A Comprehensive Guide to Buying A Bespoke Suit
June 1st, 2012
Trying custom clothing for the first time?
Here’s a comprehensive guide to making the most of your investment.
If you have any additional questions after reading, please post them in the comments section and I will do my best to respond.
1st Suit: Solid Navy
The first suit I recommend is a solid navy 4-season (8-10 oz) worsted wool.
It’s a wardrobe staple and the most versatile suit a man can own. You can wear it to the office, to a wedding, to an evening event, as a blazer with jeans, as a pair of trousers with another jacket, etc.
Selecting a Clothier
There are hundreds of “bespoke” shops popping up all over. Here are some questions you should ask to narrow down the list of stores in your area.
1. What fabrics do you offer?
The world of quality menswear fabrics is a small one with few major players. A decent bespoke shop should have relationships with vendors who supply a range of fabrics from established English and Italian mills such as Dormeuil, Holland & Sherry, Scabal, Zegna, etc.
The seasonal books used to display swatches to clients are costly to manufacture and limited in number. For this reason, vendors carefully distribute them only to the shops that do the most business (and thus have the best reputation and highest number of returning clients).
If you can find a shop that offers ARISTON fabrics, I highly recommend them. A small family owned mill outside of Naples, they create luxury fabrics with the most style-forward and tasteful designs in the game. I use them exclusively for all of my personal orders. As a new feature on the site, going forward I will be including the fabric ID numbers in the clothing credits for my bespoke suits, for your reference and to solve the problem of imagining how a swatch will look as a finished product.
2. What about trims?
A shop with good attention to detail (which is crucial in this business) should use top quality trims to go along with their luxury fabric offering. I’m talking about genuine horn buttons, durable bemberg linings (beware of anything with a raised surface, like a jacquard, that can rub and pill over time), RiRi or YKK zippers, etc.
Other internal inputs like chest and collar canvases, shoulder pads, sleeve heads, collar felts, etc. are difficult to differentiate in a finished garment, until you’ve worn it for a few months and dry cleaned it several times. You’ll have to trust the salesperson on these things, and use your judgement based on the other trims they are using.
Of course, it’s always a good idea to do your research and read customer reviews online.
3. Is the jacket fully canvassed?
A tailored jacket is either:
A. Fused: the easiest and cheapest method to construct a jacket where the front panel and lapel facing are backed using iron-on glue called interfacing then sewn together.
B. Partially Canvassed: a better method of construction that takes more time and hand work. A canvas “breast plate” is strategically sewn between the front panel and facing, giving the jacket some internal structure over the chest which makes it more durable and body forming over time.
C. Fully Canvassed: the best, and most time consuming, way to tailor a jacket. A full-sized layer of canvas (and horse hair in a high-end version) is cut to proportion and carefully inserted between the front panel and facing, giving the jacket the highest level of structure. This canvas makes the jacket more flexible, dimensional, durable and allows it to fit better over time as the heat of your body molds the canvas to your shape.
4. How much handwork is done on the garment?
Hand sewing vs. machine sewing is kind of like a home cooking vs. microwaving. The end product is similar, but the quality isn’t the same.
There are major advantages to handwork in certain areas of the garment such as a hand-set canvas, hand-rolled lapels, hand-felled collar, hand-set sleeves, etc. Manipulating the fabric by hand allows for small nuances that ultimately give the garment greater flexibility and dimension.
If a salesperson tells you the entire suit is sewn by hand, however, I would be skeptical. Very few tailors will spend time hand-sewing straight lines like the outseam of a pant – where the cost would outweigh the benefit and the only real advantage is prestige.
5. How many measurements do you take?
I’ve been learning the measuring, fitting and pattern-manipulation process through countless hours of training over the past few years – it takes meticulous attention to detail and is only perfected with years of experience.
In order to properly account for all of the variations in the human body, this process should include at least 30 measurements (and up to 50 for a more “voluminous” body type).
6. How many fittings will I need?
This one varies greatly depending on your body type (ie. how well or poorly a standard off-the-rack garment fits you).
If you are not far from an off-the-rack size, you should only need a couple fittings – again, depending on the quality and accuracy of the original measuring and pattern-making.
If off-the-rack garments are not even close on you, you could need four or more fittings.
7. What is your alterations policy? What if I gain or lose weight?
With regular fluctuations of 5-10 pounds, this weight is typically spread around the body and doesn’t affect the fit of the overall garment much (unless you prefer a super-slim painted-on fit).
If you lose weight, taking-in (making smaller) is easy, within reason. If you gain weight, a good custom suit should be made with excess seam allowance beneath the sewing lines to allow the garment to be let-out (made bigger), again, within reason.
A good bespoke shop will usually alter their own garments for free (or at a discounted rate), at least for some period of time after your purchase.
