Off the Rack is No Way to Look Your Best, Says This Suit Expert

Written by | Lifestyle

How to buy a men's suit from Black Lapel

What's the difference between off the rack, made to measure and bespoke? An expert explains.

Think of a suit as both your mobile home and your calling card. Unless you’re in the reboot of Roseanne, you want to look sharp. Here’s how.

Buying a suit off the rack is like buying a steak dinner at an all-night diner — except that everyone who sees you knows the taste that went into it.

According to Derek Tian, chief marketing officer and co-founder of New York custom suit clothier Black Lapel, knowledge is the key to taste and educating yourself will help you and the fellows who are picking your outfit get you the best possible result for the money you spend.

“We all are more or less used to getting suits when we’re younger that our parents believed we’d grow into,” says Tian. “Honestly, most guys don’t know any better until we’re adults. And then you find yourself as an adult doing the same thing standing around in pants that puddle.”

Suit Yourself

Some men dress to fit in, others prefer to stand out. “That’s why context is so important in helping a customer,” explains Tian. “You could have three people come in saying they want a navy suit, but for entirely different reasons. One person may want his for a wedding, another for business and someone else may be attending a funeral. So it’s important to understand not only when and where you’re wearing a suit, but why. From there we can help in choosing the right fabric and getting precise measurements and then begin customizing the suit to their needs and personalities. And that’s essential, because someone who dresses conservatively is going to want more subtle accents and colors and someone who is more creative will often want to go brighter and mix up the colors a bit.”

To explain the difference between made to measure and off the rack, Tian says that nearly every aspect of both construction and fabric are less than ideal. “Essentially,” he says, “it’s a very different product. Off the rack suits are mass produced with less attention to detail in order to make them appealing to the widest possible range of customer. Most people buy those suits based on chest and waist measurements, but not everyone realizes how different men can be within that range. Two people might both be a 42″ Long, but have very different bodies.”

By adjusting the sleeve length and waistline, alterations can often get clients to 60-70 percent of their goals, he’ll allow. But there are other things — shoulders for example — that are simply not cost-effective to alter. “If the shoulder is out of proportion with the arm hole, most tailors can’t deal with that level of difficulty.”

How Do You Measure Up?

Black Lapel stylists take their clients through every step of the process, starting with measuring customers in three dimensions from neck to ankles — including whether you’re right-handed or left because it affects posture. “From the beginning, we create a pattern to your proportions,” says the clothier. “We don’t have anything pre-built. Everything starts as a bolt of cloth, and everything is translated from measurements to patterns.”

Made-to-measure, as the process is known, is widely preferred to an off the rack suit, but not nearly as spendy as a bespoke suit, which involves a tailor meticulously going back and forth with refittings.

“The two processes are going for the same result,” Tian says. “We’re both trying to create a quality garment that makes you look great. But there’s much more handiwork in a bespoke suit. You return a third of the way through the construction for adjustments, then return again at the two-thirds mark. So the difference is really a bit of switching the order of operations a little bit, because we create the suit from our first measurements and then do alterations if they’re required at the end.”

Beyond that, a made to measure suit at Black Lapel is affordable enough that a client could easily buy two, maybe three suits for the same amount as a bespoke suit costs. Convenience is another factor as well. “We aren’t necessarily all intuitive and looking to try on multiple suits,” Tian says with a laugh. “Men in particular want something with utility, and buying a suit is more like purchasing a fine watch or learning the difference between a muscle car and Italian sports car. Knowledge is key and we try to do it in our style journal, The Compass. Once we’re able to actually show them the importance of getting the details right, this becomes a no-brainer.”

Visit the LGBT-friendly Black Lapel

Last modified: January 31, 2018