How Much Does a Quality Suit Cost?

How Much Does Quality Cost?
In one form or another, this question turns up every couple of days on the forumI’m looking for a quality suit/shirt/shoe/pair of underwear.  How much should I spend?” Before answering this question, it’s best to specify what “quality” is. Quality is not fit; nor is it style.  Assuming you have a department store full of identical suits, all cut in the same shape and designed with the same details, how do you identify and measure quality? There are two aspects to consider: what the garment is made of, and how it’s put together.  In other words, material and method.  Let’s start with material.

Not all fabrics are created equal.  Cheap wool uses short, brittle fibers, woven just tightly enough to hold everything together.  The resulting fabric will have the body of tissue paper, wrinkle like wax paper, and pill uncontrollably.  On the other hand, some companies approach weaving like a science.  All sheep produce wool, but some sheep produce better wool.  Most wool is bulky and scratchy, but Merino sheep’s wool, for example, contain fibers with some of the smallest diameters – 24 microns and below – which not only makes it soft, but allows it to bend and stretch without breaking and pilling like thicker fibers. 
Short fibers are cheap to make, but they fray and separate easily.  Longer fibers are prized for greater strength and resiliency, but cost more to manufacture.  Some weavers twist two or more fibers together, which gives the fabric greater spring, drape, and wrinkle resistance.  Others comb short woolen fibers to create flannel, a fabric of unparalleled softness and warmth.  All of these qualities require additional steps and processes that can be useful, desirable, or both.  Regardless of whether or not you are willing to pay the price for them, they undeniably add to the excellence of a particular material.

Whereas the measurement of quality material is objectively unequivocal – no one wants to wear a flimsy, scratchy, pilly suit – quality of method is not so distinct, at least not anymore.  Time was, if you wanted a suit to last, it was made by hand, since the clumsy, brutish contraptions of yore couldn’t compete with the finer, more dexterous needlework of a skilled tailor.  Nowadays, some parts of the suit not only can be machine-made, they are all they better for it, pieced together with elaborate stitches that are stronger and more uniform that any human hand, and in a fraction of the time.

What about the method can be quantified?  For one, the way a jacket is canvassed, or lined.  Jackets are canvassed because one of the downsides of having a quality fabric that springs back to shape and lays flat is that it often won’t drape smoothly over your shoulders, chest and torso without help.  To put it another way, it’s difficult to mold a two-dimensional fabric into a three-dimensional form.  Lining the jacket (between the outer fabric you see and the interior of the jacket) with a more malleable material gives it structure, and allows the jacket to be shaped to follow more corporeal contours, and to eventually take on your own body’s silhouette.  Whether you have the frame of Albert Beckles or Albert Jackson, a properly-cut canvassed jacket fits and flatters the wearer in comfortable, masculine elegance.

There are several methods of canvassing, the best of which is known as full-canvassing. This involves sewing the interlining (traditionally horsehair blended with other natural fibers, but can also be different fabrics), starting at the top of the shoulder and extending down the front to the bottom of the jacket.  This provides all the benefits mentioned above, but as it is time-consuming (and often done by hand) it adds substantially to the price tag.

how much does a quality suit cost styleforum suit canvassing styleforum what is suit canvas styleforum

Left to right: haircloth, wrapped hair cloth, wool canvas, and fusible interlining

A more economical method is fusing, or gluing, an interlining to the shell of the jacket.  This greatly decreases production time, but at a cost – the resulting stiffness of the glue and interlining can leave a jacket looking like a lifeless mannequin, and in some cases the glue can actually deteriorate (due to cleaning and pressing) and the interlining will detach from the suit in spots, causing the fabric to ripple and bubble. 
Half-canvassed suits offer a compromise of cost and quality: interlining is sewn to the jacket in the top half, and fused in the rest.  This helps reduce overall costs while providing an acceptable measure of shape.  If you’d like to read more details about the differences between these processes, Styleforum member and
tailoring guru Jeffery Diduch wrote a fantastic article about the various methods of canvassing here.

Now we can start to answer the question posed at the beginning: how much does quality cost? Want the the answer? Expect to at pay least $700 (full retail, excluding sales) for a fully-canvassed suit cut with decent fabric. Why, then, do some suits cost ten times that? 

@SeamasterLux and @Dirnelli, both members of Styleforum who have their own blogs and contribute to Parisian Gentleman, have done a phenomenal amount of research that far exceeds anything I could ever attempt.  Fortunately for us, they’ve created a thread that lists an exhaustive Rolodex of various ready-to-wear makers and compares their relative quality (objective), style (subjective), and handwork (soul).  Here are a few highlights, along with a few of my own suggestions, listed in order of cost.

TM Lewin
Hickey Freeman
Brooks Brothers
Polo Ralph Lauren
Paul Stuart
Caruso (maker of many ‘designer’ lines)
Corneliani (maker of many ‘designer’ lines)
Sartoria Formosa (their RTW is made to bespoke standards)
$2500 and up
Ralph Lauren Purple Lapel
Belvest (maker of many ‘designer’ lines)
Gucci/Tom Ford

Whereas the cost of fabric and canvassing decidedly add to the quality of a suit, some may argue against the merits of style and handwork.  Frankly, the width of the lapel, shoulder treatment, and hand-padded collar contributes little to the longevity of a suit.  Styleforum member and Bay Area bud Derek of dieworkwear wrote some refreshingly honest thoughts on the subject on his blog.  After all, isn’t the way a suit fits most important?  Yes, but it’s only part of the answer.

A suit is not just another article of clothing.  A house may provide shelter, but four walls and a roof do not make a home.  For some, a well-made suit is all they require.  This austere choice is not without its advantages, and may be the only choice available.  If, however, your taste prefers it and budget allows it, do explore your options.  Make no mistake: the characteristic lapel roll of a particular maker may not add to a suit’s durability, but it does add something.  What is it you value?  Is it the fact that it was cut by a human?  Is the unique style and cut of the garment reflective of your own distinctive tastes?  Do you regard craftsmanship in high regard?  Does the manufacturer’s insistence on handwork reflect your own sensibilities?  Do you appreciate having a personal relationship with a tailor who can create a perfectly fitting garment that you yourself had a hand in designing?
If all you require is a suit that covers your body, go to a thrift store.  If you’re looking for something well-made, with a particular style, by hand, get ready to pay for all three.