Dapper men in suits: help me join your ranks on a budget.
August 5, 2014 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Help me buy some great-looking men's suits without breaking the bank. I'm not well-educated on the subject, and I want to look good but avoid spending more than I have to.

I don't need to wear suits to the office, and I've built an office wardrobe that looks about as good as you can get without wearing a tie. But more and more I'm wishing I had a few suits in my wardrobe. It's kind of ridiculous that at my age (32) I don't own a few decent suits. But since I have rarely needed a suit, I always get discouraged by the buy-in. I don't want to spend $300 (with tailoring) only to have a suit that may fit somewhat decently but still looks cheap. Aside from rent I never make four-figure purchases, and would really like to avoid doing so to get into a decent suit. I don't run in circles where I see a lot of guys in suits, so I don't really have an opinion on whether a guy can look good in an off-the-rack suit or not. But when I hear people say things like "never buy off the rack" I can't tell if they're just kind of snobby about it or if it actually matters.

As a groomsman at a recent wedding, we did a group buy-1-get-3-free deal at Jos A Bank rather than renting tuxes. In my not-that-educated opinion, that price point is pretty accurate for the quality. It looks like a cheap suit, even after tailoring.

I have a friend who got a made-to-measure suit online from Asia, I think he used Indochino. It looks great on him and it seems to have been an all-around good experience. Doing some research online (including previous AskMetafilter questions), it seems there are a lot of online made-to-measure options - Indochino, Knot Standard, Black Lapel, etc. Most of them seem to offer credit for a local tailor to adjust if need be, which is comforting. There also seem to be a lot of traveling tailors from places like Hong Kong (Raja Fashions, MyTailor.com, etc.) that will measure you up and create a made-to-measure suit to your specifications. I don't have any second-hand experience with a traveling made-to-measure tailor though, and have no idea about the price point. I'm in the San Diego area, and it seems they come through here, or at least LA, which is not out of the question for me. From what I've read online, the bespoke option seems out of my price range.

I guess my question is this: if I want to spend, say, $500-600 on a suit that looks great on me, how should I go about getting it? Is this a reasonable budget? Are there some in-the-know options out there that I'm not considering? Aside from advice on these general perspective questions, any personal experience you've had would be welcome also.
posted by hootenatty to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (12 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
$500 gets you a pretty natty suit from J. Crew, and they also include free alterations. I don't know how that measures up against the world's best suits, whatever those are like, but I know that I love mine.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 2:30 PM on August 5, 2014

I guess my question is this: if I want to spend, say, $500-600 on a suit that looks great on me, how should I go about getting it? Is this a reasonable budget?

Totally reasonable. My advice to stretch your dollar the furthest would be to go to the Nordstrom's twice-a-year men's sale or similar, or the outlet store of a high end retailer.

I think the online/traveling tailors are way too hit-or-miss to make it worth your while.

Assuming your body type is fairly standard, without any blatantly unusual proportions, a tailored off-the-rack suit should look great assuming you know what "fits."
posted by deanc at 2:36 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's what I did: I found several used men's clothing stores in Houston, the nearest big city.
Because I'm a skinny guy, there was a wide selection of very nice suits that I could have never afforded on my income.

You say you live in San Diego. Maybe you could start here: ShopWellSuited
posted by atchafalaya at 2:43 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Most men who wear suits every day -- lawyers, bankers -- buy most of their suits off the rack. They may have one or two bespoke. People saying "never buy off the rack" either a) don't wear suits every day or b) have more money than sense or c) are snobs.

Any department store will have name-brand suits in that price range. Look for one with a big men's suits department and an in-house tailor. (I like Nordstrom too.)

Men's Wearhouse also carries mid-range brand names and you can do pretty well, price-wise, by hitting their big sales. (The also have a lot of terrible stuff, I guess it helps to have an eye for menswear or to know brands you want to look for.)

hootenatty: "It's kind of ridiculous that at my age (32) I don't own a few decent suits. But since I have rarely needed a suit, I always get discouraged by the buy-in. I don't want to spend $300 (with tailoring) only to have a suit that may fit somewhat decently but still looks cheap. "

Here's the thing ... a suit you buy now is going to look dated in 10 years. (Maybe charmingly dated (you can wear suits a long time and look a little out of fashion and it's fine) maybe screamingly dated, but you don't know now which it will be.) The expected lifespan of a suit is in the 3-5 year range. (Plenty last longer than that, but they're going to start to look dated.) Your body is going to change. The fit of the suit will be different, and what flatters you will be different (even if your body stays the same shape, suits that look sharp on a 20-year-old often look silly on a 40-year-old, and vice versa). You sound like you want to buy one suit FOR LIFE with a big one-time outlay of money, but that's not really going to work.

