Reader Question: Suit Brands

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.

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.

Summer Black Tie


A reader of my blog wrote to me recently requesting advice on a particular matter. It was, he wrote, an issue of confusion. He had received an invitation to an engagement party that stipulated ‘Summer Black Tie.’ Naturally, the reader had since concerned himself with determining exactly what this entailed. He had, in his own words, come rather unstuck. He had looked elsewhere online but had become even more confused by the polar sermonising of traditionalists and fashionistas.

Apparently, GQ Online has produced a guide for gentlemen intrigued by the notion of the summertime tuxedo. The first point of advice? “…Skip the tie, unbutton your collar, and add a simple white pocket square.” I stopped reading at that point and returned immediately to my work. Anything that advocates the abandonment of the tie in formal dress is not worth the cyberspace it’s written in. This is not a Tom Ford lookalike competition. Not wearing a bow tie, irrespective of the temperature, is lazy. This is not a question of ‘different taste’ it is simply a question of taste – having it, or having none at all. A hairy chest is not an acceptable replacement for elegant matte silk. Why should the women be forced to socialise with an underdressed man?

My own advice to this reader was rather different. Whereas GQ seemed to be promoting the shedding of bows, powder blue shirts, khaki suits and denim (yes, denim), I suggested to the inquisitive visitor that above all, his evening dress must acknowledge the formality of the occasion, the location of the occasion and, of course, the season. After all, it was an invitation stipulation. Unfortunately for the ultra-traditionalists, those who eschew cummerbunds in the heat of summer, this means that some allowances have to be made. We no longer, thankfully, live in an age where those who wear formal dress endure heat and discomfort for the purposes of ‘prestige’ – indeed, the accounts of colonials in Burma, Egypt and other exotic outposts of empire suggest that this was a mask of propriety and ‘civilisation’ that caused the stiffest of upper lips to wobble.

Now that our lips are permitted to do as they please, there is nothing wrong with a little climate preparation in attire. Some suggest the off-white jacket as an alternative. Some even suggest a mess jacket.

The former is more common and, although it is known as the ‘cruise’ jacket, is appropriate for summer invitations such as garden parties. It should always be shawl collared. Opinion is divided as to their proper use. Many say they are only appropriate outside of the metropolis – like the straw boater. Others suggest that times have moved on and the summer aesthetic and tradition of the off-white jacket is more important.

The mess jacket is rather frowned upon, although such a reaction has never bothered me. Those who wear one may be subject to tongue-in-cheek comments and whispers behind the napkins. Known as bum-freezers, mess jackets are tailless tailcoats; with peaked or shawl lapels, they are exceptionally smart but very rare.

I believe that the anchor for all black tie outfits – summer or winter – is a formal white shirt and black, or midnight blue, evening trousers. These are constants. They cannot be altered. The idea of facing the lapels of a khaki suit with satin in order to make it a ‘tuxedo’ is abhorrent. It is a khaki suit. It will never be elevated from that humble position. Likewise, adding white trousers to a dark jacket makes it a day outfit – not an evening one. However, adding a seersucker jacket to black evening trousers, a well ironed white evening shirt, a black bow tie and black patent shoes is acceptable. The acknowledgement of formality is in what is beneath the jacket – the nod to climate, season, and perhaps locality, is all in the jacket itself.

Your Pocket Handkerchief Is A Collar

One question I often get asked is how to pick out the colour of your pocket handkerchief.

Well, I’ve written before (here) about harmonising in colours rather than matching – essentially picking out a second colour other than your tie’s that you think goes well with the shirt and jacket. Or, as someone put it to me recently, “so it’s like thinking of two ties that go with the outfit, and just using the colour of one of them for the handkerchief?” Yes, that’s a good way to put it. Of course, if you’re not wearing a tie, then the colour of your handkerchief should be thought of in the same way as the tie would have been (longer explanation here).


But. All this is to presume that you want a coloured, patterned or otherwise fancy pocket handkerchief. You may not. Indeed, your default setting should not be colour and pattern, but plain white linen. That’s in the pocket to start with. It is a conscious decision to add colour afterwards.

Bright, crisp white is the smartest colour a man can wear. This is why, back in the age when collars were starched and attached with studs, they were white. The body of the shirt may be striped or brightly coloured but the collar and cuffs were white. Because it is bright, because it is clean and because it provides the greatest contrast with the fabric of the jacket.


A strip of white around the neck and two around the wrists. It brings dignity and formality to any outfit, and today’s equivalent is the linen pocket handkerchief.

In the same way that today’s blue or pink shirts – that do not have detachable white collars – are a little more casual than those of old, the next option down your ladder of handkerchief choices should be something similar to the colour of the shirt.

Not exactly the same, necessarily, but similar. If the shirt is pale blue, go with a similar blue with a white polka dot. Or a darker, navy blue. Perhaps even a blue pattern with some white or yellow thrown in. The point is, the handkerchief will harmonise with the shirt if it’s dominant colour is the same.

White is the default; the second choice is to pick a colour similar to the shirt. Last is to pick something brightly coloured that plays a similar role to the tie (as described earlier on). Many men get this order entirely the wrong way around. They think that the handkerchief must play a similarly decorative role to the tie, as it is often silk and very much on display. That is your last choice – the sporty one, the more showy one, the rakish one.

