something else," said Mahdessian. If a garment is damaged, the store "always steps up and takes responsibility".
Kravet says she also works on clothing up to a "safe" point. If there is concern the fabric could be damaged, then she will ask for a customer's permission to go further. The customer makes the decision and is responsible if the cleaning doesn't work out.
In Paris, Pouyanne-Teinturier, a dry cleaner since 1903, talks to customers about what each garment will require. If a garment is damaged under 'normal' circumstances, or goes missing, the cleaner takes full responsibility, said according to the manager Caterina Gurez, manager.
Meanwhile, in London, Paula Silver, a manager for Jeeves of Belgravia, which has 12 branches throughout the city, says, "We do a disclaimer on receipts. We will try to clean it but there is no guarantee. We also can't guarantee loss of trims and beads."
Nealis says the best way to determine who is at fault when a garment is damaged is to send it to a garment analysis laboratory and ask for a determination.
This may reveal if there is weakness in the fabric or dye (which would be the manufacturer's fault), or if the consumer has tried to fix it, using seltzer or bleach, or had hair spray, medication or even perspiration on the fabric. The last resort can be taking legal action.
In London, the Textile Services Association, an industry group for dry cleaners, also helps offers consumers and will investigate complaints. And then there's always the all-black alternative.
WAYS TO AVOID DRESS DISASTERS
Questions to ask your dry cleaner:
*What percentage of the time do you ruin a garment and what will you do for me if that should happen?
*Can you give me some references?
*Can you give me a satisfaction guarantee?
*Do you guarantee, in writing, all of your work?
Tips for parties
*Apply hair products (hairspray, mousse, gel etc) before getting dressed and allow time to dry before donning The Dress.
*Do the same with perfume.
*Don't iron out closet wrinkles; a hot iron on fine fabrics can dull, pucker and damage the fibres or colours. Expose to light steam by hanging the garment in the bathroom (away from a wall) and running hot water in the shower to allow the wrinkles to disappear naturally. However, do not leave the garment in the bathroom for more than a few minutes: excess moisture can affect fibres, finish and threads.
*Don't wear jewellery that is likely to snag a fine fabric.
*If possible wear dress shields to protect the garment from perspiration and body oils that could disturb sizings and dyes, and cause permanent damage.
*When spots and stains happen, blot don't rub