What’s the difference between off the rack, made to measure and bespoke? Which type of suit is right for you?
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 way different than a made-to-measure suit that you might buy online from a company like Indochino, Oliver Wicks or Black Lapel.
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:
1. Ready-to-wear (plus tailoring) – Suitsupply
2. Made-to-measure – Oliver Wicks
3. Bespoke – Alan David
Let’s take a closer look at each suit…
Ready to Wear (a.k.a., Off the Rack)
Suitsupply 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 Suitsupply. 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 Suitsupply 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.
Check out my Suitsupply custom suit review (it fits much better than the off-the-rack Lazio above).
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.
I’m talking about Oliver Wicks, Indochino, Blank Label, Black Lapel, Knot Standard…the list goes on and on.
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 Suitsupply 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.).
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions people ask about the different types of suits:
What’s the difference between bespoke and custom?
Although these words are used interchangeably, they’re not the same. Bespoke is a specific type of custom. All bespoke suits are custom, but not all custom suits are bespoke. Bespoke means made from scratch. Most custom suits are not bespoke.
Are bespoke suits worth it?
If you have the budget and want the very best, or if you have an extremely hard to fit body type, bespoke suits may be worth it for you. But, since bespoke is so expensive, most people are better off buying ready-to-wear or made-to-measure suits.
How can you tell if a suit is bespoke?
Some people will tell you to look at the shoulder, stitching or canvassing, but none of these things are exclusive to bespoke suits.
Unless you know how it was made – or you’re a master tailor – you can’t really tell if a suit is bespoke (without taking it apart, that is).
How much does a bespoke suit cost?
The most affordable bespoke suits start around $2,000, but most bespoke suits cost $3,500-6,000. You could spend much more than that, depending on your choice of clothier and fabric.
How much does an off the rack suit cost?
In places like the U.S., Canada or UK, of the rack suits typically cost between $150 and $600. Of course, you can find cheaper suits (but I wouldn’t recommend buying them) and more expensive suits.
If you shop at high end brands like Tom Ford or Zegna, you can easily spend thousand of dollars on an off the rack suit.
What do you prefer: ready to wear, made-to-measure or bespoke? Let me know in the comments section below!
Dylan C says
If you had the choice to go bespoke or a designer brank off the rack (Canali to be specific) with alterations, which would you suggest? Assuming the cost is around 2k either way.
If the off the rack one fit really well with alterations, I’d go with that. If it didn’t fit almost perfectly, I’d go bespoke (given the amount of money you’re spending).
Roberto Cervantes says
If you’re a #ShortKing like me (5’7”), Peter Manning is a great first stop. They even offer a tailoring credit if you need alterations. I wear a size 4 jacket and get minor alterations around the waist for a perfect fit. 31×28 trousers no alterations needed.
This is the best article I’ve read on suits and I’m 55 and wore suits for work for about 12 years of my professional life. My first thought is I feel bad for you trying to find a suit to fit at 5’6″ and 120. In suits I am lucky because I’m 6′ and have run from about 155 – 175 across my suit life with a 32 – 33 inch waist 42 inch chest (if I remember correctly). I have always bought ready to wear with good results.
Your photos do a good job of showing off what you talk about, I can’t see a ton of difference between the bespoke and the ready to wear but as you talk about there are subtle ones. When I was in my 20’s a coworker told me that every man should have at least one custom suit. I sort of agree and sort of not (plus I didn’t have $600 to drop on a suit in the early 90’s). He wore custom but he was at least 20 pounds overweight (probably in his 30’s/early 40’s) and I suspect that weight varied for him too. So his custom suits were nice suits but they couldn’t make him look fit. That was an important lesson at an early age. A fit man in a decent ready to wear suit is likely to look better than a custom suit on an out of shape man. If you have to pick and choose what areas to try and keep fit as far as looks in a suit I would say shoulders/posture and/or abs…we all know abs are harder to do so the quick fix to me is shoulder mass and exercise to correct round shoulders (face pulls are a great, easy base exercise). Also once you get a nice suit it will continue to fit nicely only as long as you maintain relatively the same shape.
That’s my two cents.
Alan Voorhees says
I had a suit made a few months ago. I went to my tailor and selected a wool/cashmere fabric and discussed the fit, style and features I wanted. After that I was measured and left a deposit. The first fitting was a basted-together jacket and sewed pants. Made some adjustments for fit. When the completed suit was delivered, everything was perfect.
So is it bespoke or custom? It ticks off everything in the “bespoke” list except the price. Does using a Bangkok tailor count? (I live in Asia).
What hem size do you recommend for suit pants? I’m 5’6″, slim, early 20’s and wear my clothing close and tailored. I was thinking 7″
I like 6.25 to 6.5 myself!
Thanks Brock. You wear a small suit. Do you think the brands you’ve found to work for you are good at catering to the smaller guy, or catering to alterations in general? Some of us are vertically challenged but have a nightmare of a time finding a 48 or 50 jacket – then trying to find one that carries pants with a 10 inch drop just makes matters worse.
I went to my local Suit Supply several times to try to find something that fit and came up empty. They are a Netherlands based company so that might explain things. The patterns are probably cut for someone 6’5″. The customer service is awful, so I don’t feel bad about not buying there.