For this exercise, custom is used to describe anything that isn’t ready to wear. If you buy a suit off the rack and get it tailored, that’s not a custom suit. It’s just a tailored suit.
One of my potential clients said…I had a suit made a few months ago. I went to my tailor and selected a wool/cashmere fabric and discussed the fit, style and features I wanted. After that I was measured and left a deposit. The first fitting was a basted-together jacket and sewed pants. Made some adjustments for fit. When the completed suit was delivered, everything was perfect.
If this is sounds familiar, you’ve enjoyed a truly custom experience. Let’s break it down….
All suit makers fall into three overarching categories:
- Ready to wear (a.k.a., off the rack)
- Made-to-measure ( MTM)
To avoid confusion, let’s zero in on the term “custom” real quick.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that “custom” and “bespoke” are the same thing. The word bespoke is so widely misused that its meaning has almost been lost.
Made To Measure (MTM) suits, on there other hand, start from a pattern – multiple pieces of fabric that have already been cut, and are ready to be customized according to your measurements and preferences. The operative sentence…fabric that has already been cut.
A bespoke suit is made from scratch, just for you. In other words, no fabric is cut until you’ve been measured.
Bespoke is much more time intensive. It requires more fabric and more skill. When you are creating 5000 hand stitches and spending more than 70 hours on a bespoke masterpiece, therein lies the difference. It also requires a lot more money.
Just like all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon: all bespoke suits are custom, but not all custom suits are bespoke.
Let’s take a closer look at each suit…
READY TO WEAR (A.K.A., OFF THE RACK)
Rarely will you stroll into your local retailer, grab a suit with a perfect fit. You can almost figure alterations costs from $50-100 that will be naked into your final pricing. You talking about hemmed, sleeves shortening the jacket, adjusting the waist, etc.
If you are fortunate, the final product should look acceptable, although it will be clear the suit was adjusted to achieve a wearable fit.
Whether you buy online and submit your own measurements, or go to a showroom to get measured by a professional, most modern “custom suit” brands are selling made-to-measure suits.
They all have basically the same process: you submit your measurements and select your fabric and details, then they send your order to a factory overseas (usually in China). Your suit is shipped directly to you 3-6 weeks later.
It’s a hit or miss process. For first time MTM buyers, I’d say it’s mostly miss. It’s just really hard to get a great fitting suit through the process of self-measurement. Even with “professional” tailors taking your measurements, things can go horribly wrong.
One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no correlation between how polished the brand is or how slick their retail locations are, and the actual quality and fit of their products.
My point is: a nice customer experience is great, but the actual product is what matters. And your first MTM suit won’t be perfect, unless you get very lucky.
BESPOKE VS. MADE-TO-MEASURE
The bespoke suit doesn’t look “night and day” different to an untrained eye, but it feels incredible. It’s more like wearing a pajama set than a suit. If every man had the luxury of going bespoke, I think men would complain much less about “dressing up” for special occasions or work.
What really makes the bespoke process special, though, is the basted fitting. Basically, the first time you try on your suit, it’s just stitched together with temporary thread. It’s not cut down to your exact measurement yet, so there’s plenty of room to make changes.
A bespoke tailor sees every little asymmetry in your build. For example, one of my clients has a slight swayback posture. This means there’s more curve through the lower back, compared to the average man. This is not a measurements issue it’s a physical posturing reality. When you see it, you adjust to it and note in the customer’s profile. Its almost like being at the chiropractor when the doctor concludes their is an issue with your back.
This step doesn’t exist in online MTM, and it’s crucial for figuring out if the shape of your suit is correct.
Moreover, during the basted fitting process this is where any adjustments can be made to the button stance for example if the stance was off. Adjusting a suits button stance is impossible to do once the suit is cut and sewn.
After the basted fitting, your suit is stitched together for good, and you ready to try it on again. This is typically the second-to-last or final fitting. Minor adjustments will sometimes be made at this stage.
The end result is a 100% unique suit that is, quite literally, made for you – and only you.
WHICH TYPE OF SUIT IS BEST FOR YOU?
As is often the case, it really depends on your individual situation. What do you need the suit for? How many do you already have? How old are you (are you still growing)? Are you on a mission to lose weight or pack on some muscle?
Perhaps more importantly, what’s your budget? And how much time do you have?
Buying a custom suit takes a long time, especially if you go full bespoke. Online MTM might take 3-5 weeks (sometimes longer). Bespoke could take several months.
FOR MOST GUYS, HERE’S MY ADVICE:
First, try to find something that fits well off the rack. Assume it will need a little tailoring, as this is totally normal with suits. Set aside $50-100 for basic alterations, such as getting the pants hemmed, sleeves shortened and jacket taken in.
Be sure that certain “unalterable” parts fit well off the rack, such as the shoulders, hips and seat. If the sleeves are too long off the rack, make sure they don’t have functioning buttons. These make shortening the sleeves difficult and expensive.
If you can’t find anything that fits well enough off the rack, consider going custom. For most guys, this means made-to-measure. If money isn’t an issue – and/or you’re willing and able to invest in a great suit that you’ll wear for years – bespoke is definitely the way to go.
EITHER WAY, GET IT TAILORED
At Malcolm’s we start every order by drawing a new pattern from scratch. This ensures accurate and lasting measurements for all clients.
In order to create the very best fit and drape, we utilize a blend of wool and horsehair in all of our custom orders to ensure the proper draping and fit. Horsehair provided the shaping that allows a suit lay properly.
This feature was submitted by Malcolm Staples
Malcolm Staples is the Designer and President of Malcolm’s Custom Made To Fit, a bespoke custom clothier in Washington DC.
Featured Image by Ajani Simmons, Ajani Truth Photography