Suiting 101: How to buy a custom-made suit

Updated on October 13 2016

A suit is an essential part of the modern man’s wardrobe. Sure, Don Draper might have had a fair bit to do with that, but with the back-to-basics wave that seems to be sweeping through men’s fashion trends of late, a suit — even in our inhospitable climate — is a great way to make a statement and, in many ways, the most attention grabbing.

And one of the great things about Hong Kong is the abundance of men’s tailors, so you can really own your own look. “A custom suit allows one a vast range of options in fabric choices, style customisation, and fine detailing,” says Mark Asaf, a tailor at TST’s Empire International Tailors. And, in stark contrast to buying off-the-rack, tailor-made suits “are based specifically off an individual’s body measurements, followed by detailed fittings and trials,” rather than a scale of made to fit-all sizes. This is all-important when it comes to owning your look.

We spoke with Asaf about the essential things to keep in mind when buying a custom-made suit — it might seem like a lot to take in, sure, but the benefits of this will be evident next time you turn heads with your sleek new look.

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Before: Do your research

As with any investment, there is a certain amount of preparation you should do before buying a bespoke suit. Asaf recommends looking online for some inspiration — don’t be afraid to take this to your tailor, as that way you’ll both have a clear idea of what to create for your specific needs. Think in terms of style, cut, fabric and colour.

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The essentials: Keeping it timeless

“There is a world of options out there but it’s good to at least know what makes a modern yet timeless suit,” Asaf says. And it definitely pays to know what will never go out of style: “You can’t go wrong with a basic single breasted two-button double vented jacket with notch lapels, and flat front trousers with no cuffs.”

Colour-wise, navy, charcoal and black are the must-haves. If you want to mix things up a bit though, Asaf recommends subtle patterns like herringbone, nail head, sharkskin or a light pinstripe, which are all versatile options — and versatility is key. Says Asaf: “The idea is to have something you can wear to a funeral, formal work occasion, or a wedding and blend in”.

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Material: More than feeling good

Wool is the standard fabric for suits. Virgin wool — that is, untreated, unprocessed, first-shear wool — is best. (And it should go without saying that synthetic should be avoided at all costs.)

What though of the thread count? “Wools with higher thread counts — 130s, 150s and up — are found more in the luxurious end of the quality spectrum,” Asaf says. “They are noticeably softer, have a smoother appearance, and feel lighter and more comfortable on the body. They are also more fragile and higher in price.”

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In-season: Summer options

Hong Kong’s long, sticky summers don’t exactly make for the idea suit-wearing climate. For a lot of us though, it’s just an unavoidable fact of life — but just because you have to wear a suit, doesn’t mean you can’t adapt it to suit the season.

“Things generally get less formal in summer,” Asaf says. “People tend to wear lighter colours for suits and do blazer and pants combinations more often. Half-lined linen and cotton blazers, cotton or tropical wool suits with an unstructured finish and light weight feel are quite popular summer options for the temperature and fashion conscious man.”

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After care: Make it last

Looking after your suit the right way definitely pays dividends. Asaf has some essential tips to ensure your suit lasts:

Avoid the dry cleaners: “If your suit is dry cleaned too frequently, the strong chemicals used in the process can cause damage to the fabric.” Dry cleaning three times a year is enough. Take care of minor stains with a hand-held steamer.

Get it steam pressed: “Steam pressing can give the suit a crisper and newer look,” says Asaf. Get this done before any special occasion.

Invest in a suit brush: This helps to get rid of lint and hair, to achieve a cleaner and neater look. A brush works particularly well with darker suits.

Hanging is key: “Remember to hang your suits on a thick wooden hanger to preserve its shape and fall,” Asaf recommends. Avoid thin, pointy hangers, particularly wire ones.

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Avoid the traps: Questions to ask your tailor

Remember, this suit is your investment, so there are never too many questions you can ask. Crucial things to keep in mind include:

Don’t sacrifice quality for price: Asaf sees this as a common problem when guys buy suits, especially in Asia. “It’s true that the services of Hong Kong tailors can be easier on the wallet compared to the ones in London and New York, but there is a world of difference between the cheap deal and the real deal. Avoid being lured into shops by touts advertising cheap promotion deals.”

Take your time: Speed isn’t a marker of quality. “Bespoke tailoring is a slow and gradual process which involves intensive hand labour,” says Asaf. “Take your time with the fittings and give your tailor as much time as you can.”

Cost breakdown: “Some tailor stores in Hong Kong distinguish their prices strictly on fabric, while some offer services of their finer craftsmen for suits of higher end fabrics,” Asaf says.

Greek-Cypriot by way of Melbourne, Nik is a lover of sneakers, country and western music, Jeff Probst, oversized scarves and three-quarter lattes. He occasionally tweets, badly, @nik_iforos, and lives in a state of constant FOMO on Instagram @nik.iforos.