8. What if I’m not happy with the finished product?
In any business where you pay before you play, make sure there is some kind of satisfaction guarantee.
2nd Suit: Solid Grey
After navy, the second suit I recommend is a 4-season (8-10 oz) solid grey worsted wool.
An important note about grey: a lighter shade, like the one pictured here, is more appropriate for Spring/Summer (or warmer climates) while a darker grey is better for Fall/Winter (or cooler weather).
For maximum year-round versatility look for something in a medium shade.
12 Bespoke Commandments
#1: Fabric comes first
There are a thousand ways to sew a suit, but the garment is ultimately only as good as it’s most important raw input. The fabric selection is without a doubt the most important decision you will make when putting tougher your new suit. Not only does it determine how your suit will look and feel,but also how it will perform over time.
Go with the highest quality fabric you can afford (note: this doesn’t mean the highest thread count).
#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 it’s a very shady industry.
I’ve seen everything from counterfeit brand name 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. Similarly, make this Euros in Italy or France 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 (ha!) by using counterfeit cloth or overseas production where the cost of labour is significantly cheaper.
#3: HOW it’s made is more important than WHERE it’s made
Although the quality and attention to detail of overseas manufacturing can vary from one workshop to the next, on the whole there have been enormous strides made in the past decade. The creatives who control the manufacturing process carefully and diligently, with full creative control, are making world class garments on the level with famed English and Italian tailors…at more accessible pricing.
Again, this is all my opinion.
#4: Understand the shop’s “house cut”
Every shop has their own opinion on how a suit should be a cut to best flatter a man’s body.
For example, traditional British tailors like the esteemed shops on Savile Row tend to cut with larger allowances (the difference between the client’s body measurements and the measurements of the finished product) for a roomier garment that has greater “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 (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 very 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
If you plan on going through a major body transformation, 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 career it is to make their clients look their best. Listen to their advice and conversate with them about your styling decisions rather than assuming you know better.
#8: Avoid trends like the plague
You want your new investment(s) 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 two years ago who are now afraid to wear them. The same will happen to the guys ordering oversized lapels today.
The hemline is a different issue as this can be changed 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 thus be used to estimate the “hand feel” and sheen of the cloth, but what’s more important is its inverse relationship with durability.
Most of my suits are in the Super 120-130 range, which I consider the perfect balance between luxury and durability.
Super 180s and higher becomes very delicate. It’s the opposite of a work horse, and 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.
You should invest in the most durable fabric that feels good in your hand. Truth is, a “super 110s” from a quality mill will feel softer than a “super 180s” from a second rate fabric house anyway.
#10: Get the basics first, then build on them
Think of your first visit as the first step in building a new wardrobe. Start with versatile basics and slowly build out to 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 in areas of motion. 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 like to feel my jackets against my body a little.
#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 sweating). Dry cleaning is a chemical wash that damages 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).
Other care tips:
– If possible, take your jacket off when eating, flying or doing anything active.
– Invest in quality wooden hangers with large shoulders that fit your jacket properly. A good tailor should provide these.
– Hang the suit on a proper hanger in an airy place immediately after taking it off.
– Try not to wear the same suit on back to back days, especially in warm weather or precipitation.
– The trousers will inevitably wear out faster than the jacket. If you’re hard on them, most tailors give you the option of adding second pair.
And don’t forget the custom touches
It’s custom made, so feel free to splurge on details that fit your lifestyle and aren’t generally available off-the-rack.
Matching vests, side adjusters on the trousers, custom interior jacket pockets for your fountain pens or ipad, etc.
I tend to run hot (and hate sweating when I’m wearing a suit) so I get most of my jackets unlined (see the picture above). Most worsted wools breathe quite well, it’s the bemberg/silk/polyester lining that traps heat in the jacket. Not only does it keep me cool, but also feels lighter and less restrictive on my back. It can also be cut a hair slimmer because of the missing layer.
3rd Suit: Seasonal Separates
For your third suit, think about something seasonal with a little texture or subtle pattern that is versatile and can be easily broken up and worn as a blazer or a seperate pant.
My favorites are khaki cotton for the spring/summer and tweed for the fall/winter. The one pictured here is a great weekend blazer, combined with the perfect pair of khakis.
Flatter Your body type
Tall & Skinny
– Avoid pinstripes but don’t be afraid of a subtle check or glenplaid fabric. Patterns will add girth, as will lighter colors.
– If a double breasted jacket isn’t too style-forward for you, it will effectively widen your frame.
– Don’t go too slim, a little room will add some weight and balance out your proportions.
– Go with a medium to full break and cuffs on the trousers to break up your linear shape.
– A slightly wider notch lapel with a lower gorge line is your best bet.
