Monday, September 7, 2009

How To Buy a Suit

Canali SuitI have spent the last several weeks looking for a suit.  This is not just any suit, this is the suit I am going to wear for my wedding. So I wanted to get the absolute best suit I could without spending an arm and a leg.  Boy did I not realize what I was getting myself into.

First off, let me reiterate advice I often give on this blog when it comes to buying big ticket items.  Always buy the best you can afford.  No more, no less.  If you buy something cheap, you will regret that you did not buy the nicer item.  If you overspend, you will suffer buyer's remorse.  To that end, I set my suit budget to be between $600 and $1200.  I have not been in the market for a suit recently, so I wasn't sure what I would find in that price range or if this was too high or too low.

This price range ends up being in the upper middle portion for most suits.  Think Nordstrom and Saks not Macy's or Penny's.  The upper echelon of suits usually run $2000+ with many getting in the $5000+ range.  I had no intention of buying anything close to that unless it was made of gold.   Anything cheaper, in the $200-$300 range, looked fine at first but close inspection and actually wearing the suit revealed significant drawbacks.  So I was happy with the general price I was aiming for.

Who knew that having this budget in mind could be such a problem.   The first problem you run into with suits is that there really are hundreds of options, styles, and differences between each suit.  It is not like buying a TV where you can narrow it down to a few models from a few stores.  It is as if each and every store has its own set of suits.  The selection of suits was different from stores of the same retailer right down the street from each other!  One store may carry Hugo Boss, the other one would not.  If they both did carry Hugo Boss, they would for sure have different models.

What made the whole situation worse was my "unusual" body shape.  You see, I'm actually in shape.  This means I am thin and have broad shoulders, a wide chest, and a narrow mid-section.  This gives me a suit size of 38, but that is over-simplifying the problem.  It is hard enough finding a 38 in a suit because most men in the United States are not as trim as I am.  There are just not a lot of size 38 suits made. But when you throw in the fact that I have a wide chest and broad shoulders you can be certain that nothing is going to fit quite right.

There are four things you have to look for in a suit to make sure it properly fits (listed in order of importance)

  • The shoulders are in their proper place

  • You do not get any stress marks in the back of the suit (between the shoulder blades) indicating the jacket is too small or too big

  • The lapel does not pop up but lies flat against the chest

  • The sleeves are of the right length

The problem for me always lies in either the first or third bullet point.  Size 38 suits are usually too narrow in the chest meaning the lapel does not lay flat.  Size 40 suits are too broad in the shoulder meaning I do not get a proper fit up top.  You want to get a suit that fits as perfectly off the rack as possible because you want as little tailoring done to the suit as you can get.  I went to just about every possible store in Southern California looking for suits.  The list included:

  • Five Nordstrom's

  • Two Sak's Fifth Avenue

  • One Niemen Marcus

  • Four Bloomingdale's

  • Ten Macy's

  • Two Men's Warehouses

  • Two 3-day suit Brokers

  • Nine different Malls

And I did not find a suit that worked until I went to a Nordstrom Rack.  But more on that in a second.  From the list of stores I visited, you can clearly see that this was not an easy task.  I tried on suit after suit.  In each store I probably tried on a minimum of 2 or 3 suits and in a few I tried on as many as a dozen.  I tried on so many that I feel somewhat like an expert in suits.   My problem was compounded because I had particular needs.  I needed the suit to be either black or dark gray, not navy, since this was the suit for my wedding.  So given all this, it was a near impossible tasks to find a suit.

So how did I finally find the right suit?  It was a war of attrition.   I had to narrow it down to what I did not want before I found what I want.  Brands that simply did not work for me because of my body shape ended up being

