Before I began writing this article, I did a Google search on my topic of choice. The search resulted in over 9 million hits on how to buy a suit or how to choose a suit. I skimmed a few to get the main idea of what these authors were writing about, and concluded that most of them did not know what they were writing about. This was most evident when the authors included a photo to highlight and demonstrate how a suit should fit, and the garment did not fit. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
With that said, let’s get down to business in really defining the key points of what you need to look for when choosing a new suit. In a suit that costs over the $2000 mark you are going to find lots and lots of details that many of the sub $1000 suits will just not have. It is just not possible to have Loro Piana Super 160s fabric in a lower priced suit. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not telling the truth so beware. That does not mean you cannot be a savvy, educated shopper and find a nice fit, cloth and some hand-details in something lower priced.
Critical Points in Suit Buying
The most critical aspect of good fitting suit is the shoulder line. If you try on a suit jacket and the top of shoulder line is depressed and bumpy, forget that suit. Don’t even bother looking at the pants. That is a telltale sign of poor manufacturing. The shoulder should be clean, smooth and straight across with some structure. There should not be any depressions, wrinkles or bumps. I have seen many online suit ads in which even the photos indicate these exact defects. Factories that create garments with ill-fitting shoulders do not know how to make a suit fit properly.
Raise the suit on its hanger and look at the sleeves. Do the sleeves fall cleanly and slightly forward following the natural bow of a man’s arm or do they twist at the center area and break? If a sleeve twists and breaks when it is on the hangar that is another sign of sub-par manufacturing. I have seen expensive suits that do this as well. Remember, it is not just a matter of price, but how a suit is made.
In my more than 30 years experience in men’s fashion, it is known that the best made suits are certainly Italian from many of the brands you may have heard of. Canali, Ermenegildo Zegna and Brioni all come to mind. Although these are high-end beasts of Italian fashion they too all have their differences. What you can do by looking at these and trying these suits on is realize what you should be looking for in a well-made, tailored garment. Many times I give fashion advice on Quora and Reddit. Lot’s of people there are just buying their first suit for an interview, school function or some family event. They do not want to waste their money on a poorly made suit. If they spend a few hundred dollars they want it to last multiple wears because they probably won’t buy another suit for a while. My advice, besides telling them what to look for, is to try on some very expensive Italian made suits, possibly in a department store like Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Dillard’s or Neiman’s. If you are in the UK try Harrod’s or Selfridges and Au Primtemps if in Paris, France. Go to the men’s department and without making too much of a bother ask a salesperson to help you find your size and try one on. You will know right away why they are priced as they are. Hours and hours of hand-details go into just one jacket. Some jackets take up to 24 hours to create. Notice the smooth fitting shoulder line. View the chest in the mirror and how it does not break or dimple under the armhole area. Feel how easily the buttons button and the lapel rolls all the way from the top most button of the jacket to the collar points. Feel how smooth and soft the wool fabric is and how light weight the jacket feels and drapes. These are made with canvas and should feel as though the jacket is molding to your body. When you try on a well-tailored suit, you do not need a mirror to know it fits well.
What To Look For
Find a garment that has a similar fit, but not in those price ranges. It will be difficult. Here are more details to look for. Above we have already mentioned the smooth shoulder line. The lapel should roll from the body of the jacket. It should not feel hard-pressed, but should be rounded and easily fall back into place if lifted up. This rolling should continue all throughout the lapel down to the buttonhole on the front. The buttonhole on the front of the jacket should not be pressed so hard as to cause a sudden stop of rolling of the lapel. All of buttonholes should be cleanly sewn without any threads hanging off. They should be robust, almost 3D like and not flat. Most are sewn on with a machine, but there are machines that make faux button holes look better than others.
Examine the edges of the jacket. Does it have pick stitching? This type of stitching, known as AMF stitching, is supposed to mimic hand sewing, but is done by a machine. It is more desirable to have such stitches appear a bit uneven since this would be more true to what hand sewing would look like on a suit. Suits that do not have the pick stitching are generally fused together, but not always. My personal taste calls for the pick stitching. It gives a more luxurious, hand tailored look to any suit. The stitching should continue on the side vents of the jacket, along the edge of the sleeve near the buttons, around the flaps on the pockets of the jacket and at the bottom of the front of the jacket on both sides. It should also be on the breast pocket. AMF stitching is sometimes also used on the interior of a suit jacket to give a clean, finished look. This is another detail to consider. It creates a richer appearing garment as opposed to suits with linings sewn in with invisible, machine stitching.
