Suit shopping, (part 1)

After posting a review of a suit I purchased from an online tailor a few days ago, I’ve been asked by a few people about the differences between going to an online tailor and entering your own measurements or buying from a custom suit store and getting measured in person. I thought it would be worthwhile to put down the kind of things I’m looking for when choosing a tailor and it might inform you when choosing a place to buy tailored clothing like suits and shirts for work and social functions.

This is the first of a series of posts I intend to be making. I have no idea how long it will go for but hopefully, you’ll find it somewhat more entertaining than watching a suited asian man ranting about it in a bar over a couple of beers.

FROM OFF THE RACK TO CUSTOM

I think it’s a bit of an upgrade for alot of people when they make the move from ready to wear clothing to something that’s personally tailored. It was very exciting to customise the features of my own suit.  I remember buying my first custom made suit around 2012, when I was in the early stages of a corporate career and wanted something specific that wasn’t available within my limited student budget.

However just because a garment is custom made to measurements doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll fit better than something that’s ready to wear. The rationale behind ready to wear clothing is that it’s mass-produced to fit a number of pre-determined body sizes and shapes. Different brands target different demographics but generally speaking, alot of the more cheaper brands have a one-size-fits-all approach. It kinda sucks if you’re 1.83 metres tall like me with cyclist thighs and long arms and I imagine it’s worse for people who don’t fit the body shapes that off the rack brands design for.

That said, just because something is ready to wear doesn’t mean it’s strictly inferior to something that’s made to measure.  A well fitting suit from Suitsupply, MJ Bale, Herringbone or Brioni for instance, is probably going to be significantly better than an overnight custom suit you picked up for $50 at a fabric market in Bangkok or Bali. The different suit brands have varying grades of quality that goes into the production and if an MJ Bale or Suitsupply suit fits you well with little tailoring needed, there is little reason to buy a custom suit unless you’re either looking for something specific that’s not available at your budget or you’re looking to upgrade. One of my favourite suits was a vintage three piece Zegna from the 1970s with in flannel ropestripe pattern that I picked up from Ebay for $200 and it needed minimal tailoring to get right.

By the same token, there are significant variations between different tailors, both online and offline. There are variations in fits, cuts, construction and materials. Most made to measure tailors have a pre-made pattern and cut that they adjust to fit your measurements. Other tailors cut a new pattern based on your measurements and body type. With a good local tailor, they can make further adjustments in the cut and fit before finishing so the suit has a better fit for your body. It’s a combination of each of those factors, as well as the tailor’s margin, that adds up to the price of a suit.

THE CUT

The cut of a suit refers to the outline it forms around your body and is formed by the way the shoulders are constructed, how the jacket hangs over your chest, the buttoning stance, the shape of the lapels and the how the trousers hang from your hips. For instance, I’ve attached pictures of two double breasted suits I’ve commissioned, both from two different tailors.

Although they are both full canvassed six button double breasted suits, there are some differences in the cut. The charcoal grey suit was from Shanghai C&G Tailoring and it had 4 inch peak lapels, heavily roped shoulders and a more suppressed waist. The blue suit was from the hand-made range by Elite Suits and had 5 inch lapels and a slightly lower buttoning stance, as well as larger pocket flaps to emulate a Tom Ford aesthetic. The two suits have a very different aesthetic, even though the specifications are largely the same.

The different cuts complement the various body shapes and although my suit wardrobe has a wide variety of suits all in different cuts, there are some tailoring principles that generally guide what cut is most appropriate for what body shape. For instance, Alan Flusser, in his book ” Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion” recommends, among other things, a lower buttoning stance for shorter men to accentuate the length of the chest. It’s a pretty interesting read and it certainly helps you develop an appreciation of the different elements that goes into a suit.

CONSTRUCTION

With the growth of online tailoring and the more market-savvy consumer, alot of online tailors now advertise that their suits are canvassed or have a “floating chest piece”. Essentially, what they’re referring to is a layer between the outside fabric of the jacket and the smooth lining that is intended to give shape to the chest and allow it to mould to the wearer’s shape over time. Of course, not all jackets have a canvas or need one. Summer linen jackets for instance, are often unlined and unstructured, which lends it a very casual look. However, in tailored work clothing, the presence of a full or half canvas is often indicative of better construction.

A diagram from a tailoring manual that shows the different forms of canvassing.

A diagram from a tailoring manual that shows the different forms of canvassing.

There are three main types of canvas. Full canvas, half canvas and fused.

The full canvas involves having the layer of horsehair running through the jacket. It is often sewn into the body of the suit, without any fusing. This was the way traditional suits are done and it commands a premium over the half canvassed construction. When done properly, the canvas also extend to the lapel, giving it a very nice and characteristic “roll” if left unpressed. The benefit of this technique is that the suit does not “bubble” when sent to the dry cleaner and with proper care, the jacket can last a very long time.

The half canvas method has grown increasingly popular with the increased awareness of menswear by the consumer and many ready to wear stores like MJ Bale, TM Lewin, Herringbone, Rhodes & Beckett and Suitsupply have started to advertise their suits are constructed in this method. With this construction, the canvas only extends to the chest and the lower half of the jacket is either fused or unstructured. There is nothing inherently wrong with this method of construction and it is less time consuming to produce these kinds of suits as they can be done on a machine. Even the made-to-measure suits from P Johnson’s “Suit Shop” are made this way.

Fused suits do not have any canvas in them at all and they are glued together, often in a mass produced factory line belt. That black polyester bag you wore to your year 12 formal? Fused. That wool-blend special you picked up from Van Heusen for $150? The cheap fabric market suit from Thailand? Fused. They’re cheap to make and alot of big fashion labels are guilty of this practice to fatten their margins. Z Zegna and Hugo Boss are both culprits. Even alot of the made to measure places do this. There’s a big stigma about fused suits and justifiably so as the glue could degrade with time and dry cleaning, leading the suit jacket to “bubble”, which ruins the look of the whole outfit. Although the fusing technology has arguably improved in recent times, the affordability of a nice half-canvassed suit makes fused options a false economy and a poor value proposition.

Canvas alone however, should not be determinative of the overall quality of construction. There are other factors you need to consider such as the cleanliness of the stitching, the quality of materials and trimmings, and the details. I’ve seen full canvas suits with horrible stitching, poorly made pockets and low quality materials that tear after the first couple of wears, and I’ve also had half-canvas suits with decent bemberg linings, clean stitching and quality horn buttons. Hopefully, I can illustrate this example in further posts.

I’ll finish this post with an image I found off google, which I think would be useful. The creator of the graphic, Tanya Wlodarczyk, has a number of other pretty nifty  infographs on her blog.

I’ll continue this article over the next couple of weeks by elaborating the differences between online/offline tailors and going on about the overall fit of suits. 

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