Everything you need to know about buying a bespoke suit
Conceived in the sartorial revolution of the early 19th century, the suit has since become a fashion staple that, when right, oozes class while also masking things like droopy shoulders, short legs and long arms.
But it takes more than a credit card -- a top set of threads can cost the best part of US$50,000 -- and a torso to get the best out of your material coverings.
Fortunately, tailors aren't shy when it comes to giving style advice. We asked some of the world’s best for tips on buying suits when away from home.
1. Find a perfect relationship
Finding the perfect tailor is as important (and personal) as finding the right doctor or dentist.
“It’s like handwriting; we’re all taught to write, but we write in different ways.”
As with any potential suitor it's worth looking into your tailor’s past.
Have they been around for a while? Are they stable? Do they have good names notched into their tailoring bedpost?
Established in 1806, Henry Poole lays claim to inventing the dinner Jacket (or what American’s call the tuxedo). The clothier holds various Royal Warrants and has dressed such names as Sir Winston Churchill and Napoleon III.
“You need to ask: is this firm long-term?” says Henry Poole managing director Simon Cundey. “Do they have good stature, history and people and are you comfortable around? It’s all about doing your homework."
Many reputable tailors train their staff through apprenticeships, making sure talent will consistently be available to the business. At Henry Poole an apprentice trains for about four years.
If your tailor’s past checks out, look to the future of your relationship. Good tailors will be looking for a long-term relationship with you, too.
“We don’t call a customer a customer until they’ve been back a second time,” says Cundey.
Henry Poole includes “extra cloth” in its suits. If your weight changes over time, their tailors can make small alterations.
2. Learn the language
A suit is a suit, right? Wrong.
From the relaxed Italian to the more structured British style, choosing a suit is more than plumping for pinstripe or fixating on flannel.
Understanding tailoring lingo is key.
The “bespoke” suit. The cream of the crop carries the highest price tag. The pattern is designed and made from scratch to suit you.
The “made-to-measure” suit. Takes less time and money -- the suit is cut from an existing pattern and tweaked for your measurements.
“Off the rack” and “ready to wear.” The clue is in the name. The archenemy of bespoke tailoring, but a darn sight cheaper.
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3. Be patient
There's no such thing as fast fashion in the bespoke world, so don’t be palmed off with a five-minute consultation. The experts we polled will take up to two months to create a suit.
For Manu Melwani of Sam’s Tailors, who has suited the likes of U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, the trick is communication.
“We take the money so we must take the time," says Melwani. "We spend around 30 to 45 minutes explaining about body shape.
“The measuring should take about 18 minutes. The first fitting will then take a further 25 to 30 minutes.”
If you want a bespoke suit, expect 20 body measurements to be taken and two to four fittings.
Improvements to your posture will be attempted and the finishing of the garment will be checked. A good tailor will also give advice on how to care for your new addition to your wardrobe.
As (almost) all gentlemen know, tailors adjust the cut of the trousers to ensure a smooth fitting, using the euphemism "which side do you dress?" to enquire discreetly about arrangements immediately below the waist.
“One chap -- when asked if he dressed to the right or left -- said ‘I tend to put my left leg in my trousers first.’ It took him a while to understand what we meant!” says Cundey.
4. Don’t be cheap, be charming
The word on the street or, more specifically, the Row, is you get what you pay for.
Richard Anderson sells suits for an average of £4,000 (US$6,400). Their most expensive piece, a tailor-made vicuña overcoat, can cost up to £30,000.
“We produce excellent work for the money, about 50 man hours go into each suit," he says. "It’s very labor intensive. If you look after your suits they will last for 10 to 20 years.”
For those that can’t afford to drop a couple of grand on a suit, Anderson recommends building a wardrobe. Start with a simple, classic navy blazer that “can fulfill many functions,” then progress onto medium weight suits in navy or gray.
You might get stonewalled when asking for a discount, but it’s worth asking the question -- especially if you’re a repeat customer or buying a lot.
Suits at Henry Poole start at £3,010 but if customers pay in full, rather than just the deposit, Cundey says they take 10 percent off the price.
Melwani says Sam's has a set price for suits (from HK$3,150-18,800 or US$406-2,425) but “sometimes we do give one shirt as a gift -- if clients ask. We want to make them happy.”
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5. Watch out for cons
“Check that no glue substances are being used in the suit,” says Cundey. “That’s when they won’t last. We call them ‘one-way tickets.’ They may get you to that meeting, but not back.”
