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Willing victims

This is a tale of two sweaters, alike in almost every way. Both are made of merino wool by DKNY, the moderate-priced division of Donna Karan. One is black, while the other is so dark a shade of navy it easily could be mistaken for black. Both are turtlenecks, and though one sweater is somewhat longer through the waist, it weighs only a tenth of an ounce more than the other.

In fact, the only significant difference between these two sweaters, which were found hanging in separate departments at Neiman Marcus, is their price. The longer version, ostensibly designed for men, is priced at $97.50. The other, merchandised for women, sells for $145. That's a difference of nearly 50 percent.

Why are women paying more?

Denise Seegal, president of DKNY, suggests the answer is to be found in no less a place than the great gulf between the sexes. Women, she contends, will pay more for clothes because they associate status with high prices. To them, a $2,000 designer suit represents luxury, security and prestige; so, had the $145 turtleneck been priced more reasonably _ according to this theory _ a shopper might have been suspicious about its worth.

As for men, they are evidently too practical-minded to be seduced by designer prices. One could even say that they have benefited from their ignorance of fashion _ by having well-made clothes presented to them at realistic prices, without expensive hype or hidden meaning.

"In menswear," says Seegal, "there's just a certain price point that men will accept."

What women seem to be getting _ along with fees for alterations and higher dry-cleaning bills _ is sexist pricing. "It's one of the dirty little secrets of Seventh Avenue," admits Alan Millstein, an industry analyst, "that you can get more money out of women for their clothes."

Here's how the DKNY prices worked out. According to Seegal, the men's turtleneck was priced lower at wholesale because it was made of Chinese merino; the women's version was made of Italian merino with the addition of Lycra. "Lycra is expensive because it comes out of Japan and it has to be dyed to match the yarn," she says. Another factor is the tradition of mark-down money among women's clothing manufacturers. This is an 8 percent price break given to retailers who pay for their goods within 10 days of receipt. Manufacturers customarily build the cost of mark-down money into their wholesale prices. So, while stores are getting a break, female shoppers are paying for it at retail. "Menswear doesn't give retailers a discount," acknowledges Seegal. "It's just the way their industry has been set up."

Although both sweaters are classic in styling, Seegal says the cost of producing the women's turtleneck was higher because it required more design. "The cost of running a women's business is much higher," she adds, "because women's fashion is constantly changing."

Of course, it also helps if someone arbitrarily lowers the price. Seegal says the wholesale price of the men's sweater was intentionally "low-balled" _ meaning that the price was reduced by about 15 percent to make the sweater attractive to retailers and, subsequently, shoppers. This is what's known in the business as a "loss leader." A manufacturer will take a lower margin of return on a garment if it looks like it might generate business. The "loss" is then made up on another garment.

While it's true the cost of mass-producing something as basic as a men's dress shirt may be lower than that of a designer blouse, it doesn't exactly follow that Italian sheep are better fed than those in China.

"Ridiculous!" snorts a longtime manufacturer of knitwear. "Merino comes from Australia, so it certainly is not a matter of yarn or raw material." As it happens, the Chinese-spun merino of the men's sweater actually has a smoother finish than that of the women's model, making one wonder about the exotic value of its Italian merino.

All of this suggests that women are being taken advantage of _ or, at least, duped into believing that a higher-priced garment is worth more in prestige and value than a lower-priced one.