The interior of the jacket is also an area for additional examination. How is the brand label sewn into the jacket? Is it sewn on all four corners of the label or is it sewn completely around? Labels that are only sewn on the four corners are a symbol of mass production. This includes suits that are so-called “custom.” In other words, the suit is being constructed for many different companies by the same factory. The factories sew the labels in after the suits are completely made so as to be able to label them any way they need to for the variety of companies to which they are distributing. This holds true for online “custom” suit makers. Even though the online custom suit companies are taking your measurements, they are not making bespoke. They are taking a premade, predefined, factory garment and perhaps making some slight modification, then sewing in the appropriate label for each company. Even the inexpensive Ralph Lauren Green Label, Lauren, does not do this. Their label is sewn all the way around as are the labels in expensive Italian or British suits. The label needs to be sewn in before the lining is sewn into the suit. If the lining is sewn in first the factory cannot sew around the label hence using the four corners, which looks terribly cheap.
Another two areas to investigate inside a suit jacket are around the armholes and inside the sleeves where the buttons are sewn on. It is rare in less expensive suits to have hand-sewn armholes. Take a look to see if the stitching is even or if the stitches are uneven. Uneven usually means by hand, but if your suit does not have this it is not a deal breaker. More importantly, check inside the sleeve under the buttons. Are the buttons sewn through the sleeve lining or were they sewn in before the lining was closed? The more desirable way is not to see the stitching and have it underneath the lining. In this way, the thread holding the buttons in place will not get pulled when putting your arm in and out of the jacket and won’t get caught on your wristwatch.
Some Forgotten Details
Speaking of buttons, these little suit accouterments, when done right, may add an even richer appearance to an inexpensive suit. Be sure there is buttonhole stitching for each of the four small buttons on both sleeves of the jacket. The buttons on the sleeves should at least have faux stitching, though real, open surgeon sleeves, commonly known as “working button holes,” make a serious fashion statement. Any suit jacket can have real, working buttonholes put in if you have a good tailor. There is a machine that makes the buttonholes and sews the stitching around them in about 10 seconds. Here in New York City you can have an entire jackets’ all 8 buttonholes done for $10. You would need a tailor first to prepare the sleeve for the machine to do it’s work.
Lastly, consider the trousers. Look at the waistband and feel it in your hands. Does it appear and feel thin? Crunchy? This is a sign of inexpensive buckram, the interlining of a suit waistband that gives support to your pants when you sit down. Inexpensive buckram may cause the waistband to curl over when you are seated for extended periods of time. It may also separate from the outer fabric of the pant as a result of heat from your body and stress on the waistband from daily wear. Next, turn the trousers inside out and look at the lining. Are the pants lined at least to the knee in the front? Is there a small crotch piece in-between the legs? Those are two essential details to have. In addition to the pick stitching on the jacket, pick stitching should appear the edges of the trouser pockets and on the front of the fly in order to maintain a uniform appearance. The final consideration with respect to the trouser is its closure. Does the waistband fasten with buttons or a metal clip? Though not a reason to abandon a suit, metal hook closures become problematic if they break as they present a serious repair problem for any tailor.
I saved the easiest item for last. Be sure to see the label of composition. What is the suit made from? You should buy 100% wool or a mixture with cashmere (which is also wool). Stay away from polyester or more than 10% silk in a suit. Reason being, silk is very delicate and can cause the pants to wear out very quickly. Silk and wool sport coats are fine, but I’ll save fabrications for my next installment article. Happy shopping, and please connect with me if you have any questions. I’d be glad to speak with you about this article or any other topic regarding men’s fashion, menswear, and men’s suits.
Philip Pravda is an expert in men’s tailored garments with over 30 years experience in high end luxury fashion for men. He has worked with the most well-known names in Italian menswear from Canali, Zegna, Brioni, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana just to name a few. His newest collection is now at SuitCafe.com. A hand tailored super 150s wool garment with the #1fit on and offline. He has put all his years experience into designing this tailored suit with all the details of the most expensive brands at a more reasonable price.