  • Hugo Boss

  • Calvin Kline

  • DKNY

  • BCBG

  • Alfani

  • Joseph Abboud

  • Paul Smith

  • Dolce and Gabana

  • Versace

The mistake I made was to keep trying on brands that just did not work for me in hopes that I would find a suit from that manufacturer that would suddenly work. I can not tell you how many Hugo Boss suits I tried on before I finally realized it was a futile exercise. The most ironic thing was that I got this bit of advice at the second store I went to (it was a Bloomingdale's) by a very helpful salesperson.  He told me that the only suits that were going to work for me were by either Zegna or by Canali.  He showed me a Zegna but did not have a Canali to show me.  He said he would only sell me a Zegna and that if I did not like what he had on stock that I should go find a suit made by one of those tailors at another store.  This was very wise advice (as you will see in a minute) and leads me to my first and most important bit of advice.  If you find a salesperson who is knowledgeable, helpful, and puts your interests ahead of his own.  Buy your suit from him.  I probably could have saved myself a big headache if I would have just taken his advice to heart because I found the only suits that worked for me were

  • Canali

  • Zegna

  • Armani

Notice these are all Italian made suits. It seems I should have been European and not American because I only fit into clothes made in Europe.  This is exactly what the salesperson told me would happen and it took me trying on dozens of suits before I finally reached the same conclusion he gave to me at the very beginning.  My body type would only work in one of these suits.

Now the problem with this advice is that these suits are all very expensive.  While I could afford some of them in my price range, they were at the upper end of my price range.  All else being equal, I would have liked to spend at the bottom of the range simply because I do not wear suits too often.  Did I really want to spend $1200 on a suit that I would only wear a few times in my life?   The problem was, as soon as I found out what a good suit is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to fit, I could not let myself buy a suit that did not look nor fit properly.  Before today, I found exactly two suits that would work but they were both above $1000 and one of them was above my budget at $1295.  So what was I to do?

Ironically, I decided to listen to my own advice and go back to that original salesman despite the fact that his store was about one hour away.  I was willing to spend the money and buy the suit from a man I trusted.  It became ironic because I ended up not buying my suit from him, I didn't even see him, but from a store I would have never gone to if I were not have decided to go back down to see him.  My fiancee suggested I go to the Nordstrom Rack and take a look at the suits there.  I had been to other Nordstrom Racks and not been impressed with their selection.  But the one I went to was different.  It was probably the "nicest" Nordstrom Rack around because it was next to fanciest mall we have in Southern California.  The selection of suits was actually quite large and the discounts were substantial.

I ended up getting a fantastic black Canali suit.  It was the best fitting suit I had come across yet and, being at a Nordstrom Rack, it was the lowest price I had seen for a designer Italian Suit.  It was 70% off of MSRP came in at the low end of my budget at $600.  It was such a fantastic deal that I bought it on the spot without thinking too much about it.  Just to be sure, I checked another Nordstrom Rack in the area and there was not nearly the same selection.  Once again, two stores, just down the road from each other, and not nearly the same suits.

Once again, my patience in shopping paid off.  I was about to give in and just pay full retail for a suit that actually met my needs but ended up getting an even better suit for a lot less than I would have paid.  I love a great deal!


  1. Terrence, just wondering why you did not decide to rent the suit? I rented a nice tux from a local wedding store, since I knew that I would not wear a tux very often. Your right about the salesman though. Mine was very knowledgeable, experienced, and had those same qualities you mentioned. His recommendations turned out great.

  2. I did not want a tux because my wedding is not that formal. It is a destination wedding on an island, and a tux is probably too formal. I wanted a suit and I wanted a suit that I would own for the next 20 years. So renting just wasn't an option for me.

  3. I once flew from London to Glasgow for like $30 total (taxes, etc. included - the actual cost of the flight was only like $10-15). I think it's standard for European travel, but I do not know how or why.

  4. Hey Terrence!

    I'm in pretty much the exact same situation with you and I'm off to find a suit this weekend. It's going to be epic.

    I live in LA. What Norsdtrom Rack did you go to that had the better selection? You said it was next to a fancy mall?

    This would really help me out!

  5. Chris,

    Best of luck to you. I went to the Nordstrom Rack across the street from South Coast Plaza. I went to a few others and they have by far the best selection in suits.

    Let me know how it goes and if you find what you are looking for.

  6. Whenever I make a mind for new suit,I always believe in Read n Taylor brand.It appeal me a lot.
    Nice soft fabric and combination of class and elegance.Really perfect choice for me....

  7. Was reading some other parts of your blog and found this story. Quite an ordeal but one which showed your how patience pays off. Congrats!

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