The 12 Commandments of Buying a Bespoke Suit
August 26th, 2014
As the team and I continue to grind behind the scenes and prepare to launch a whole new Articles of Style (including an updated version of the much-requested Stye Guide), I’ve been going through the archives and editing some of our top articles from back in the day. As some of you may remember, two years ago I did an extensive “Guide to Bespoke Tailoring”, with all kinds of information. The article needed some tweaks and some updates, so over the next couple weeks I’ll be sharing tips, experiences, and discussions on tailoring, wardrobe building, alterations, etc.
To start, here’s 12 things you should know before buying a bespoke suit. As always, if you have specific questions, feel free to hit me in the comments section below.
#1: Fabric Comes First
There are a thousand ways to sew a suit, but the garment is ultimately only as good as its raw ingredients. Fabric selection is the most important decision you will make when designing your new bespoke suit. Not only does it determine how your suit will look and feel, but also how it will perform and last over time. Avoid anything with a synthetic blend. To start, look for a 100% worsted wool from a trusted mill in a “super 110s-120s” thread count for the best combination of luxury and durability.
#2: Trust Nobody
Because this is a business where manufacturing begins after the sale is complete, and most clients aren’t well versed in the nuances of tailoring, the ugly truth is that custom suit iss a very shady industry.
I’ve seen everything from counterfeit branded fabrics to “Made in USA” tags being sewn into jackets in SouthEast Asia.
The most common deception in the business is the location of manufacturing – i.e. shops that say their garments are “Made On Site” when indeed they are not.
Here’s some simple math:
A well made hand-tailored suit takes an average of 40 hours to complete. The average master tailor working in America doesn’t pick up his shears for less than $30-40 an hour…let’s call it an average of $35/hour. That’s $1,600 in labor alone.
Decent cloth from a respected mill, purchased at wholesale, runs roughly $50-$100 per yard…let’s call it an average of $75/yard. It takes about 3 yards of cloth to make a suit (2.5 for solids, 3 for pinstripes, 3.5-4 for check patterns). That comes out to an average of $225 for the cloth. Add roughly $25 for the buttons, trims, lining, etc. That’s $250 in cost of tangible inputs, making a rough total of $1,850 for overall cost of production.
Therefore, an American made suit (with a typical 65% profit markup) is going to retail for at least $3,050. Translate this to Euros in Italy and pounds in England.
If a shop located in an area with similar cost of labor is offering an suit “made on site” at a price notably lower than this, they are likely pulling the wool over your eyes (pun intended) by using counterfeit cloth or overseas production where the hourly cost of skilled labour is significantly cheaper.
#3: HOW it’s made over WHERE it’s made
The quality and attention to detail of overseas manufacturing can vary greatly from one workshop to the next, but on the whole there have been enormous strides made in the past decade or so. “Made in China” doesn’t mean it’s crap, as long as the person in charge of the manufacturing process is careful, diligently, and honest. I have an article coming up about the questions to ask to determine the quality level of tailoring… Stay tuned.
#4: Understand the shop’s “House Cut”
Every bespoke shop has their own opinion on how a suit should be cut to best flatter a man’s body.
For example, traditional British shops, like the esteemed tailors on Savile Row, tend to cut with larger allowances (the difference between a client’s body measurements and the measurements of the finished garment) for a roomier fit with a smoother “drape”. English tailors also prefer heavier cloth, a lower gorge line (the seam where the collar meets the lapel) and more overall structure to the jacket (stiffer chest canvas, thicker shoulder pads, etc).
By contrast, Italian tailors tend to prefer lighter cloth, smaller allowances (cut closer to the body), a higher gorge and a more “flexible” construction (softer shoulders, less padding, etc).
The difference in cutting style can vary greatly from one tailor to the next, even in the same city. For example, tailors in midtown manhattan tend to make a more traditional garment with British accents geared toward an older client base, while downtown shops generally cut a more Italian-influenced, slightly “edgier” garment for a younger crowd.