– Don’t be afraid of a little padding in the shoulders to add some presence (this does not mean a wider shoulder).
– Keep the pockets straight, not slanted, and use a ticket pocket to fill some empty space.
– A longer jacket is slimming, a shorter jacket is lengthening…shoot for the middle ground, just past the cup of the seat.
– Use horizontal accents like a belt, folded pocket square and tie bar to add some east-west visual cues.
– A slightly higher button stance can offset your length (but you don’t need a three button jacket…nobody does).
– Go three piece, a vest can add some heft.
– Straight shirt collars will suit your frame and fill vertical space.
Tall & Heavy
– A longer jacket will visually elongate the body.
– Darker colors are sliming, as are pinstripes.
– A deep button stance will create a stronger “V” shape, accentuating the chest and masking the belly.
– Yes you can wear a slim fit…this does not mean “tight” or “restrictive”.
– Sit the pants across the belly, not under it, and use braces/suspenders to “float” your waistline.
– Go with a wider peak lapel to draw the eye upward and proportionally cover your broad shoulders.
– Leave some room in the trousers so you’re not accentuating the girth of your upper body, but you don’t need a big sloppy break at the bottom.
– Slanted pockets, in theory, draw the eye downward and are slimming on the physique.
– Use a ticket pocket to fill some space in the midsection.
– Go with double vents. The jacket can be cut a little slimmer in the hips since side vents pulling open are much less obvious than a center one splitting.
– Odds are, you’re tough on your clothing. Opt for a heavier, more durable cloth but lose the lining to avoid overheating. A second pair of trousers may also be a good idea.
– Spread collar shirts should be matched with larger tie knots (like a windsor or double windsor), and both are ideal for a large neck.
Short & Skinny
– Crop that jacket a little, it will lengthen the leg line and add some height (just make sure your seat is mostly covered).
– Go with slim (not skinny) peak lapels, in proportion with your shoulders.
– A one button jacket keeps the suit in proper proportions and allows you to have deeper stance, creating the illusion of height.
– Keep the legs slim and tapered with very minimal break.
– The jacket sleeves should be cut short enough that you show at least 1/2″ of shirt cuff – this will make your arms look longer.
– A shoulder pad can give you some presence, and a little rope on the shoulder to.
– as can a check, glenplaid or textured fabric.
– Keep your shirt collars narrow and your ties slim and on the short side (if they’re always coming out too long, have them shortened at the backside by your tailor).
Short & Heavy
– Dark colors are sliming.
– Pinstripes are your best friend.
– A deep button stance will visually lengthen your physique.
– Go with peak lapels to draw the eye upward and keep them in proportion with your broad shoulders.
– Choose side adjusters over belt loops to keep things streamlined. You can also use the same braces trick described above in the “Tall & Heavy” tips.
– Hem the trousers with a very light break, but leave a little room through the leg – too slim can make you look top-heavy.
– Go with a heavy fabric for durability, but an unlined jacket for breathability. A second pair of trousers may be a good idea as well.
– Try shorter spread collars (and larger tie knots) to correspond with your shorter, wider neck.
– The bigger your muscles, the more strain you will put on the suit. Use a durable cloth and ask the tailor if they can reinforce the seams where you typically have problems.
– Use the smallest possible shoulder pad, or none at all, and minimal rope. You don’t need to accent your already muscular shoulders.
– Avoid anything too short or cropped – it will look boxy. A longer jacket with a lower button stance will stretch out your bulky physique.
– Keep the lapels wide enough to balance out your broad frame.
– Slanted pockets will lean out the physique a little, as will a beltless look with side adjusters on the trousers.
– Darker solid colors are slimming and will look less bulky than lighter ones. Pinstripes are a good idea, but not checks or plaids.
– You’ll likely need the “top level” with the most fittings. Overly muscular body types with volume and dimension are the most challenging for tailors and pattern-makers.
- Khaki cotton suit
- Navy/Brown mini plaid shirt
- Navy knit tie by Polo Ralph Lauren
- White cotton pocket square
- Brown alligator belt by Ralph Lauren Purple Label
- Silver belt buckle by Ralph Lauren Purple Label
- Watch by Montblanc Timewalker
- Brown alligator watch band by Montblanc
- Brown leather briefcase by Frank Clegg x Dan Trepanier
- Brown leather spectator wingtips by Scarpe di Bianco
If there is one thing a man should have custom made, it’s a classic tuxedo. Formal occasions are when a man should look his best, and you know those rentals (which add up over time) are not cutting it.
Odds are you’re only going to wear it once or twice a year, so invest in a tuxedo that’s going to last you a lifetime (provided you stay relatively consistent in shape over time). Here’s some tips:
– Don’t be afraid of midnight blue. It gives the garment more depth due to the contrast of the black trim, and most people can’t even tell it’s blue – they can just tell it’s sharp.
