Many guys I talk to about suits are curious about Made-to-Measure (“MTM”). In the last few years, there has been a concerted effort to advertise the MTM process by a number of men’s clothing companies and stores. This has created a certain aura around the MTM suit, while the plethora of companies offering MTM suits has had the effect of dropping the prices on MTM garments to being very affordable. I’ve been through the MTM process and I believe that I can lay out the process, the pros and cons and parse out the myths and reality of purchasing a MTM suit.
First, the vast majority of men interested in purchasing a MTM suit fall into one or more of these four categories:
1) They don’t think that conventional, off-the-rack (“OTR”) suits fit them and therefore require MTM in order to have a well-fitting suit;
2) They perceive the quality of MTM suits to be generally superior to those of OTR suits, and therefore want to purchase a better suit;
3) They are picky about the details of their suits and cannot find anything OTR that has all the details they want; and
4) They have spare cash that makes the convenience and generally superior service associated with certain MTM programs interesting to them, regardless of how much the increase in quality and fit over OTR actually is.
I would say that I fall into at least two of these categories myself; first, I have a slightly hard time finding suits that fit my lean but athletic body type, and the suits that I do find often do not meet my very precise qualifications. The result being that I’ve gone the MTM route and lived to tell the tale; but do not take this as a blanket recommendation of MTM suits. In fact, this post is much more of a cautionary one, which I hope will provide an honest look at the advantages offered by MTM (and there are advantages) as well as disadvantages or potential issues that may arise.
The first question that must be answered is, what exactly is a MTM suit? A MTM suit is one that is made by adjusting a pre-existing pattern in order to manufacture a suit that more exactingly fits a particular customer. In other words, if you, like myself, are somewhere in between requiring a regular and tall length jacket, the pattern used to make your suit can be adjusted so as to adjust the length between those of an OTR tall and OTR regular. This is a valuable aspect of the process, as suit manufactures typically offer three lengths (Short, Regular and Tall) and it’s your job to fit into one of them. However, most people mistake a MTM suit for a “Bespoke” suit. A Bespoke suit is made entirely from scratch, from a pattern made specifically for the individual customer. In other words, while MTM attempts to tinker with something that already exists, Bespoke creates something altogether new. You can imagine that certain things cannot be corrected after the fact, once the plans have been made. It is very difficult to make a car mid-engined once you’ve designed it to be front-engined. You can move the battery to a different location, add features or design details such as a rear spoiler, adjust ride heights, etc, but making wholesale changes is often not possible. Therein lies the difference between Bespoke and MTM, and it is an important difference.
Reversing course, let’s reexamine several of the 4 reasons I mentioned earlier why men pursue MTM to see if they hold up. Regarding #2, the idea that the quality of MTM suits is generally superior to OTR, within the world of MTM there are vastly different levels of service and quality. The word “custom” is thrown around far too often and far too liberally in our society and this very much applies to MTM suits. I’ll often hear that a store is selling “custom” suits when in fact these suits are custom in only the very broadest sense of the word. Undoubtedly you will have heard about tailors from Asia that pass through most large cities on a fairly regular basis, offering MTM suits, shirts, etc, at pseudo-bargain prices. Sadly, you generally get what you pay for, and it’s never quite that easy to get a bargain. I’ve seen first-hand the work of a number of these tailors and have been far from impressed. Their ads often fail to answer a number of vital questions, including whether their suits are fully (or half) canvassed, what the button stance of the jacket will be, where the notch on the lapel typically lies on their suits, whether they’re basted or fused, etc (if any of these terms are foreign to you, I would highly encourage to read my post on suits here). The work on these suits are being done in factory settings in Asia by workers of unknown experience and skill, with measurements being taken by people of unknown experience and skill. Should adjustments be required (and they almost inevitably will on a MTM suit), you’re left to your own devices. I would strongly argue that the fit you will get from purchasing a quality OTR garment and having it tailored after the fact will, in many cases, be superior to the fit you will get from a budget MTM manufacturer. In other words, think long and very hard before going down this route as you generally get what you pay for…
Furthermore, there will almost inevitably need to be adjustments to your suit once you get it back from even the best MTM tailors, including those at Harry Rosen, Zegna or wherever else, and it will be up to you to push them to make these changes correctly. Otherwise, you will be in nearly the same place as had you purchased an OTR suit. MTM isn’t a miracle – it is essentially a slightly more convenient way of purchasing OTR suits in terms of getting a proper fit. If you go in expecting miracles, you will disappointed and you will still need to know how a proper suit should fit in order to get everything you need out of the experience.
But beyond perceived quality, I think that it is reason #1, the idea that one cannot find suits that fit, that many potential MTM allegedly fit into. This is a mistaken belief in a large number of these instances and many people who are looking at MTM because they feel that they fall within #1 should reconsider before proceeding. There is no universal way in which suits are cut – suit manufactures base their suits on “fit models”, individuals with body types that the designer of the suit is aiming to fit. Different manufacturers have very different fits; furthermore, most manufacturers offer more than one cut. Therefore there are different fits even amongst the suits offered by a single manufacturer. Thus, a Ralph Lauren Black Label will fit very differently than a Ralph Lauren Purple Label suit, and both will fit very differently than the Ermengildo Zegna Trofeo line. You shouldn’t approach buying a suit by saying “I want to buy a Zegna suit” because Zegna might not fit you as well as other brands – you should find which brands fit you the best and go from there. This can be a time-consuming process and it is best to find a larger store that offers a range of different manufacturers.
