“As our writer proves, it doesn’t take a fashion expert to figure it out – just a lot of experience. Here’s what he’s learned.”

I think we’d all love to have the experience of purchasing one or more bespoke suits. The fanfare, the attention to detail and the peerless final product are undoubtedly on every man’s list of what constitutes “fine living.” Sadly, it’s something precious few of us can make a reality. For one thing, it’s expensive — bespoke, tailor-made suits can run into the thousands. Moreover, not every tailor is capable of producing them, meaning, you can’t expect your corner dry cleaner with the “alterations” sign to be up to the task. Granted, if you’re on a roadshow pitching a multimillion dollar merger to potential investors, you’d better be wearing a pristine garment that cost you five figures. But really, who among us is doing that regularly, if at all?

No, most of us are one-suit wedding and funeral guys. Even those of us who regularly wear suits to work have a hard time justifying the expense of multiple nicer off-the-rack suits from a haberdashery. What’s worse, as men’s fashion has become elevated into the mainstream, we’ve been conditioned to be wary of the big-box men’s stores offering deals like “buy one sock, get 50 suits free.” Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve purchased suits everywhere from those aforementioned liquidators to nicer retail outlets to the newer online made-to-measure shops, and no matter where you go, you can come out looking good. It’s all in the details.

Know Your Measurements

When it comes to how to buy a suit, the first and most important step is to know your measurements. If you don’t, any good men’s store will be happy to measure you. This is important because of something called the drop, which is the difference between the jacket measurement and the pants waistband. The standard drop on an off-the-rack suit is six inches, meaning that if the jacket is a 42”, the waist will be a 36″. That may work for some men, but if you’re athletically built it could be a problem. I wear a 42” jacket, but my waist is a 31″, meaning my drop is actually eleven inches. This is a key distinction for a reason: The big retailers who offer those incredible suit deals are able to do so because their production process is carefully managed and occurs on a grand scale, and that means they’re often unwilling to separate a complete suit to find the size you need. That means unless you can find a tailor who can lop five inches off the waistband (you can’t), like me, you’ll be relegated to the “separates” section, which will be a lot smaller in terms of selection.

That’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking to capitalize on those deals to stock up on multiple suits. You won’t run into the same problem at a place like J. Crew, where they will break up matched pairs to find the right fit. Alternatively, you’ll pay a little more per suit, and I’ve never seen that type of sale at a store like that. If you have something approaching a standard drop, you can actually find exceptionally fine suits, even at the warehouse stores. In that case, feel free to go wild and walk out with as many free suits as the deal allows. If not, you’ll need to dig a little deeper, which brings me to…

Suit Construction

Not all cheap suits are created equal. Well, they are in the sense that they’re all created by machines and cheaply, but that doesn’t make them necessarily bad. If you’re in a warehouse retailer’s seperates section looking to score a deal on multiple suits, find the most expensive model that you can afford. Now check the shoulder. Is it all puffy and puckered at the seam like a Vatican Swiss Guard’s uniform? Because that’s not what you want. Put that one back down. You want a jacket where the line from the shoulder to the sleeve is as smooth and uniform as possible with no puckering. I doubt you’ll find a perfect line like you would on a hand-sewn garment, but you’d be surprised. Either way, you’ll find something that looks better than most guys who bought a suit before they read this article.

Next, when figuring out how to buy a suit, look at the buttons. Do they feel like they’re securely attached? Do they fit snugly into the buttonholes? When buttoned, does the jacket hang evenly? Now look at the collar to see that it lays flat without puckering and has a bit of stiffness to it. Put your arms in the sleeves. Are they fully lined all the way to the cuff? Inferior jackets skip this step, and they can be a real bitch to slide on and off. Next, check the pattern, if it has one. It should transition through all parts of the jacket perfectly without any gaps or breaks, and that includes the sleeves. Honestly, this is a difficult detail for a machine to get right, but again, you may be surprised. Lastly, take hold of the front panel of the jacket and bend it back and forth between your hands. Does it have some heft? That means the jacket has an interlining, which for your purposes means it won’t turn into a wrinkly sh*twad when you leave it in a heap on the floor.

As for pants, just make sure you go with non-pleated. The only time pleats are acceptable is on an Old Hollywood-style double-breasted suit, and if you’re shopping for your first (or first three) suits, that kind of garment shouldn’t be part of the conversation. Note, too, that these same rules apply in a store like J. Crew (I keep picking on them because that’s my experience). You’re likely to find more consistent quality in a store like that, but again, you’ll pay for it. Find what you’re looking for? Great! Let’s move on to…

Your Friend, The Tailor

The single key to turning an unfortunate off-the-rack mistake into a flattering, job-getting, panty-dropping garment lies in the final alterations. In order to save on costs, the big men’s retailers manufacture their suits to fit most (read: fat) people, and the result is something big, boxy and almost universally unflattering. Still, for whatever reason most guys are afraid of the tailor. Maybe it’s the accidental genital touching, or seeing a double chin turn into a sextuple chin in the three-way mirror, I don’t know — but it’s an essential part when it comes to buying a suit.

Rest assured, that odd little man speaking broken English with chalk all over his hands is there to make you look good. The key here is to stand naturally, look ahead and not get too uncomfortable when he grazes your sensitive areas with his measuring tape. Also, don’t be afraid to speak up. While he’ll already know to nip the jacket in at the sides, if you want the suit to be extra trim, say so — he’ll know how much they can realistically take in. Also, be sure to wear a dress shirt when you go shopping, because it’ll help them know what the suit should look like when it’s finished.

A word on alterations: This is where the big warehouse retailers are going to hose you. Recently, I got three suits for the price of one, which cost a little over $600. They all looked great, but at a price — over $200 extra in alterations. The suits may come free, but every sleeve adjustment, hem and jacket tuck will cost you. If you’re buying your suit at a J. Crew or department store, while those suits may need less alterations to begin with, they probably don’t offer full-service tailoring in house. In that case, you’ll have to take it elsewhere. I can’t speak to whether or not it’s cheaper that way, but just know that you always have that option in the warehouse-type stores, too.

How To Buy A Suit – Online

I recently ordered my wedding tux from Indochino.com, one of the more popular online outlets that will create a suit for you from scratch based on measurements you take yourself and send in. The idea is that the end product fits like a made-to-measure suit (because it is) for less than the cost of an off-the-rack garment. The experience was pretty painless and I’m expecting a great result, but there are some things to keep in mind.

For one thing, while the measurements you provide are extensive, nothing can replace the eyes of an experienced tailor. A website can’t know that one shoulder slopes lower than the other, or that one arm is longer than the other. With that in mind, be sure to place your order well in advance of the date you need the suit, preferably two months. It takes about three weeks, and there’s a decent chance you’ll need some minor alterations (which Indochino graciously offers to help cover).

Speaking of extra alterations, be conservative when taking your measurements. The kind of guy who’s ordering a made-to-measure suit is probably one who’s a little more fashion-forward, and thus will want something sleek and slim fitting. The impulse then is to take very precise measurements very close to the body, because you want that suit to fit perfectly right out of the box. I’d instead recommend erring a little on the more generous side, particularly when it comes to things like the waist and chest measurements. The reason for this is that it’s a lot easier for a tailor to take the suit in a bit in some places than it is to let it out. It’s worth it to wait an extra few days to get it perfect versus chancing having to wait another month for the entire garment to be remade.

That ought to get you started. I hope that the next time an ad for a deal that looks too good to be true comes on TV, you’re equipped with the knowledge to make sure it isn’t.