Suits have been around for a while. The OG suit, the original, sartorial standard of dress, can be traced back to the 17th century when King Charles II decreed a dress code for men of the English Court. Two hundred years later, in the late 19th century, Englishmen Beau Brummell said “f off” to frock coats and powdered wigs (phew) and brought to market the first version of the modern suit we all know and love today.
So what’s changed since then? A lot. But the age-old question remains - what’s most important in a suit… fabric or fit? What’s also interesting is that this answer itself has changed over time, so we’ll talk about where it’s been and where it’s going. But first, let’s put down some baselines on each to contextualize this debate. For both fabric and fit, we’re going to assume a base level of quality. Obviously, if you’re 5’10 and the suit was made for someone 6’4” - not going to work. If the fabric is full of synthetics, inconsistent, and poorly made, it’s going to look bad no matter how well it fits.
In this post we’ll focus on the battle that suit brands are waging against each other, off-the-rack vs. made-to-measure and Italian milled luxury fabrics vs. generic quality fabrics.
So what’s the short answer? Well, it’s complicated. But don’t worry - this isn’t one of those posts that ramble on just to get to an “it depends” answer. Let’s look at each individually first.
Simply put - fabric quality matters, to a degree. If the fabric is mostly polyester, made by a cheap mill focused on quantity, the lack of quality is going to show on the suit. Avoid cheap fabrics. Let's dive in deeper.
Poor fabrics are easy to weed out. Avoid fabrics with high polyester content, and in general synthetics (though some newer synthetics are making strides). Stick to mostly natural fabrics - wool, silk, cashmere. The right blend depends on what properties you’re looking for and what weather conditions the suit is best for.
A bit of polyester doesn’t hurt - 99% of people won’t be able to tell the difference, including the person wearing it - but stay away from polyester content higher than 30%. Is 100% wool better than 90% wool 10% polyester? Yes, technically. But can anyone tell the difference? No, except for your wallet. Merino wool might be a tad softer, but if it’s double the price, is that worth it? For some people yes, but for the bulk of the market it’s a status symbol more than it is a measurable difference in perceivable quality.
In recent years, fabric making has become highly commoditized. Think about this logically, this is all done by machines. If you have the right machines, you can make high quality fabrics. Is that italian mill actually any better than the korean one using the same machines and processes? No. It’s not.
So while many brands are hawking that their fabrics are “italian-milled” at the “highest quality” production facilities in the world, what they’re really saying is that you’re overpaying for a status point that few people but you will ever know.
Tying together the blend of content and production is cost. A typical suit uses about 3 ½ yards of fabric. On an inexpensive suit, the fabric might run around $7/yard. On expensive suits from the most prestigious mills, the fabric can run as high as $250/yard - with the medium price of fabric coming in closer to $25/yard. While the difference between a $7/yard fabric and $250/yard fabric will of course be quite pronounced, a $20/yard fabric vs. a $50/yard fabric, to the untrained eye is quite difficult to see. The only truly visible difference is in the retail price of the suit.
Fabric matters… to a degree.
Once you reach a baseline of a quality fabric blend that’s low synthetic, the fabric content doesn’t change that much. Yes merino wool might breathe a bit better, but most people won’t be able to tell.
The mill that the fabric is made in? At this point, more of a marketing gimmick than something of tangible value. Many countries around the world are now producing high quality fabrics. The difference is simple, they don’t have the name brand association, and they don’t come with an overinflated price.
Fit also matters, to a degree. Styles have changed dramatically from decade to decade, and fashion culture has made some---interesting---decisions in the past. If you’ve watched The Last Dance, you’ll see what I mean with the suits NBA players were wearing back in the 90s. In the new 20’s, it’s all about fitting your body.
Out are the days of oversized shoulder pads, pleated pants and box-shaped jackets of the Michael Jordan era. In is the slim, trim look of a suit that conforms to the wearer’s unique body type. The big change this has caused to suits is that now fit matters... a lot.
Today’s market offers three primary ways to buy a suit, with three different levels of fit: off-the-rack, made-to-measure (custom), and bespoke. I’ve summarized the difference below - for more details, see our post on the differences between each type.
Off-The-Rack (OTR) suits are mass produced based on set sizes (38S, 42R, 46L, etc). The sizes are akin to an expanded version of small, medium and large that t-shirts come in. While the expansion of sizes helps get a “closer” fit to an individual's specific body size, it’s not hard to tell when a suit is OTR. Whether it’s the shoulder width or sleeve length, something will be off. Minor corrections can be made, but this is limited.
Made-To-Measure (MTM) suits are a hybrid model that uses pre-set patterns (OTR sizes) that are adjusted slightly based on the customer’s measurements. This results in a better initial fit that, like an OTR suit, can be altered slightly later to further improve the fit. MTM is a large step above OTR, and factories have been optimized to produce these at scale.
Bespoke suits are the creme de la creme of suit making. Rather than adjusting a pre-cut pattern based on customer measurements, bespoke suits use the measurements to create the pattern used for the garments. You’ll always get the best fit from bespoke as the suit is made for your body. As expected, this is the most expensive and time consuming manufacturing method as mass production isn’t possible.
Fit matters… a lot. The way a suit fits is the first thing anyone (you included) will notice when you’re wearing the suit. A great fitting suit doesn’t just look great, it feels great. The subtle differences are tough to pick out one by one, but collectively across the entire suit make a world of difference. The best fabric in the world on a OTR suit will never look as nice as a decent fabric on a MTM or bespoke suit.
And The Winner Is...
Fit. By a longshot. Because at the end of the day, a world class fabric on an off-the-rack suit will not look nearly as good as a still very good fabric on a great fitting MTM or bespoke suit.
As mentioned, fabric production is now largely commoditized - you don’t need the fabric to come from an italian mill for it to be of high quality. Fit, on the other hand, is far more differentiable. Construction methods, consistency and quality are very important.
Affording A Great Fitting Suit
While bespoke offers the best fit, these suits are often (but not always) significantly more expensive, and the added cost for most consumers isn’t worth the noticeable but small improvement over MTM.
However, companies like Sartoro are making high quality bespoke suits affordable for all. How? Two ways.
1. By eliminating expensive storefronts and moving the entire process online.
Without any physical stores, costs are lower and less markup is required. When you walk into a high end suit store in NYC, you better believe a big portion of the cost you’re paying is for the exorbitant rent, the plush leather couches, the single malt scotch you’re served during fittings and the cost of the staff. Do you really want to pay for all that? We didn’t.
2. By leveraging expert international tailors for their world class talent and affordable labor costs.
Hoi An, Vietnam is well known as the garment capital of southeast Asia. Tailors are exceptionally talented and fair wages are far lower than in the west. The same level of quality in the US costs 4-5x more.
But how are accurate measurements taken if everything is online? Easy - Sartoro's Digital Tailor can predict body measurements to within 3% accuracy, all with just a few basic inputs, no measurements required. And just in case something isn’t perfect, an alteration credit is included with every Sartoro suit.
How To Make The Right Choice
Every suit brand offers something different. Deciding which elements matter most to you is a personal choice. Well-known brands have been able to charge exorbitant prices for OTR suits, and for some consumers, that’s most important. But for the savvy suit buyer, a focus on fit will almost always result in a better garment, and in some cases, a lighter impact on the wallet, too.