Downtown News and Blog

Like a Glove - Breaking Down the Buzz Surrounding Custom Suits

February 12, 2019 Written by Melissa Fields

Published in Downtown News and Blog

Admittedly, I’ve never worn a suit. As a woman and telecommuting writer for most of my career, I simply have never felt the need for one. Or, rather, I’ve been able to skirt around (pun intended) buying one with off-the-rack separates when job interviews, funerals and other suit-worthy occasions have arisen. That said, I’m also into clothes and fashion and love that rare and delicious feeling of wearing a garment that—because of the color, fit or even sometimes the mindset I was in when I bought it—makes me feel like my best self when I put it on.

Ask any of the clothiers (never called salespeople) who staff downtown Salt Lake City’s thriving custom suit shops what the biggest benefit of investing the time and money in a custom suit is, and they’re sure to tell you that it’s that “I look great” feeling every time you put it on. “What we’re actually selling is confidence,” says Jason Yeats, co-founder of Main Street custom suit maker, Beckett & Robb. Really? Who couldn’t use a little extra confidence? I know I certainly could. So, with my curiosity piqued, I went about sussing out what the real differences are between a custom suit and one purchased off the rack.
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Express Your Style

Fit is the obvious no-brainer advantage of going the custom suit route. Ask any man over six feet tall or under about 5 feet 4 inches, and they’ll tell you buying a suit off the rack is challenging, to say the least. But getting a just-right fit is really just the beginning. “We always start with a conversation,” says George Spencer, head of shop at Tailor Cooperative, an almost speakeasy-feeling custom suit shop on downtown’s funky Pierpont Avenue. “Before we start looking at fabrics or discussing different styles, I want to find out the client’s intent, the application of the suit, their color preferences, how they want to feel in the suit and find out how they’d like to fit the suit into their existing wardrobe.” Though suits, as a rule, would seem very uniform in terms of style, custom suits actually offer plenty of elements that can become part of what Spencer calls, “your personal brand.”

Take for example the Milanese buttonhole. Back when suit jackets still closed at the top, this left-lapel buttonhole—which now is sometimes used to hold the occasional flower or lapel, but is most often not used for anything at all—was a functioning buttonhole to close the jacket all the way up. (The word boutonniere is in fact the French word for buttonhole.) Some machine-made jackets do have Milanese buttonholes, but the difference between one sewn by a machine and one cut and sewn by tailor—as is the case on a custom suit—is obvious, particularly to those who wear suits. It is a tailoring flourish that lends the cherry-on-top prestige to a jacket.

Other avenues for establishing—and maybe deepening—your personal brand with a custom suit include single versus double-breasted lapels; one, two or three closure buttons; button styles; sleeve buttons; a sack, structured or fitted silhouette; and on and on. The options for customization are really endless, which is why an interaction with a competent clothier should always begin with the conversation Spencer refers to; so that rather than feeling overwhelmed by the choices involved in purchasing a custom suit, the experience feels more like a journey in realizing your own distinct style.        
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Another big difference between custom and ready-to-wear suits is the fabric. Walk into most department stores, and on the racks, you’ll see what sells the best: solid navy, black and gray in either summer or winter weight fabrics. Most custom suit clothiers, however, have thousands of fabrics at their disposal, in types ranging from polyester and linen to wool and tweed and in patterns covering window pane and herringbone to pinstripe and Prince-of-Wales check.

In 2011, Hayden Bryant co-founded H.M. Cole Custom Clothiers, a sleek and formal shop located in the ground level of a white granite office and apartment building on South Temple. Bryant and business partner Michael McKonkie became familiar with custom clothing while working abroad. Bryant and McKonkie also own and operate the overseas manufacturing facility where H.M. Cole suits and clothing separate are made and has direct relationships with fabric merchants allowing access to more than 20,000 fabrics. Speaking of which, Beckett & Robb recently expanded their bulk cloth offerings to several lines made in Italy, enabling them to offer these high-end fabrics at the best possible price.  

For the first-time custom suit buyer, there’s a couple of simple rules of thumb: if you’re looking for a suit wearable year-round, go with a lightweight worsted wool. For a winter-only suit, go for tweed, flannel or a more insulating wool. And for summer (think what you’d wear to a wedding), try fabrics such as linen, silk or cotton.
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No doubt, the price difference between an off-the-rack suit (beginning at about $400) and a custom suit (starting around $600 to $700) is significant. But how long a custom suit will last versus many off-the-rack suits is significant as well, due almost exclusively to canvasing.

Custom suit jackets are lined with an extremely stiff linen fabric called canvas, which is cut to the jacket’s shape and then stitched directly to the underside of the exterior fabric. This lining holds the shape of the jacket and keeps it from sagging or deforming over time. Canvasing is also responsible for hallmark details of a well-made suit like a lapel that curls over the chest rather than creasing.   

Many off-the-rack suit manufacturers no longer used canvas and instead glue a fusible interlining to the wool shell of the suit. Over time, this glue tends to degrade and may become unstuck after multiple cleanings and/or pressings and causes the fabric to bubble, i.e. ripple around the chest and lapels. Unfortunately there’s no way to fix this problem once it has occurred. “Educating our clients about canvassing is just part of the services we offer when they come to us for a piece of custom clothing,” Yeats, from Main Street’s Beckett & Robb, says. “We consider ourselves style consultants and engage in our clients’ entire wardrobe to give them versatility to last a long time.”
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Custom Suit Converts

So, beyond the banking crowd, who’s fueling the on-fire trend for custom suits? Well, really any man—and many more women than you’d expect—in the market for a go-to quality suit that, as we referenced earlier, makes them feel fantastic every time they put it on.

Luke Mirabelli will be graduating from medical school in May and recently purchased a custom suit to wear to the residency interviews he’ll be embarking on this fall and into the future in his career as a doctor. But the purchase also represents something of a fulfillment of a family legacy for him as well. “My grandfather was the master tailor at Utah Woolen Mills for 40 years, and made custom clothing for many of Utah’s elite back in the day,” Mirabelli says. “Unfortunately he passed before I was born. Therefore, I wanted to have the custom experience that I am sadly never going to get from my grandfather.”     

Chris Neihart, co-owner of Premier Equestrian in Sandy, decided to buy his first custom suit to wear to his wedding this fall because, “I’m six feet six inches tall, so off the rack clothing can be hit or miss regarding the fit,” he says. How a custom suit allows design options like color, fabric, liner, fit and buttons not available when purchasing off-the-rack also appealed to him. And while he doesn’t expect too many occasions where he’ll wear the full suit after his wedding day—his chose a super-dapper emerald green fabric—“I look forward to wearing the sport coat with a nice and jeans.”

And, what about me, you ask? After embarking on this custom suit quest, I’ve become a convert as well and am planning a visit to one of downtown’s clothiers to very soon fulfill my own dreams of joining the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit.  

Where to Suit Up, Downtown

Utah Woolen Mills
59 S Temple

Beckett & Robb
150 Main St

Bespoke Custom Clothing
145 E. 900 South

H.M. Cole
136 E. South Temple

Ferreira European Custom Tailor
132 W. Pierpont Ave
(801) 462-5533

Tailor Cooperative
335 Pierpont Avenue

True Gentleman Custom Suits
281 South Weechquootee Place