Why not, instead, go look for a suit around $300 or $400 (charcoal is four-season and will go to weddings and funerals) that you like and looks good. In five years, re-evaluate. Maybe you want to step up and get a more expensive suit. Maybe you now are in a suit-wearing job and need several. Maybe you've moved to Maui and are a beach bum. Maybe you just want something a little more up-to-date at the same price point. The "barrier to entry" is a lot lower if you start with an entry-level model and let yourself decide how you like it before committing to anything really expensive!

(Also, anyone who is close enough to you to tell whether you're wearing a reasonably new $350 suit or a $700 suit better be taking that suit OFF you. Very few people, unless they are menswear professionals or DEAD SNOBS, can tell the difference in a normal social/professional setting until the suit is a few years old and cheaper fabrics start to show wear in different way than more expensive ones. If someone's close enough to be examining the topstitching on your lapels, I sincerely hope you are engaged in more interesting activities than examining the topstitching on your lapels.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:52 PM on August 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Mr. Kitkat suggests that you check out Suit Supply. For the $500-600 range, you can't beat the quality.

If you're interested in learning a lot more about men's style, he says to check out Style Forum

I don't really have an opinion on whether a guy can look good in an off-the-rack suit or not.
What people mean when they say that a person can't look good in an off-the-rack suit is that it means they can't look good off the rack WITHOUT TAILORING. Keep in mind that off the rack suits can go up to $3000 dollars to it's not a price-point thing.
posted by kitkatcathy at 3:44 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have to second the recommendation for J Crew suits. I think it would be more like 600 or 700 list price, but they go on sale a couple times a year. Or if you open a credit account with them, I think you get a one time sale coupon that could knock the price down to around 500. I find the suits to be pretty high quality for the price. I own several, I wear them a few times a week, and I always feel pretty sharp in them.
posted by bepe at 3:55 PM on August 5, 2014

Book recommendation:

John T. Molloy's New Dress for Success
posted by Michele in California at 5:19 PM on August 5, 2014

Best answer: More than you'll ever want to know, coming right up! First, I'd guess you're reacting to a few specific things when you think a suit looks cheap or expensive, which you can use to guide your shopping:

1) Fabric. The first thing you notice whether you know anything about fabric or not.

GOOD: Good, versatile modern suits are almost exclusively of wool, the higher-quality the better. In general, finer wools make for a tighter, smoother weave (expressed in thread count, your super-xyz number) that drapes, breathes, and wears better. Like, a super-120 fabric will hang with a heavier, smoother drape and release wrinkles more easily than a super-100 fabric. TOO high of a thread count and a suit looks great but you start to pay in the durability dimension, though.

BAD: Cheap blends will shine from the synthetic components and can have a bouncy hand that stands away from the body rather than conforming to it. Cheap, coarse weaves tend to look stiff and will take on shine along the texture of the weave. This is the terrible shiny cheap suit of doom.

Occasionally you may have a very high-quality suit in a novelty fabrication—a metallic, say, or an unusual fiber, or a novelty weave. I suspect this is not the kind of suit you are looking for or see much of day-to-day, though.

2) Fit - great fit is critical and begins with the patternmaking. The bones of great suit fit is in the draft, in how it was intended to fit. You can't reasonably take two different suits in the same size and alter them to eventually fit the same way on the same body.

GOOD: True bespoke means a pattern that is entirely custom-designed and drafted to your measurements. Made-to-measure means an existing draft/design that is adjusted and graded to your size. Even with mass-produced suits, you can hone in to a less mass-produced fit, if that makes sense, at both the maker level and at the suit model level. All manufacturers have their own suit slopers (blocks a new flat pattern starts from), which are drafted for whatever their standard sample size measurements and proportions are. Some makers' sample proportions will correlate more closely with yours than others. Then, in general you want to look for a suit with a more specific cut/intended fit rather than less. This is what makes a suit look sharp rather than generic.

BAD: The cheapest mass-produced suits are designed to have the most forgiving cut and fit, without any particular look in mind. Boxy body, big armscye and generous sleeve cap, etc. Because cheap suits are harder to alter for other reasons (less fabric in the seam allowances, fused fronts, etc.), it can be harder to make a cheap suit ever fit really well.

Note that while specificity of cut and fit is generally a good thing, it also puts a shelf life on a suit. Don't ever go for trendy, obviously, but even small details tend to change over time. A suit that looks smart and fits perfectly today will not be either of those things in ten years.

All suits need alterations. Bespoke suits are fitted and altered during construction, but basically no suit in the history of suits has ever NOT needed alterations. Flat patternmaking is very good at making two-dimensional shapes fit a three-dimensional form, but even a bespoke house cannot account for every little quirk of your posture, your slightly larger dominant arm and shoulder, all the tiny little things that affect fit. Whether you use a traveling/online MTM tailor or buy a suit off the rack, you will almost certainly need to use a local tailor anyway for the final tweaks.

3) Construction. Traditional suits are sewn with very high-touch, labor-intensive methods. Mass-produced suits use shortcuts. Most modern suits use a blend of construction methods. This shows in the final look.