Another way to find a proper fitting OTR suit is to play with sizes. For example, I like my suits cut slim. However, I have a slim but athletic body type, meaning that I have broad shoulders but a narrow waist. I’ve made the mistake of purchasing a Ralph Lauren Black Label suit, partly because they’re beautifully made suits, but also because that is the cut of suit I’m looking for. However, it has never quite fit me as well I would like. I typically wear a 40R, but the 40R is too tight in the shoulders while fitting in the body, and the 42R fits in the shoulders but is like a tent everywhere else. My mistake was trying to go up a size in a slim suit cut in order to fit the shoulders, rather than getting a more fuller-fitting suit in a smaller size. I was recently at Brooks Brothers looking at their trimmer fitting Milano and Fitzgerald suits, as both are cut in the way that I like my suits to fit. However, I encountered the same issue as I did with Ralph Lauren Black Label – the 40R was too tight in the shoulders, while the 42R was too loose everywhere else. However, I then tried on a Regent cut, which is a far more “leisurely” fitting suit, one whose cut I would have told you I would dislike. Except I moved down a size to a 39R, and it fit like an absolute glove. Plus, because it was a smaller size than I typically wear, the armholes were slim and in the proper place, it fit in the shoulders and was trim everywhere else, which is how the Fitzgerald is supposed to fit and the Regent is not. But, by playing with sizes, the opposite became true.
In other words, almost everyone can find something that fits OTR, so long as you’re open to trying different manufacturers, different cuts and different sizes. What you lose is the convenience of MTM, which attempts to do this process for you, but at a price. Nonetheless, I would strongly suggest that if your primary reason for pursuing MTM is #1, you should try again.
Overall, I would only pursue MTM if you fall within #3 or #4, either by themselves or in concert with #1 or #2. This isn’t to rule out #1 entirely – perhaps nothing will fit, and perhaps the suits that do aren’t to your liking. In that case, perhaps MTM is a good idea; but if #1 is your primary reason, you should make double-sure that no likeable OTR suits fit. If this is the case, keep reading.
Alright, now that I’ve given the stern “this may not work for you” speech, I’ll explain the process, which is very much a more enjoyable way to purchase a suit.
At Harry Rosen, the process begins, at least at the flagship on Bloor Street, on the 5th floor, which is above the fray of the general sales floors. The 5th floor is a very comfortable atmosphere, where you’ll be offered a chilled bottle of water and a comfortable chair. From there, you will sit down with your sales representative and explain what it is exactly you are looking for, what you’ll be typically wearing your suit for (special occasion, day-to-day at the office, etc) and from there, he or she will start to pull out fabric swatchs. It can be daunting to be faced with hundreds of swatchs, each slightly different, but once you establish the price range you’re looking to pay, and other details, you will often end up with a much more manageable amount. This is where the expertise of the sales rep may be particularly useful, as they may have suits in that same fabric already made that they can show you, will perhaps know how that fabric will wear, how much stretch it will have, etc. After this, the details of the suit (vents, buttons, side tabs vs. belt loops, etc) will be spelled out. Again, the sales rep may be able to offer their own expertise. At this stage, I will make my one and only stylistic suggestion: go with side tabs rather than belt loops. For one, I feel that they give you a superior and more chameleon like fit (as you can adjust them as you go). More importantly, it is a tradition on Saville Row that bespoke suit trousers not have belt loops and therefore a bespoke suit from that hallowed street will have side tabs. On the other hand, most OTR suits have belt loops, as I’m sure you will have noted. Why not loop up (towards bespoke) rather than down (towards OTR) when fleshing out the details of your MTM suit? Following this, you will likely be asked to try-on a number of suit pants and jackets in order to better determine what it is you like, and how it looks on you. After this, careful measurements are taken, your posture noted, subtle differences between the lengths of legs or height of shoulder pads are written down and added to the mix. These details will be used to create a more personalized fit.
Once you’ve got all your measurements made and you’ve decided on the details and fabric, this information will be sent to the manufacturer for the suit to be constructed. After approximately a month, your suit will arrive at Harry Rosen, where you will have your first fitting. Almost inevitably, adjustments will need to be made; hopefully these adjustments are small, but sometimes they are not. At this stage, the suit will be handed over to Harry’s in-house tailors for these adjustments to be made. Finally, you will come in for your final fitting and hopefully the suit will be exactly what you had in mind. If it’s not, be sure to tell them immediately and some sort of arrangement can likely be made. More information regarding Harry’s MTM program can be found in this article (although allow for some editorial license and hyperbole in the article): www.harrymagazine.ca/files/47/MadetoMeasure.pdf.
If you do decide to treat yourself to a MTM suit, I would highly recommend taking advantage of a Samuelsohn trunk sale at Harry Rosen. These happen a few times a year and simultaneously give a discount while expanding the number of fabrics available. Samuelsohn suits are made in Montreal to a very high standard (more information available at http://www.samuelsohn.com/) . Many details are customizable, including adding side tabs to pants, the colour of the lining of your suit, the addition of working buttons at the cuffs, etc. For more information, I would suggest heading to Harry’s flagship store on Bloor St. in Toronto and speaking to the sales rep that I deal with, Robert Kennedy, the Manager of Harry’s MTM programs.
I would also suggest looking at Brooks Brothers’ similar program, especially when they have their twice annual sales and I would look for John Di Matteo, the MTM specialist there (formerly head of MTM at Harry’s First Canadian Place location).