Faulty fabric: From Foxfield to Fabricare

"I would have received better treatment at WalMart than I received at this expensive boutique." That's Alison Mankie's view of her recent experience with an upscale dress shop on Elliewood Avenue. Read on, and see whether you agree.

Mankie bought two designer dresses at Dixie Divas on April 22. One, a BCBG that cost $288, gave her no problems. But the other, an ABS that cost $220, turned into a summer-long headache.

The empire-waist dress, which she wore to the spring running of the Foxfield steeplechase races, was off-white with pink, orange, and black flowers. Was is the operative word here, because after one cleaning, the orange and pink flowers had turned mauve.

According to Mankie's emailed chronology, she complained to the cleaner, Brown's on Millmont, and was told by an employee that the damage appeared to be a result of a "manufacturing problem."

Mankie claims she returned to Dixie Divas and showed the dress to a saleswoman who "assured" her she would "most likely" receive a new dress or have her money refunded.

Instead, she says, she got a call from the store saying than an ABS representative had stated that "under no circumstances" could this be a manufacturing problem, "because ABS tests all their fabrics thoroughly."

So began a struggle between Brown's and Dixie Divas over responsibility for the damage.

On her second trip to Brown's, the manager of the Millmont store, Cary Jackson, examined the dress and also stated that the manufacturer was to blame. He gave her a form letter to take to Dixie Divas.

"One of our mutual customers," the letter states, has a garment that "failed during a care process recommended by the care label." In Brown's opinion, there was "incompatibility between the garment and the care-label instructions."

If the store didn't agree with Brown's assessment, the letter continued, the garment could be submitted to the International Fabricare Institute, an industry funded textile laboratory, for analysis. "The party determined responsible for the damage," the letter concludes, "should compensate the customer."

Mankie took the letter to Dixie Divas, where, she claims, in the space on the form for remarks, owner Kristi Adams wrote, "You [Brown's] ruined this dress and should reimburse the customer. The manufacturer tests every fabric, and they have had no other problems with their clothing."

The Institute's laboratory, however, came to a very different conclusion. In his May 17 report, analyst Jim Kirby wrote, "The colors on this fabric are not completely colorfast to dry cleaning. Once the article is immersed in solvent and subjected to the necessary agitation in cleaning, some of the color dissolves, cracks, and comes off, which results in an overall lightening of shades and loss of finish.

"This dress," Kirby concludes, "could not withstand recommended care procedures without objectionable fading; thus the color damage is attributable to methods of manufacture."

After taking the laboratory report to Dixie Divas and leaving two messages for Adams to call, Mankie claims, Adams declined to respond.

"I eventually reached a point where my will to fight for reimbursement was lost," says Mankie, "and I had come to the realization that I would have to eat the cost of my $220 designer dress. No one was willing to take accountability. It was almost as if they were blaming me."

Later, Mankie decided to contact me. I spoke first with ABS shipping manager Pat Avila, who said the company would replace the dress, but Mankie was worried that that replacement dress might also fade. I then spoke with Adams, who said, "I'm really sorry it went so far, and I'm embarrassed."

In the end, Adams– who claims she's never encountered a similar problem– agreed to refund Mankie's $220. And Mankie, at long last, is satisfied.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.