Your next suit: tailored or off the rack?

To tailor or not to tailor when it comes to buying your next suit – that is an intriguing question.

The answer has much to do with the amount of folding you're willing to splash on the purchase; but is far from the sole factor.

After all, it's possible to have a suit individually tailored to your body shape for as little as $500, or to spend as much as $3500 to buy a pre-made one off the rack.

What to do, then, if - for the sake of argument - you've $1500 to $2000 to spend? Will a ready-to-wear (or off-the-rack) suit deliver the same sort of fit, feel, comfort and durability as one you've had tailored? Will the mass-produced option reward you with better value?

Craig Smith is the global communications director of London-based men's fashion house Ted Baker, which sells off-the-rack suits from a worldwide chain of its own boutique shopfronts as well as major department stores.

“Ultimately it comes down to how much that individual wants to invest, and how comfortable they are about what they know they want,” he says.

“I've done both recently and I think it's fair to say that we (Ted Baker) feel we make some of the best suiting products in the market for a fashion brand, irrespective of price point.

“The problem is, there is a lot of very poorly made suiting product in the marketplace at price points which, frankly, they shouldn't be at because they don't deserve to be.”

On the other side of the sewing machine is Ermenegildo Zegna, an acknowledged leader in men's suiting for many decades that offers both made-to-measure and ready-to-wear suiting options.


The company's Australian manager of made-to-measure products, Nicholas Hooper, cautions it's easy to plump for an off-the-rack purchase because of an enticing sale price.

“I think sometimes when people are buying suits, they're jumping in because it's a price point thing, maybe it's on sale and they don't sit back and think about buying the right size, and is it the right fabric?” he says.

“A lot of the time people are thinking 'it's a uniform, I'm not too fussed by it, it's on sale, I'll just buy it. The fit's probably not right, but it's only (costs) so much'.

“To me, I think it's better if you spend a bit more time thinking about it, about what you wear and in the long run I think you will (spend) about the same or maybe even less if you plan a bit better.”

Sitting between Ted Baker's attractively priced off-the-rack offerings and Zegna's premium choice of a stylish ready-to-wear collection and the no-expense spared made-to-measure service, are a host of alternatives.

At Executive Style we've heard both good and bad reviews about the steady stream of overseas tailors who drop into town, setting up base in a CBD hotel room for a couple of weeks to perform measuring sessions with local clientele enticed by attractive deals.

Some are geared towards volume rather than quality and utilise mass-producing Asian factories for construction of their suits before posting the completed garments to the customer.

In this respect no final tweaks can be carried out, and if the measure was not accurate or the tailor not adequately skilled, the result can be a fit no better than an off-the-rack suit. Worse still, you could end up with a suit in need of significant alteration - at your own expense.

Contrastingly, other tailors - most notably those headquartered in Australia but also some visiting from overseas - offer a high level of measurement expertise, excellent construction technique and will happily provide a follow-up consultation to make any necessary adjustments to ensure a proper fit.

A tailored suit, by its definition, promises a fit designed for your exact body shape. It should be configured to sit perfectly on your frame and accentuate your best attributes, while simultaneously obscuring unflattering ones.

As an additional bonus, you're far less likely to find yourself standing in a lift next to a colleague wearing the exact same suit as you.

Personalisation is key to tailoring experience, says Hooper. “The reason someone would get into made-to-measure would be someone saying 'I want something personalised that is made for me',” he says.

Some customers choose this avenue, others are led to it. “The difference between ready-to-wear and made-to-measure is most of the time you would have a customer who just can't get his size from off a rack.

“Another obvious thing is he might be a 56 in the jacket and a 50 in the trouser. He might want two trousers with his suit so that he can get the longevity out of the jacket.”

Hooper says the price difference between Zegna's ready-to-wear and made-to-measure offerings isn't as great as most customers expect. “The perception is that we talk double or three times the price. The service is usually, generally speaking, around 15-20 per cent more, depending on which category of fabric you use,” he says.

A Zegna consultation will begin with a selection from more than 500 fabrics of varying colour, weight, texture and composition, before moving on to a measuring session that could extend from one to three consultations to ensure it's done properly.

Hooper says the choice of fabric is crucial to obtaining the right fit and can take up a large portion of the initial consultation.

“Two things make a good suit, one is the fit and one is the fabric. If you don't choose the right fabric then the fit can only do so much, and vice-versa,” he says.

As Hooper speaks to me he takes a few quick measurements before handing me a suit jacket. As I'm contemplating how good it looks he points out a flaw, where the material is scalloping at the top of the sleeve. A couple of strategically-placed dressmaking pins later, and the finish is perfect. It's a good example of how a tailor's keen eye, deft hand and deep understanding of shape, cut and fabric combine to make a good suit into a great one.

After the initial consultation the client's measurements are sent to the Zegna factory (in Switzerland for normal production, or Italy for handmade). When it returns it will be about 85 per cent complete and a further consultation - or two - will typically make final alterations and add the finishing touches.

The entire process could take three months or longer to complete, but Hooper says it's well worth the wait for that perfect finish.

“In the past people have looked at the suit as a uniform, so in one respect there hasn't been a lot of excitement about it. The younger generation is getting a little bit more excited and saying 'if I'm going to wear a suit to work I want it to look good',” he says.

Conversely, the major benefit of an off-the-rack purchase is convenience – you can walk into a shop or department store during your lunch break and walk out an hour later with a complete suit ready to wear the next day, or before the end of the week if minor alterations to sleeve, leg length or waistband are needed.

Should you be blessed with a common body shape – one that fits within the pre-made paradigms of “regular” or “long” sizing, and is uniformly proportioned without significant bulges at the shoulders, chest, belly or seat – you may be able to locate an off-the-rack suit that fits and flatters your shape.

The downside is that major alterations to an off-the-rack suit won't be possible, either at the initial fitting or subsequently if the wearer's body shape changes significantly over time.

Because they're mass-produced, you're likely to get a better grade of fabric or a more stylish cut for the same price as the tailored equivalent. However, it's also worth asking about the suit jacket construction, which will be either canvassed or fused. The former is the more expensive option, with a stitched-in canvas lining that drapes better and conforms to your body shape over time; the latter is a glued lining that won't offer the same level of conformity or longevity.

Ted Baker's Craig Smith advises men to shop where they feel comfortable. “Whether it's a brand they know or not, they've got to get a rapport with the salesperson who understands what they're asking for, he says.

“What is the purpose of the product, how many times are you going to wear it, what are you trying to achieve? Because whichever way you look at it, it's a decent-sized investment.”

Is it possible to achieve a tailored finish from an off-the-rack purchase? Smith believes so. “Yes, with the right brands, and there aren't a lot of them in the marketplace. If it's well made, fundamentally, but if it's poorly made, never.”

So, should you choose tailor-made or off-the-rack? Both have their benefits and the most important factor is to make a considered decision based not solely on price points, but on the reputation for service, skill of the company or individual you choose.

In short, do your homework and place your trust in proven products.