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How to buy a suit: 6 simple tips to keep in mind

Take the mystery out of buying a suit with these tips

Man in brown suit
Anastasiia Chepinska / Shutterstock

Every man should own that one suit that makes them feel like a titan. One sharp suit can cover you for job interviews, weddings, funerals, and nearly any other event that requires formal attire. There is always a good reason to own a suit. And most men should have more than one; as a matter of fact, there are a select few that they should have. It is called the four-legged stool.

Before going into the store, knowing what you are looking for and what you need to fit your lifestyle is essential. Now head to the store. Once you are through the door, remember these tips, shared with us by the late Tony Spear, who was the president and owner of Este’s Men’s Clothing in Portland, Oregon, which is now closed. Here’s how to buy a suit.

1. Don’t get sold

Do you remember that scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts walks into an upscale boutique and is shamed out of the store because they didn’t feel like she could afford to shop there? Well, this happens to men too. A few decades ago, men’s clothing retailers could succeed despite being rude to their customers. Today, online reviews make it difficult for jerks to do well; there’s no reason to tolerate a salesperson who seems impatient, rude, or snobby.

“Any purchase should be made from someone trying to help you — not someone trying to sell you,” Spear said. “You should never feel intimidated when you’re buying something.” If you’re uncomfortable during the suit-buying process, it’s your right as a consumer to get out of there. Just remember that the best salespeople listen more than they talk. If you find yourself listening to a salesman ramble on about something, he is trying to sell you, not help you. Move along.”

James Bond in gray suit fixing cuffs
Courtesy of MGM

2. Consider your suit-wearing habits

It’s OK to walk into a suit store without a clear vision. A trustworthy salesperson will ask you a series of questions to help you zero in on your ideal suit. Are they listening to you? Or telling you what you need without asking? Still, it’s a good idea to have some idea of what you want; do you want a suit for a particular occasion, or are you looking for a reliable outfit that will work for just about any formal situation? Maybe you’re looking for a workhorse suit that will stand up to hundreds of wears over three to five years.

“If you’re seeing the same client two days in a row, it’s good to have two suits,” Spear told us. “If you’re going to work in an office and you’re wearing the same suit three out of the five days, one suit is fine. You shouldn’t worry about your co-workers because everyone’s on a clothing budget.” People remember patterns and bright colors; basic charcoals and blues are versatile options. Dress them up with colorful shirts and ties if that is how you express yourself. If you are wearing a suit to work every day, there is a specific wardrobe you will need to build.

3. Don’t worry too much about material

A pushy salesperson may try to convince you to buy some uber-fancy material that bumps the total cost up a few hundred dollars. For your first or second suit, we recommend skipping the premium fabric options and going with reliable, affordable, timeless wool. Most suit stores will have their “Signature” or “Executive” lines that will be cashmere, silk, or high-quality wool. 

A salesperson may throw out numbers like Super 120, 130, or higher. A lot goes into those super numbers that determine the suit’s overall quality, but here is a quick, down, and dirty rule to help you navigate that conversation. The higher the number, the thinner and softer the thread. This is exceptionally comfortable and luxurious, but that also means every press and every wear breaks down the fibers. So the day-in-day-out wears are for the lower numbers. Here is a friendly guide to keep in mind. 

  • Everyday office wear – Super 110-130
  • Big meeting or interview – Super 140-150
  • Special occasion – Super 180+

Rather than worrying about materials, you should focus your time and energy on getting the right fit. “Fit is key,” said Spear. “Everybody likes nice fabric, but you can see the look of a bad fit — you can’t see how bad the fabric is.” Once you have several suits in your closet, then you might experiment with linen, cotton, spandex, whatever. If you like the feel of the material and it’s reasonably priced, we say go for it.

Man wearing navy suit
Gregory Hayes / Unsplash

4. Navy and charcoal are gold

Though black suits were popular once upon a time, you really don’t see them often these days outside formal events. Today, navy and charcoal are where it’s at. “If you’re just starting a wardrobe, get a navy suit and a charcoal gray suit,” Spear told us. “Now you have three outfits. You have the navy suit; you got the charcoal suit; you got the charcoal pant to wear with that navy suit coat. That’s how you start a wardrobe.

5. Off-the-rack suits are just fine

If you don’t have the funds to drop $1,000-plus on a tailor-made suit, don’t. Going off the rack is a perfectly respectable way to procure a new suit. “There’s nothing wrong with $295 suits,” Spear said. “If you’re wearing it once or twice a year to holiday occasions, funerals, or weddings, it’s OK as long as it fits.” That said, you shouldn’t expect much from fused suits (glued, as opposed to stitched) together. Buying a high-quality suit off the rack and having a tailor adjust it to your contours is an excellent compromise between buying a fused suit and a 100% custom suit.

Man in green suit jacket
TheStoryteller / Shutterstock

6. But every man should have one tailored suit

If you have the means, you will do well to have a suit tailored. Again, it’s all about fit. When a suit fits just right, you can feel it — not just in terms of comfort but confidence as well. “Everyone should have a custom suit at some point in their life — even if it’s just one,” said Spear. “A $1,200-$1,500 tailored suit over ten or more years comes out to about $125 a year.” That’s not an outrageous amount when you consider that you’ll look perfect while wearing your bespoke suit. Also, you shouldn’t worry about gaining or losing weight — it’s not hard for a tailor to “take in” a loose garment or “ease” a tight one.

Be a repeat customer

The truth is, you will need more than one suit in your lifetime. Even if you rarely wear a suit, you will need to purchase replacements for the one you already have or different ones for various events. Once you have found a salesman you trust, they will become just as valuable as a mechanic you believe in, saving you thousands over time. When you need to buy a new suit, knowing the place to go will save you all the headaches.

Just like anything else, it can get overwhelming fast if you’re trying to buy a suit without any preparation. That could scare you away from the suit-buying experience altogether. Then you are that guy wearing khaki pants and a button-down Oxford shirt to every event, regardless of formality. Follow these tips from a proven professional, and you will feel like an expert in no time.

Mark McKee
Mark is a full-time freelance writer and men's coach. He spent time as a style consultant and bespoke suit salesman before…
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