What's the difference between off the rack, made to measure and bespoke? Which type of suit is right for you?
[Updated September 2019]
When you need a new suit, you have lots of different options these days. There are more brands to choose from than ever before.
This is great, but it can be a little overwhelming. I want to help you choose the best option for your needs and budget.
The good news is, all suit makers fall into three overarching categories:
1. Ready to wear (a.k.a., off the rack)
To avoid confusion, let’s talk about the word “custom” real quick.
What does “custom” mean?
Custom is used to describe anything that isn’t ready to wear. If you buy a suit off the rack and get it tailored, that’s not a custom suit. It’s just a tailored suit.
Custom means made-to-measure, fully bespoke or anything in between.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that “custom” and “bespoke” are the same thing. The word bespoke is so widely misused that its meaning has almost been lost.
A bespoke suit is made from scratch, just for you. In other words, no fabric is cut until you’ve been measured.
MTM suits, on there other hand, start from a pattern – multiple pieces of fabric that have already been cut, and are ready to be customized according to your measurements and preferences.
Bespoke is much more time intensive. It requires more fabric and more skill. It also requires a lot more money.
Just like all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon: all bespoke suits are custom, but not all custom suits are bespoke.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, we'll take a look at our options using three suits from my own closet:
Let's take a closer look at each suit…
Ready to Wear (a.k.a., Off the Rack)
Suit Supply is one of the most popular brands for men’s suits, and for good reason. Their vertically-integrated supply chain creates a lot of value for their customers.
In other words, you get a lot of bang for your buck at Suit Supply. They do have a made-to-measure program, but they mostly sell ready to wear clothing.
I wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I bought a Lazio suit in navy, size 32. Like any OTR suit, I had to get it tailored to fit my 5’6” and 120 lbs frame.
I got the pants hemmed, sleeves shortened and jacket shortened. They do these alterations in house at their retail locations.
The total price of this suit, including alterations, was $611 ($530 plus alterations).
The final product looked acceptable, although it’s clear to me that the suit was made with a taller man in mind.
I can tell just by wearing it that I’m not the ideal body type for this garment, even after getting it shortened.
It doesn’t look bad, but there’s some tension and pulling in certain places, which makes it a bit uncomfortable to wear.
After having worn custom suits for a few years, this suit just doesn’t feel very good on me. It feels a bit oversized, and the proportions are off, and it doesn’t sit or drape naturally on my body.
I appreciate the Suit Supply brand and commitment to value, but I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed in the way their suits fit a smaller guy like me, especially considering the price.
Whether you buy online and submit your own measurements, or go to a showroom to get measured by a professional, most modern “custom suit” brands are selling made-to-measure (MTM) suits.
They all have basically the same process: you submit your measurements and select your fabric and details, then they send your order to a factory overseas (usually in China). Your suit is shipped directly to you 3-6 weeks later.
It’s a hit or miss process. For first time MTM buyers, I’d say it’s mostly miss. It’s just really hard to get a great fitting suit through the process of self-measurement. Even with “professional” tailors taking your measurements, things can go horribly wrong.
One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no correlation between how polished the brand is or how slick their retail locations are, and the actual quality and fit of their products.
In fact, I’ve had some awful experiences with brands that have super impressive fit shops, complete with slick, charismatic staff who offer you whiskey while you flip through fabric books and talk about what kind of jacket lining best suits your personality…
My point is: a nice customer experience is great, but the actual product is what matters. And your first MTM suit won’t be perfect, unless you get very lucky.
But if you’re patient and willing to really dial in your measurements, MTM can be a great option. Some of my favorite suits are MTM, including this bright navy summer weight Oliver Wicks suit I’ve been wearing a couple of years.
Compared to my Suit Supply suit, this one conforms to my body in a much more comfortable, flattering way.
I think the suit looks better on me, but perhaps more important, it feels better.
When a suit fits well, it’s actually much more comfortable. Most guys aren’t comfortable wearing suits, which is why focusing on fit can be really helpful.
For me, Oliver Wicks has been the best online MTM brand I’ve tried. Even the first suit they made for me was pretty close. After dialing in the measurements over the course of 3-4 suit, the fit is pretty much spot on.
I’d always wanted to buy a bespoke suit, but the price point is prohibitive. We’re talking at least $2,000, potentially much more, for one suit.
One reason for the high price tag is the labor. Making a suit from scratch is very labor intensive, and it requires a lot of experience.
Then you have the fabric. A suit requires 3-4 yards of fabric, plus all of the trimmings (buttons, lining, collar felt, etc.). So the “cost of goods” is high, compared to a RTW or even a MTM suit.
Simply put, bespoke is expensive.
So when Alan David Custom, a 5th generation New York City suit maker, reached out and offered to make me a suit, I jumped on the opportunity.
