By: Kelvin Wang
With most things in life, you get what you pay for and this particularly true in the sphere of menswear. There are major differences between a cheap $200 suit and a $2,000+ bespoke suit. It may not seem like it, but it’s actually very simple to tell the difference between the former and the latter.
I’ll tell you a story.
The other day I was out at a networking event. One of my friends, who knew about my interest in menswear, pointed out to two gentlemen and asked me if I could guess what brand of suit they were wearing.
Field test of sorts, I suppose.
Well, one was wearing a suit which was characterized by razor-thin 2’’ lapels. An aggressively tight/skinny fit and truncated jacket emphasized the youthful and rebellious elements of the suit. I guessed H&M or Zara. Topman, actually, but very close.
The other was wearing a conservative dark suit with standard 3’’ lapels which provided for a fuller drape of the body. Very classic American style, actually. I guessed Brooks Brothers. I was right on.
That got me thinking as to what were the signs of a quality suit. I’ll be sharing those thoughts today to hopefully bring to light why some may choose to pay a premium for said garments. Functionally, there isn’t much difference but I’m of the opinion that a suit is a modern man’s suit of armour (pun not intended). It’s those little details which can make you feel like a million bucks.
However, I am not advocating everyone go out and blow next month’s rent on a bespoke suit. If you only wear a suit maybe once or twice a year, you’d be getting very little return on your investment and you absolutely could get by with a cheaper suit. But if you get a lot out of mileage out of your suits and appreciate the little details, then consider going up a price tier. I’m sure you won’t regret it.
Fast-fashion retailers like Zara drive down the costs on their suits by ordering synthetic fabric in bulk quantities. These fabrics are abrasive and if you ever have the chance to feel the difference between a low-quality and high-quality suit, you’ll see that there’s a world of difference in terms of fabric quality.
These lower-quality suits are often made of wool-polyester blends and the worst offenders come with polyester lining.
Lining refers to the fabric on the inside of your jacket. It provides structure and weight to the garment. A fully lined jacket is heavier and warmer – ideal for winter months. A completely unlined jacket is casual and highly ideal for summer months because it disperses heat in a manner which can keep you cool and free from gross sweat stains.
What’s bad about polyester lining? Polyester is a synthetic fabric which traps heat. It has a crunchy, almost paper-y feel to it. For lack of a better phrase, it just doesn’t feel good against the body. As a result, it isn’t a breathable fabric and you’ll find yourself sweating up a storm if your jacket has a polyester lining.
If you’re looking for a jacket, your best bet is Bemberg lining, a silky-smooth natural fabric which is as breathable as it is light.
As for the actual fabric used, the best quality suits have their cloth cut from reputable British and Italian mills. Mills like Vitale Baberis Canonico and Ariston have been around for centuries and it’s their business to clad business men and leaders in garb which will allow them to stand out from the herd.
You ever hear that phrase, “True beauty is on the inside?”
It’s particularly true when it comes to suiting. Inside of a quality suit jacket are thousands of micro-stitches connecting the outer shell to an interior canvas composed of camel and horse hair. While this canvas is hidden, it plays an important role in terms of comfort and maintaining the form of your jacket.
This canvas can be described as either a half-canvas or full-canvas. The former just means that the canvas extends along the top half of the inside front panels and lapels of the jacket. The latter means that the canvas spans the entire inside front panels and lapels of the jacket.
The latter is far more expensive but provides for superior drape and comfort. Pragmatically speaking, however, I would say that the visible difference between the two isn’t visually noticeable to 95% of people, myself included.
The effect of this canvassing is a nicely formed lapel which provides for a three-dimensional roll. As the focal point of the garment, this is key as a strong lapel provides shape and life to the lapel. Without this canvassing, the lapel would simply be a stiff crease going straight down.
A step below any canvassing options is having a fused suit jacket. This means that instead of sewing the canvas to the jacket, it is instead, glued to the wool shell. This is significantly cheaper than any of the canvassing options listed above but there are several downsides. Firstly, the jacket will not conform to the shape of wearer so it will lack the natural drape of a canvassed jacket. Additionally, you run the risk of your jacket bubbling and becoming deformed if you take it to the dry cleaner as the heat from the cleaner’s equipment will literally melt the glue inside your jacket.
Cheap plastic buttons are flimsy and easily breakable. It’s all in the details here as genuine horn or mother-of-pearl buttons are durable and are just more aesthetically pleasing. Fortunately, this is an easy fix. Most tailors carry an assortment of buttons in their shop so it never hurts to ask and see if they can sew on some new buttons.
Most men are surprised to hear that a lot of modern male fashion is derived from military garments. Take the peacoat for example. It’s a classic garment which was worn by British sailors.
Although the suit jacket is not a military garment, per se, there are elements of it which are inspired from military history. Take the buttons on your sleeves for example. They’re meant to mimic the ranks on the sleeves of military uniforms.
But we can take it one step further. Back when doctors were deployed to work in the trenches, they would unbutton and roll up their sleeves because taking off one’s jacket in public just wasn’t acceptable.
Nowadays, you probably won’t be rolling up your suit’s sleeves to save someone’s life, but unbuttoning one or two buttons on your sleeves is often a nudge-nudge of sorts to those who are aware of this little fact.
But what’s that? You can’t unbutton those buttons?
Higher quality jackets often come with functioning button holes. Most off-the-rack jackets will come with fake buttonholes which are really, just stitches meant to imitate functional holes.
Although functional button holes are a nice touch, they can have issues. They can be a pain to adjust for your tailor because he/she either has to adjust the sleeve from the shoulder head (which can mess up the fit of the shoulders) or chop parts of your sleeve which can throw off the proportions of your jacket. Non-functional buttonholes don’t come with these issues which is why functional buttonholes are most often, seen in custom suits as the tailor can cut the sleeve at the correct length right from the start.
Another thing that I want to point out is kissing & stacked buttons. Kissing buttons refers to the fact that the buttons on your sleeves actually touch one another. Stacked buttons refers to the fact that your buttons overlap. Details like this indicate that element of the jacket was done by hand as stacked or kissing buttons cannot be done by machine.
You’re probably thinking that I’m going crazy here but bear with me. The shape of your jacket’s breast pocket can speak volumes about the quality of your suit jacket. Traditional breast pockets are cut straight across the chest in a horizontal line. This is relatively simple for even an inexperienced tailor.
Higher quality jacket often come with curved breast pockets named barchetta breast pockets. Traditionally a staple of Italian Neapolitan tailoring, barchetta pockets are much more difficult to construct and provides a nice, curved shape which emphasizes the shoulders and provides a strong, masculine silhouette. For more ornate pocket square folds, the barchetta breast pocket is a great fit.
I should note that a lot of manufacturers make faux barchetta breast pockets. Essentially, instead of creating a curved line or even a horizontal pocket, they create a diagonal line which is meant to mimic the barchetta pocket. I would steer clear from these as they just aren’t aesthetically pleasing.