A high-end suit will have a “canvas” -- a piece of material between the fabric and the lining to give the garment its structured shape.
A half canvas is a more affordable option and is only put in the top part of the jacket. However, if it’s a cheaper suit it’s likely a lining has been glued into the jacket instead of sewn.
Double check by pinching around the top button holes on the chest piece. You should be able to feel a separate piece of material.
If it feels too thick and stiff, especially when compared with the arm of the suit, chances are it’s been glued and risks deteriorating over time.
Prospective buyers should ask questions about how much handwork is in the suits and if they are made on the premises or shipped off, advises Richard Anderson.
“Major tailoring houses would have the majority of their tailors on the premises to maintain both quality and consistency.”
Padding, stitching and buttonholes should all be done by hand if you’re paying top dollar.
“We only use a machine on the straight seams in a coat, i.e., the center-back, side seams and pockets -- this is for strength purposes,” says Anderson.
If you’re still not sure how to spot a dodgy suit, screw it into a ball. A high quality material shouldn’t wrinkle when twisted. Even if it does, the creases should quickly fall out.
To give you an idea of a quality suit, two-piece suits made by Savile Row Bespoke Association members must contain at least 50 man hours of handwork. They must also have an extensive range of cloths and provide first-class after-care for garments, including repairs and button matching.
When it comes to spotting a cheap suit, the devil really is in the details. Watch out for loose threads, cheap plastic buttons and puckering -- especially at the seams.
6. Make sure the tailor eyes you up
The hope is that you walk into a tailor's shop resembling Worzel Gummidge and emerge as James Bond. But don’t think that measurements are all your tailor is taking.
“A reputable tailor will take note of a customer's figuration,” says Anderson. “On top of the standard measurements, we look to see if their legs are bowed or if one shoulder is lower than the other. This is subtly done and we don’t say anything.”
Custom tailoring is all about giving you the right posture and proportions.
“The true bespoke world is looking to balance you up,” says Cundey. “If the body has a strange shape we try and hide it.”
If a tailor isn’t aware of your body’s quirks you’re most likely in the wrong place. So go on, challenge a potential tailor to point out your sloppy shoulders and that gammy leg.
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7. Make sure it fits
“The ultimate suit is always a second skin,” says Cundey. “You shouldn’t be pulling on your clothes. Customers should feel reassured and confident when they leave for the office in the morning.”
Fiddling with your collar or tugging down your shirt may be a sign your suit, and tailor, is not up to scratch. If you’re dropping the cash on a tailored suit make sure you feel comfortable.
“It should fit like a glove -- check the arm holes are not too tight and that the jacket collar is not away from the neck and that the crotch is not too low,” says Melwani.
8. Don't exclude women
London-based personal shopper and stylist, Gabrielle Teare, says that while tailored suits may be great for men “often fashion and bespoke tailoring don’t go” for women.
If it’s a pure fashion look women are after we may be better off sticking to high-end brands. However, Teare adds that larger ladies who struggle to find clothes on the high street might want to consider a tailor.
Both Savile Row tailors, Richard Anderson and Simon Cundey, say around 5 percent of their customers are female.
However, according to Anderson, tailored clothes for women can “be very classical and sexy.” A wardrobe staple is a jacket that enhances the bust and accentuates the waist.
Because women can be known for being picky about what they wear and the fact that “men tend to have a set format for suits,” Cundey says, “often women require one more fitting” than men.
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Before you go skipping off down the street to find your perfect tailor it’s worth bearing in mind that some of the world’s best tailors might travel to you.
Many of the top tailors fly their staff around the world a few times a year. Check your preferred tailor’s website for details.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a global database of tailors. A good place to start your hunt for your dream tailor would be the country guides below:
Arguably, the home of modern tailoring, London is the first port of call for that quintessentially British, Savile Row experience. A good place to start is the Savile Row Bespoke Association. You have to be a top-notch tailor to join.
You only have to walk around Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong to find myriad tailors. Sam’s Tailor, Empire International, Ascot Chang and A-Man Hing Cheong (Shop M2, Mandarin Oriental Hotel) have all received much international press attention.
Not based in London, Milan or Hong Kong? Check out some of our local guides to tailors near you:
Top Bangkok tailors: website
Best Shanghai tailors: website
Shanghai's best qipao tailors: website
Sydney tailoring: website
Mumbai's cutest tailors: website