I’d read about Alan David Custom on He Spoke Style. Brian summarized his experience as no frills bespoke, a description that made sense as soon as I stepped into the Alan David office/showroom hybrid in Manhattan.
This article isn’t meant to serve as a proper review for Alan David Custom, but I do want to give them a shoutout for making me a great suit. My experience with this company was unique, as I’m used to the polished, customer experience focused MTM brands that target guys my age.
Alan David is different (no frills, as Brian put it). But the final product, my bespoke suit, is wonderful, which is why I’m using it as an example for this piece.
Bespoke vs. Made-to-Measure
Even with my favorite Oliver Wicks suit, there are minor details that aren’t quite perfect. Subtle wrinkles and pulling that most people wouldn’t notice. But you can feel it when you wear it.
The bespoke suit doesn’t look “night and day” different to an untrained eye, but it feels incredible. It’s more like wearing a pajama set than a suit. If every man had the luxury of going bespoke, I think men would complain much less about “dressing up” for special occasions or work.
A bespoke tailor sees every little asymmetry in your build. For example, I have slight swayback posture. This means there’s more curve through my lower back, compared to the average man.
Alan saw this immediately and made the appropriate adjustments to my profile. It was almost like being at the chiropractor!
What really makes the bespoke process special, though, is the basted fitting. Basically, the first time you try on your suit, it’s just stitched together with temporary thread. It’s not cut down to your exact measurement yet, so there’s plenty of room to make changes.
This step doesn’t exist in online MTM, and it’s crucial for figuring out if the shape of your suit is correct.
For example, during my basted fitting, we decided that the button stance was off. It had to be adjusted by about two inches, which is impossible to do once the suit is cut and sewn.
After the basted fitting, your suit is stitched together for good, and your try it on again. This is typically the second-to-last or final fitting. Minor adjustments will sometimes be made at this stage.
The end result is a 100% unique suit that is, quite literally, made for you – and only you.
It’s hard to describe how a bespoke suit feels on your body. The only word I can think of is perfect.
Which Type of Suit Is Best for You?
As is often the case, it really depends on your individual situation. What do you need the suit for? How many do you already have? How old are you (are you still growing)? Are you on a mission to lose weight or pack on some muscle?
Perhaps more importantly, what’s your budget? And how much time do you have?
Buying a custom suit takes a long time, especially if you go full bespoke. Online MTM might take 3-5 weeks (sometimes longer). Bespoke could take several months.
For most guys, here's my advice:
First, try to find something that fits well off the rack. Assume it will need a little tailoring, as this is totally normal with suits. Set aside $50-100 for basic alterations, such as getting the pants hemmed, sleeves shortened and jacket taken in.
Be sure that certain “unalterable” parts fit well off the rack, such as the shoulders, hips and seat. If the sleeves are too long off the rack, make sure they don’t have functioning buttons. These make shortening the sleeves difficult and expensive.
If you can’t find anything that fits well enough off the rack, consider going custom. For most guys, this means made-to-measure. If money isn’t an issue – and/or you’re willing and able to invest in a great suit that you’ll wear for years – bespoke is definitely the way to go.
Remember: if you need suit fast, like for your buddy’s wedding next weekend, custom is not an option.
If you do go with a made-to-measure brand, you’ll probably be overwhelmed with all of the choices. I’ve reviewed many of the most popular brands, including Black Lapel, Knot Standard, Indochino, Oliver Wicks and others.
I’ve had surprisingly great experiences and unsurprisingly bad experiences. Here’s my advice:
Prioritize companies that have showrooms (or fit shops) near you. It’s much better to go get your measurements taken, in person and by a professional, than to submit your own measurements.
I’m not saying this always works out. Sometimes you’ll get a newbie “tailor” who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
But they still probably know more than you do. Plus, certain measurements like the shoulders and arms are just hard to do by yourself.
Even if you don’t live near one of these major brands, there are plenty of smaller custom clothiers around the world who serve their local market, often without any sort of online presence. Check your local Google results, Yellow Pages, Yelp, etc. Ask your tailor and dry cleaner if they can recommend anyone.
If you can’t find a local option, it’s time to go the online MTM route. Of all the companies I’ve tried out, my experience has been with Oliver Wicks and Black Lapel.
If I had to pick, I’d choose Oliver Wicks. But please understand that I’ve had a lot of time to dial in my measurements with them. Black Lapel did a great job on the first (and only) suit they made for me.
I can’t guarantee you’ll have a great experience with either of these brands. Sometimes MTM just doesn’t work out the first time. But these are the two companies I’d recommend first.
Either Way, Get It Tailored
Unless you go bespoke, you’ll probably need some alterations to make sure the fit is as close to perfect as it can be. So be sure to set some time aside to visit your local tailor before that big event (wedding, interview, etc.).
What do you prefer: ready to wear, made-to-measure or bespoke? Let me know in the comments section below!