How To Buy A Suit

idris elba screenshotYou can go a long time idly noticing that a particular guy you know is a snazzy dresser without asking him anything about it. Then one day you can find out just how many suits he owns and decide it’s time to have a Conversation.

So! Can you tell me a little bit about your life as a man in suits? How many suits do you have, for starters?

I’m a sales executive, so my attire is really important to the impression I leave with clients.  I have something like 14 suits and another 3 sport coats.

Do you remember the very first suit you ever bought?

Yes. I got my first suit for my bar mitzvah. It was a charcoal grey pinstripe suit. There was definitely a sense of confidence when I put it on that I still feel today (different suits, same confidence. Though for the record I don’t remember my haftorah portion).

Ha! No problem, I wasn’t going to ask you to chant. Do you remember when you realized you wanted to wear suits for a living? Was it related to that initial sense of confidence?

I don’t know that it was my intention to wear a suit for a living. That said, I knew once I graduated and started working in sales the way I presented myself had an impact on the perception people had of me. I really enjoyed putting on a good looking suit and tie every day — it made me feel like a true professional when I was just out of college.

Did you have a suit while you were in college? Or when did you first buy a suit for yourself?

I had a suit in college and I also had an internship with the athletic department that required me to wear a blazer and slacks to football and basketball games.  I first bought a suit for myself once I got my first job in Cleveland.

After I bought my first two or three suits, I was introduced to a guy named Barry who would come to our office once a year and sell the whole office suits. Barry was selling suits for almost nothing — he was from New York and told us he was the guy who sold suits to Macy’s, Nordstrom, etc. Most of the suits would fall apart after a few wears, which led me to believe he was buying them from Canal Street and reselling them to young sales guys in Cleveland who wouldn’t know the difference. Needless to say, I don’t buy from Barry anymore!

That is so sketchy! Were you overwhelmed by shifting to NYC and buying suits from stores, rather than from Barry? (Also, have you seen that episode of Friday Night Lights where two of the guys come to Manhattan and try to buy a suit with no preparation?)

FNL suit shopping

A little. I didn’t know where to go at first. Coming back to NYC definitely helped me refine my style quite a bit. A few years ago, after buying suits from a few different places, I started going to a place in SoHo that took things to a new level. They have a great sales/service approach and really helped make the experience easy. I’ve bought every suit I have from them.

I haven’t seen “Friday Night Lights” — but I’m sure I can imagine the experience is one that I’ve had before.

Did the place in SoHo give you sticker shock, or were you prepared for city prices?

Not really. At the point I started buying from there I was making a comfortable salary and I knew what price points to expect when suit shopping.  

Was this the store you mentioned to me that was initially a kind of secret … ?

Ha! Yes. My friend told me about the store and asked that I didn’t tell anyone so we wouldn’t see other people wearing the suits we bought. So I didn’t tell anyone. I would go to the office and people would say, “That suit is awesome — where did you get it?” to which I would say, “I can’t tell you” or “I forgot the name of the place” or “Some place in SoHo.” It became a fun game, like keep-away.  

After buying suits from the mystery store for a year or so, I went to an event with my friend and saw some of his employees wearing suits I had just purchased. I turned to my friend and asked him how this could happen. He said, “I want my staff to look great!” Now we work together, so I’ve had to “retire” some suits so I don’t have to walk in the office and see someone wearing the same suit.  

Is that really a faux pas? And why should you have to retire yours? Tie goes to the runner or something, right? (I don’t understand much about men’s fashion or sports.)

For me it is. I like being unique. And it would embarrassing to have two people dressed the same meeting with a client. I suppose I should pull rank and make other people not wear their suits, but I don’t know trust that they would follow through and not ever wear it again. So I just fall on the sword and only wear these particular suits to weddings or other non-work events.

Trusting your instincts in such situations is probably a smart way to go. So of your 14 suits, do you have favorites? And are they ones you’re allowed to wear?

Absolutely. Depends on the occasion that I need a suit for or what I have going on that day in the office. There are certain styles and suits that fit me better than others. Someone in our office has one of my favorite suits, so I have decided not to wear it to work. It is a great wedding suit though!

What have you learned about picking out an excellent suit? Do you have any advice for people just starting out or people who have found the experience frustrating?

I’ve learned that you need to find someone who is a professional and let them do what they do best. When I would buy suits at big department stores or national chain stores, I would try to do as much as I could on my own. This didn’t always lead to the best results. Now I have a  great relationship with Eric, who is the guy that sells my suits. He knows what cuts fit me best and what styles will appeal to me the most. He is also an excellent tailor — that makes a big difference on the suit.  

I also learned to keep it simple initially with my style. Build a collection of suits that are foundational first. Then you can start getting crazy. You can only wear the suit that really stands out every once in awhile, so it’s better to keep it simple so you can have a better rotation. I tend to buy suits more on how the overall look (pattern and details like the number of pockets, type of collar, number of buttons, and stitching) than the material.

Makes sense. Do the rules change for summer suits vs winter ones? And speaking of which, what are the materials that your suits are made of?

I wear heavier suits in the winter, and I have two linen suits that I wear in the spring and summer.  I try to buy suits that are year round weights so I can wear them more often and get more value out of them.  The materials are mostly wool or wool blends.  

So how much is a quality suit? And do dry cleaning costs vary? Do you have to factor that in?

You can get a really quality suit for $500-$600. So much of it comes down to tailoring too. You can buy an awesome suit but if it doesn’t fit right, it doesn’t matter.  Dry cleaning does vary — just comes down to have to how you take care of your suits.  The more you dry clean them, the more they tend to take the life out of the material, so you need to be mindful about how often you bring them to the dry cleaner. I don’t factor the dry cleaning costs in when buying a suit.  

Is there anything else you do factor in?

Not really. I’ve gotten to the point where my mentality is you get what you pay for — thus I am comfortable paying for quality. There are certainly other costs (shirts, ties, pocket squares, watches, belts, shoes, cuff links, etc.) that can add up quickly.  

How much would you estimate you’ve spent overall on your professional wardrobe?

At least $20,000. Keep in mind that includes everything from shirts, ties and overcoats, all the way down to socks, shoes and pocket squares.

Pocket squares!! Are those your favorite accessories to buy, or do you have a different favorite (socks)? What’s your method of choice for expressing yourself through your professional clothes?  

I am not really into colored or patterned socks, although they are popular.  I express myself through the patterns of my suits combined with a great tie and pocket square combo. Shoes are also really important.

How many pairs of shoes do you have to go with the suits? Do you have any shoe secrets?

I have three pairs, each for different occasions. One pair of shoes I bought a few months ago and haven’t even taken them out of the box yet. Those are obviously for very special events. The other two pairs I wear based on what I have going on that day. I don’t really have any shoe secrets besides buy shoe trees — they will help your shoes last longer.

Ok! Final stage of questioning: the rapid-fire questions. Ready? Who’s your style icon?

Not Michael Jordan! 

Tuxes: Own or rent?

I don’t own, only because I haven’t been to enough black tie events to justify a buying one. I’d like to buy once it makes sense.

Who was the classiest James Bond?

Not Michael Jordan!

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