Understanding the style and strategy of the shop is important in order to achieve the fit you are seeking. Ask if you can try-on a sample garment in your closest size, this will give you an idea of how the tailor thinks about a suit.
#5: Get to a stable body shape before ordering
If you plan on going through any major body transformations, wait until you reach a stable weight that you are happy with before investing in custom clothing. And make sure it’s a weight you can maintain!
As an added bonus, an expensive custom suit will probably be your best motivation to stay in shape.
#6: Get the fit right, the first time
A good shop will keep a paper (or digital) pattern on file for you, and tweak that pattern every time they make you a new garment or alter one of your old ones.
If you have the option of paying more for a “higher level” that includes additional fittings, do it for your first suit. Once you have your pattern locked down, you shouldn’t have to do it again and your future orders will be a breeze.
#7: Understand that you’re (probably) not an expert
Most shops have employees whose full-time job is to make their clients look their best. Listen to their advice and converse with them about your styling decisions rather than assuming you know better.
#8: Avoid trends like the plague
You want your new investment to last 5-10 years (depending on how hard you wear your clothing), so keep the proportions classic and avoid anything “of the moment”. I feel bad for guys who ordered cropped jackets with razor thin lapels years ago and are now afraid to wear them outside the house. The same will happen to the guys ordering super oversized lapels today.
The trouser hemline is a slightly different issue as this can be lengthened or shortened in a matter of minutes.
#9: Don’t get caught up in thread counts
Some guys think the higher the thread count (or “super” number), the better the cloth. This is not necessarily true. This number – which represents the number of fibers spun into a unit measure of cloth – indicates only the “fineness” of the fibers. It can mean that a cloth will have a great “hand feel” and sheen, but what’s more important is its inverse relationship with durability.
Most of my suits are in the Super 110-130 range, which I consider the perfect balance between luxury and durability.
Super 180s and higher become very delicate. They should be reserved for guys who have 20+ suits in their rotation who are looking for something that they bust out once a month to make a statement or for a special event.
You should invest in the most durable fabric that feels good in your hand. Truth is, a “super 110s” from a quality mill can feel softer than a “super 180s” from a second rate fabric house anyway.
#10: Get the basics first, then build from there
Think of your first visit to a bespoke shop as the first step in building your new wardrobe. Start with versatile basics and slowly build out to seasonal fabrics with more personality. You can wear a solid blue or grey suit to the office three times a week and nobody will notice, but your co-workers will call you out if they keep seeing those purple pinstripes.
Also, don’t factor-in the suits you already have in your closet unless you love them and they fit very well. 90% of guys stop wearing their off-the-rack suits after going custom.
If you already have a strong base and are looking for something specific, don’t be afraid to bring a picture reference to show your salesperson.
#11: Have realistic expectations
Unless you look like George Clooney, a new suit won’t make you look like George Clooney.
Also, don’t be a wrinkle chaser. The suit is designed to look pristine on a still, standing body. As you start moving all bets are off and the suit will crease and wrinkle. It’s fabric, not magic.
If you want a very slim look, there are trade-offs when it comes to comfort. You will feel the suit and lose a little range of motion. If you are not accustomed to slim tailoring, there may be a short adjustment period here. Keep in mind the only way to make it “roomier” is to make it bigger, thus losing some shape. In my case, I actually like to feel my jackets against my body. The feeling of being “locked in”.
#12: Take care of your investments
Ask your tailor for proper care instructions.
Generally speaking, dry clean your suits as infrequently as possible (only when their physically dirty from spills or sweat). Dry cleaning is a chemical wash that slowly erodes fabric – essentially scraping away the surface layer.
Otherwise, if the garment simply needs a “refresher”, have it steamed or pressed (which is much cheaper than dry cleaning and effectively cleans it using heat and steam anyway).
Have questions about buying a bespoke suit? I’ll do my best to answer in the comments below!
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Yours in style,
Photography by Alex Crawford.