Should you buy an off-the-rack suit from a supermarket or discount store?

  • What are the differences between bespoke, made to measure and off the rack?
  • Tailors, fashion bloggers, personal stylists and a psychologist weigh in on the eternal question
PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 6:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 11:48am

Supposed crime boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman once made Forbes’ billionaires list. At his trial, Guzman now wears Kmart suits, according to CNN.

Is there anything wrong with supermarket suits stocked by discount stores and is it right to dismiss them as cheap?

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New York-based menswear designer and personal stylist Tavia Sharp says: “I’m always honest and upfront with my clients about quality … I explain the difference between a cheap suit and a higher quality or high-end suit.”

Sharp, who has 15 years of hands-on experience at labels including Calvin Klein, Macy’s and Nautica, explains how to recognise quality. “It’s all in the details – the fabric, the inner components, and the construction and make of the garment.”

“Not only does it affect how it looks and fits, but it also affects how long it will last. I recommend men should spend a little extra on a classic, well-fitted, quality suit that will last for years to come, versus buying a suit that they will need to replace in a year or two.”

How much you should pay depends on your budget, she says, but recommends spending at least US$500. Brands such as My Suit, Suit Supply and Institchu offer great quality at this price. Plus, the brands are made to measure or custom fit, which beats off-the-rack, she says.

She adds that off-the-rack suits at stores like Macy’s are stylish, but lower in fabric quality and construction.

“I would not recommend a supermarket suit, as it’s most likely 100 per cent polyester fabric, and the inner components will be glued together. This will show very quickly in a suit and looks very cheap,” she says, unimpressed by Walmart styles. “These are all very outdated style-wise. I would not recommend any of these to clients because of that and because they’re very cheap looking.”

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In the United States, a budget shopper can get a well-priced, quality suit at Century 21 or Nordstrom Rack. The shops sell name brands at a highly discounted price, according to Sharp, who often takes clients on a budget to them. Or they can buy through an online flash sale such as Bluefly or Hautelook, she suggests. “There are much better options than buying a suit at a supermarket.”

Since the 19th century, the lounge suit has been the standard dress code for success. City streets and public transport teemed with smart talent in power suits.

Now, however, suits are less popular. Only one in 10 workers wears one to work, according to a study by the hospitality brand TraveLodge in February 2018.

I would not recommend a supermarket suit, as it’s most likely 100 per cent polyester fabric, and the inner components will be glued together
Tavia Sharp, New York-based menswear designer and stylist

The study, which polled 2,000 employees, found that today’s male British office worker wears chinos, jeans, long-sleeved button shirts and a smart blazer or jacket with a pair of loafers or smart trainers. One in seven workers thought the tie, which has existed since Roman times, went extinct in the office in the 2010s.

Keen on comfort, three quarters of modern British workers dress down for work. Casual Friday occurs every day, according to the survey, which was spurred by hotel managers reporting a dip in the volume of cufflinks, tie pins, ties and suits left behind.

“Over the past three decades, we have experienced a big movement in the workplace, where traditions and protocols have fallen enormously,” Professor Karen Pine, a psychologist at Hertfordshire University, says, citing the demise of hierarchy – less of an authority figure, the boss acts like a coach and everyone is on first-name terms.

“Having dress-down Friday every day enables workers to be independent, and showcase their personality and attributes by how they dress rather than the position they hold, which leads to stronger bonds between colleagues and removes barriers, enabling everyone to get on with their jobs,” Pine says.

Yet wearing a suit does have a psychological effect. It changes the way your brain works in a good way, according to a 2015 US study.

The fabrics are usually cheap quality and pill easily. Also, unlike a good quality suit, these are usually produced with pieces of fabric that are glued together, which makes them uncomfortable to wear
Syed Sohail, fashion blogger

Researchers found that suit wearers felt more powerful, driving them to consider the big picture instead of becoming enmeshed in detail.

“Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” says lead researcher, psychologist Abraham Rutchick from California State University, Northridge.

Plus-size male model Syed Sohail, who writes The Prep Guy fashion blog, says big-box retailers, such as Kmart and Target, have raised their suiting game.

Commenting on Kmart suits displayed online, Sohail says the options are OK if limited and outdated. Plus, the fabrics are mostly made from poly fibres, instead of organic fibres, such as wool, linen and cotton, another sign of low quality.

Other large retailers focused on selling private label brands supposedly do better. “In my opinion, Target typically has the best styling for their suiting in comparison to K-Mart, Walmart and similar retailers. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any of these retailers for suiting that can stand the test of time,” he says.

Key elements he seeks when purchasing a suit include cut, comfort, construction and overall quality – stitching, fabric choice and types of buttons. These key elements may be absent from suits produced by big box retailers.

“The fabrics are usually cheap quality and pill easily,” he says. “Also, unlike a good quality suit, these are usually produced with pieces of fabric that are glued together, which makes them uncomfortable to wear.”

He recommends opting for retailers with a stronger focus on clothing, such as H&M, Express and Topman or Topshop – or online retailers such as ASOS.

“You will find that although the price points are similar to the big box retailers, the garments usually have more of the key elements. The options in terms of styles are also much greater, and often, you can purchase suiting on promotions for an extremely affordable price point,” he says. Either way, evidently, you do not need to go to Savile Row to find a decent suit. A far less exclusive option can do the job.