Shirt Review: Cad & The Dandy

One of the best things about made to measure clothing is the wait one has to inevitably endure until the item is available for collection. The immediate satisfaction of ready-to-wear clothing is short lived; the anticipation, the stroll up to the cash desk, and the slideshow of potential uses running through the mind, are exciting moments. However, as soon as the plastic has been swiped, the thrill subsides. It’s the waiting that makes it worthwhile. Waiting, in today’s world, is rather a novelty. We fly to places our ancestors endured weeks to travel to; we no longer expect communication to take more than a second through email; we microwave; we broadband; diets and exercise routines are fast, fast, fast. And in the midst of all this speed, it is strangely satisfying indeed to know that craft does, and will always, take time.

Cad & The Dandy, who made my superb double-breasted suit, offer a mixture of the new and the old; the craft and the speed. Although it still takes time for items to be made, the system of ordering is remarkably easy and very quick. Once your measurements have been taken, they are stored on your online account – to order more takes a few simple clicks of the mouse. So to order a shirt, all that was needed was a little use of the ‘design’ tool, a few more clicks and the order was complete. When it came to the exciting day of ‘collection’, the anticipation that had been building – mixed with a little trepidation as the shirt design was unusual – reached a high point. When I saw the shirt, this gave way to a sense of relief and satisfaction. Not only had I received a shirt cut correctly to my juvenile, awkward shape but also a shirt of a design for which I had searched high and low; horizontal stripes.

Horizontally striped shirts are near unicorn; they are almost never seen. I once spoke to a rather aloof assistant on Jermyn Street of them, of how interesting and attractive I thought them, and of my vain search for one. “Well” he scoffed “that’s probably because vertical stripes look infinitely better.” When I asked him whether he had seen one he responded in the negative claiming that it was probably a fad, an illogical foray into “being different for the sake of it.” I suggested to him it was the shirting equivalent of unbuttoned suit cuffs as it is more expensive to use striped material horizontally. He laughed derisively and attempted to persuade me to purchase a butcher stripe. Fortunately, though you won’t find them on Jermyn Street (or any other street for that matter), it is possible to twist a tailors arm into making you one. And, from my experience of the quality and the aesthetic of the result, I am rather rueful that I haven’t taken up the opportunity of made-to-measure shirts before.

Apart from the fact that Cad & The Dandy have thousands of fabrics to choose from, and countless configurations – yokes, collar types, placket types etc – the enduring appeal of such shirts is that they fit so extraordinarily well. Though off the rack shirts are of a high quality, they often have folds of material that I need to squeeze into my trousers and hide behind my waistcoat. It’s a depressing feeling that my gigantic collection of Jermyn Street shirts, though wonderful, has been comprehensively outshined by the new arrival. The arms, although I have been satisfied with them until now, feel unnecessarily baggy; even the sides of my slim-fit shirts are inches away from my body. And yet it is very pleasing that the shirt that I received is exactly the shirt I envisaged in my time of anticipation. “If this is going to happen” I told myself “it’s going to be something special.” The pattern matching is of a very high standard – a covered placket means that the horizontal lines are not broken at all by the buttons. Even the shirttails are well finished with rounded edges, complementing the club collar and cuffs perfectly. A friend of mine, considerably well-heeled, switched to made-to-measure shirts after leaving school. I consulted him about my excitement and his experiences. “In many ways” he told me “I don’t regret it at all – I feel and look better because of them. If I should lose everything, I’ll rue the day I thought I was grand enough to start.” I asked him whether there was any turning back, once you had started. His response; “None. Frankly, you’re doomed.”

Reader Question: A Suit For My Wedding

Michael, Atlanta: I’m a long time reader and have greatly enjoyed your posts, and have even more enjoyed applying their message.

I’m about a year away from my wedding and am looking to have a suit made for it. I am looking at either a black with a white chalkstripe, or a medium grey with a white chalkstripe. A standard three piece, with three-button jacket, slanted unflapped pockets with a ticket pocket on the right, and an eight-button double-breasted peak lapel waistcoat. This will be accompanied by an unadorned white spread-collar shirt and plum tie and pocket square.

That, I’m aware, is quite a lot of look (stripes, peaks, buttons, and pockets) even though we are looking to incorporate throwbacks of vintage styling. I’m uncertain about the pairing of the waistcoat and the jacket – is having both peak-collared something that will look ridiculous? And the combination of single and double-breasted seems to make sense in my head, but is it commonly borne out?

Lastly, would black and white spectators work, or pull the whole thing apart and make it look even more like costume?

Dear Michael, you are right in your description of this a lot of look. To be honest, I think it is too much. But it can also be saved fairly easily I think.

wed-suit-avoidLet’s start with the colour of the suit. Go for the medium grey, not the black. A black suit with chalk stripe can too easily make you look like a wide-boy trader or a gangster, and besides, black as a colour suits almost nobody. The mid-grey should be more flattering, seem more formal at the wedding and provide better use later on.

The pockets need to be quietened down a little as well. Unflapped pockets may look a little odd with a suit that isn’t that formal elsewhere, and a ticket pocket produces the opposite effect. Equally slanted pockets. It feels like you are trying to throw too many quirks into one area. I would pick just one: two unflapped, straight pockets, for example, or three with flaps.

On the waistcoat and jacket, don’t worry about the double and single breasted, but do worry about the lapels (the collar is the top section, around your neck by the way). Having both peaked will look too much – like you are trying to wear two outfits instead of one.

Instead I would go for a collarless waistcoat – I have a suit and waistcoat in exactly that configuration and the sweep of the waistcoat underneath the jacket adds subtle verve without being over the top. If you must have a collar on the waistcoat, make it a shawl  collar – a very traditional look on a double-breasted.

And the advantage of paring back in all these areas is that it is the only way you’ll be able to get away with wearing spectators as well.