GOOD: A very high-end suit is reinforced entirely with sew-in interfacings varying from hair canvas to muslin, each with a very specific area-specific function. When you glance at a super-traditional suit, you can see that the jacket drape is fluid and moves with the body, since the shell fabric is supported but not constrained by the stabilizers. The contours of the body are smoothed and refined by all the layers - all the body's small oddities disappear in a high-quality suit; like, the little hollow at the back shoulder is smoothed by the half back reinforcement applied there. In addition, there are almost no sharp creases on a good suit because of these interfacings - all hems are reinforced with wigan to pad them slightly; the collar roll line is coaxed and steamed into shape and truly rolls rather than folds. All of these various stabilizers are basted and/or padstitched in (sometimes by hand), which both marries the stabilizer to the shell fabric and shapes the garment. The roll line of a good suit's lapels, for example, is not just a place where the jacket front folds back - the padstitching put in during construction is fanned out along the collar and lapels to put slight strategic tension in the fabric and encourage it to always turn in the same place. All these natural-fiber stabilizers will, over time, mold to the wearer's particular body and create an ever-closer fit.

BAD: A cheap suit is stabilized entirely with fusible interfacings, which are basically synthetic woven or non-woven fabrics treated with heat-sensitive glues. This tends to create a much less fluid drape that can look like it's standing away from the body rather than molding to it. There can also be problems with fusibles not bonding properly to the fabric, which you'll see as bubbles or an orange peel-like look on the surface, but that's really horrifically bad manufacturing and it's unlikely you'll come across that at your price point.

There are endless other interior and exterior details that set one suit apart from another, but these are the big three things I'd bet most people notice and take stock of at a glance, whether they realize it or not. Construction in particular is a pretty subtle thing but is the difference between a suit that looks okay and one that looks amazing.

For your needs, and assuming you have a reasonably typical build, I'd recommend going and trying on a ton of decent ready-to-wear suits in your price range. Department stores, better chains like J. Crew. This will give you a feel for your style preferences, get the sizing right, and give you a chance to note consistent fit quirks that you can talk about with your tailor. Buy a versatile, fairly classic suit you like that fits your shoulders properly - given your budget you'll be able to buy something that has solid RTW construction, looks good, and will last at least a few years.

Save MTM or traveling tailor for when you have a clearer idea of what you want out of a suit - specific and definite opinions about styling and fabric - or if you really care about construction and know exactly how they're going to make your suit. I tend to think that if you're not looking to get something very specific and/or something customized for your taste, these options aren't worth the extra cost.
posted by peachfuzz at 5:32 PM on August 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

Some additional input.

I'd disagree that it is difficult to pick out the difference between a $350 and $700 suit, $350 doesn't get you very far in terms of quality anywhere. The difference between a good $700 and a good $1200 suit is much more difficult, anything $1200+ is where it truly hits snob territory. The difficult thing about suit buying is that high price are not always indicators of high quality, so it's difficult to provide a general guide that is simultaneously useful and accurate.

I agree with most of peachfuzz's advice, 100% wool, good fit, and a non-fused jacket are probably the most important differentiators between a cheap looking and decent looking suit. I'm also inclined to agree with his point about getting a couple of cheaper ones from J Crew in order to figure out what your preferences are. Even with the guidance of an expert tailor, nobody gets it just right the first time, but this is a pretty large investment of time and money which I feel like only people who are really into suits are going to try.

I've never used them before, but menswear on a budget guys seem to swear by Suit Supply, and since you're willing to go down to LA maybe you want to get measured by the guys at Thick as Thieves (whom I've also heard good things about and are also in your price range).

I'm currently in HK so generally just get my stuff done by local tailors here.
posted by C^3 at 9:56 PM on August 5, 2014

Data point on Suit Supply: Mr Fish got a custom suit from Suit Supply for our wedding and he absolutely loves it. I think it cost us around 850 euros (including belt, shoes, shirt, tie etc), so I consider that a really good deal and he's worn it multiple times since. One of his groomsmen bought an off-the-rack suit from Suit Supply for the wedding and it also looks amazing. Note: we bought these from the 'mother ship' in Amsterdam.
posted by nerdfish at 2:00 AM on August 6, 2014

I'd second Suit Supply, I have three suits from there that I absolutely love and all were well within your price range. The nice thing about them is they have a variety of price points, but the quality is generally above average even at their cheapest (better than J. Crew in my opinion, both for the price and on an absolute basis). I will caveat by saying I bought from them when they were relatively new in the US, and I'm not sure what their expansion has done to their price / quality. Might be worthwhile to order from the Amsterdam shop as nerdfish did, and then take in to the closest tailor to get the fit right.

If you haven't checked it out already, Styleforum is always a helpful resource for anything formalwear, and in a big city like San Diego typically there are always people who have first hand information on local places.
posted by infiniteguest at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2014

Dappered.com has all sorts of great advice on this topic. See the July 14 post for top 10 affordable Navy suits.
posted by cnc at 4:46 PM on August 6, 2014

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