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Reader question: Suit brands

15 July 2009

Will, Minnesota: Simon, I wrote to you before on a style matter. As I’ve sought suits and separates lately, I’ve learned that while I thought I was a 40, I am truly around a 38 long – sometimes a 36. In-turn, I’ve learned that some designers will fit me better than others and in ways that I prefer. After having bought two suits, a Valentino and a Z Zegna, from Bloomingdale’s at more than 50% off, I write to you again.

I know that these names, as well as Hart Schaffner Marx, Armani, and many others are high-end brands. I know that Boss is a little bit lower and Ralph Lauren, except for his purple and black label, is lower still. Without giving me an exhaustive and exhausting list of names, please tell me the tiers of men’s suits and brands. Or if you’ve already done so, please direct me to the column link.

Dear Will, there is no obvious or easy way to rank the different designer brands. Much of the ranking you state here will be based on advertising, your tastes and on inevitably on price.

The key to comparing designer brands is to remember that you are paying for two things – design and construction. A $2000 designer suit is not twice as well made as a $1000 one. It may be made slightly better (say 10%, 20% more invested in materials and workmanship) but most of the extra price is for design.

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Design is great. It brings beauty into the world. But most of the time when men buy a suit they don’t want to pay for design. They want better materials and quality. So just pick a design you like, irrespective of the price. You may have expensive tastes or cheap tastes. But work out what you can afford and pick the design you like best for that price.

This is entirely separate to quality of construction. I recommend a few things to look for below, but I would also recommend the relevant section of Alan Flusser’s Style and the Man, which goes into assessing cloth and construction in more detail.

- Check that the chest is fully canvassed. When you pinch the material around a jacket button, holding both sides of the cloth one in each hand, you should be able to feel a floating piece of material between them (this is horsehair or a horsehair blend, and gives construction to the chest).

- Check that the buttons are horn rather than plastic.

- Try holding the cloth and feeling its weight. It should be flexible to the touch, have a satisfying heft and spring back well when scrunched (as you can see, this ‘feel’ for cloth is something hard to describe).

- Check how large the armholes are. A smaller armhole is less efficient to make and more personal to the wearer. Cheaper brands make bigger ones to fit more people.

- Check that the trousers are at least half-lined. While some men prefer trousers unlined (particularly as it makes them easier to press) a lining is generally a sign of quality.

- Check the matching of patterns. Checks or stripes should match across pockets and across some part of the chest into the sleeve. As with many of these points, this really shows attention to detail rather than quality of construction – but that’s the best guide you have, you have to assume that attention will have been pursued elsewhere as well.

- Working buttonholes used to be a sign of quality, but so many cheap suits do it now that I would ignore this.

These are just a few things to check. Much of it is a question of taste as well. I hate a jacket that doesn’t roll naturally from the top button to the middle button of three. And it is harder to construct, so you could say it shows quality. But then some people do prefer harder-lapelled, ‘true’ three-button suits.

The other thing to remember when separating design and construction is that you are paying for a brand’s advertising, shops and runway shows. Armani spends more on this promotion than, say, Canali, which in turn probably spends more than Hart Schaffner Marx. Armani ads create desirability and cool, but you pay for it when you buy into that branding. Profit margins aren’t necessarily higher at designer brands, but costs are.

(Though often designer labels do use their position to charge higher margins. One former Berluti employee tells me that their profit margins can be higher than 75%, for example, charging almost 50% more than an English shoemaker I know with the same cost price.)

One answer to this, of course, is to get discounts – as you have done. Anything over 50% and you’ve removed most of the profit. Kilgour’s recent clearout sale got me rather a fever given that some suits were priced at £250, down from over £1000.

To conclude, don’t assume that brands have any set pecking order. Judge the design on its own merits and your own taste, not the label or the price tag. Then analyse the quality using my pointers and other research. And finally, get a discount.