– One button, no question. (Or double breasted if you have the swagger).
– The lapels, pocket trims, button coverings and pant stripes should be satin (a smooth shiny fabric that is most traditional) or grosgrain (a twill weave with less shine that is slightly more modern).
– Peak lapel or shawl collar. Leave the notch for the office.
– Traditionalists would say it should be ventless, but I prefer double vents – the silhouette is more rakish and you don’t have to sit on the tail of your jacket.
– The front of the jacket, like the back of the trousers, should have double besom pockets (no flaps or buttons) and they should remain neatly sewn shut at all times.
– Have the pants hemmed with minimal break and the jacket sleeves cut short enough to show at least a 1/2″ of the shirt’s french cuffs.
– Don’t ruin a perfectly fitted tuxedo with an ill-fitting shirt. Complete the order with a formal shirt that can keep up.
– For the shirt, use a heavily textured white cloth and chose from three classic styles: hidden placket (which has the benefit of doubling as a business shirt), bib front, or pleated front. Each should come with the option of a 4-button removable placket should you want to wear studs.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between “custom”, “made-to-measure” and “bespoke”?
“Custom” can mean anything. Choosing a colored lining and fancy button gives a suit maker the right to call it “custom”, just like a pair of Nike sneakers designed online in your own colorway.
“Made-to-Measure” shops make a limited number of symmetrical adjustments (+/- in girth(s) and length(s)) to a pre-existing pattern. They will typically not make any adjustment for your shoulder slope, posture, are any asymmetrical irregularities in your body.
“Bespoke” refers to the process of creating a unique, original pattern specific to a clients body structure. Traditionalists will say that in order for a suit to be labeled “bespoke” it should be measured, cut and fit all by one master tailor, but very few shops function profitably in this manner anymore.
How can I imagine the suit from the swatch?
This takes a little imagination at first, and your salesperson should be able to help with this.
Ask to see a finished garment next to the matching swatch to get an idea. Keep in mind that the finished garment usually looks a half shade lighter than the swatch as more light reflects off of it.
What lapel width should I go with?
It really depends on your body type, but here is a rough guide that I find works well.
Notch: Size 38: 2.75″, Size 40: 3″, Size 42: 3.25″, Size 44: 3.5″, Size 46: 3.75″…
Peak: Size 38: 3″, Size 40: 3.25″, Size 42: 3.5″, Size 44: 3.75″. Size 46: 4″…
Shawl: Size 38: 2″, Size 40: 2.25″, Size 42: 2.5″, Size 44: 2.75″, Size 46: 3″…
Single vent or double vent?
In my opinion: double for a suit or tuxedo, single for a blazer or casual jacket.
Brown or black buttons with navy/grey? Do they have to match your shoes/belts?
If you wear both black and brown shoes with navy or grey suits, don’t worry about matching your buttons to your shoe color.
If you wear only black or only brown shoes with either suit color, or one much more often than the other, it’s a good idea to choose buttons that will match most of the time.
What’s the deal with online custom? Is there a way to do it right?
Online custom (which is always “made-to-measure”, never “bespoke”) is a bargain play in an arena where you ultimately get what you pay for.
The biggest problem is the self-measuring process and the variation and inaccuracy that comes along with it. The only way to really get close is to use your first purchase as a sample and a learning experience. Save the initial measurements you entered and assess the fit of the suit when it comes in. Now that you have an idea of the allowances the shop is using, you can make any necessary changes to your initial measurements for your second order.
In the end be ready to take it to your local tailor for some tweaks.
What are your thoughts on “fast turnaround” suits in touristy Asian locations like Hong Kong, Thailand, etc?
Beware of any suit with an overly quick turn-around time. They’re slapping that thing together with glue and skipping countless steps in the manufacturing process.
When I was in Hong Kong (the capital city of cheaply made suits) I sampled a $150 custom suit from one of the more esteemed overnight shops in town. The price was great, the fit was decent, the fabric was mediocre and the finishing was terrible.
After a couple dry-cleanings it grew unsightly bubbles through the chest and shoulders (similar to a poorly done do-it-yourself window tint on a car).
Again, you get what you pay for. With that said, though, if you’re a difficult fit on a budget it can be far better than anything you may find off the rack.
What about traveling suit guys who come to your office?
From my experience: they show you some cheap fabrics, take a few measurements, accept your payment, and ship you a suit in the next few weeks.
You’ll be lucky if you ever see them again.
Shop at your own risk.
Again, if you have any additional questions, please post them in the comment section and I will do my best to respond.
Thanks for reading.
Yours in style,
Photography by Alex Crawford.