A girl once told me you can never underestimate the power of a tailored suit.
A Legacy of Power
It’s a power my grandfather understood. The power of a high-priced, tailor-made suit.
My grandfather, James Ray McDonald, passed away three years ago, but the power of his suits have lived on through me. Before he passed, I asked his permission to roam through his closet and take some of the suits. He was surprised I wanted them, but agreed that a fine suit must never be mistaken for anything less.
Yes, your grandfather’s closet can be much like a season of the AMC hit television show, Mad Men – full of intense fashion, old-school masculinity, and that sometimes elusive power.
One of the raves about Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s, is the men’s fashion. The show teaches us several things about wearing a suit including: Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Pete Campbell, and Paul Kinsey.
The reason I reference characters from Mad Men rather than ways to correctly wear a suit and accessories is simply this: “No matter your physical type, learn to let your clothes flatter your body.”
The previous quote comes ingeniously and obviously from the Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine, better known as GQ, and it is the truest revelation any man can receive. Sadly, it is one that many men have not heard.
“In some cases people don’t know,” said Najeeb “Jimmy” Ahmed, a bespoke tailor in Houston. “Especially men. They don’t know their size and build so they get frustrated and they just buy it. There’s no one there to guide them.”
Find a Bespoke
A bespoke tailor is a tailor who creates and sells custom-made clothes and fits garments according to an individual’s requests.
Ahmed, who has been a bespoke for 34 years, said there are some men who hire people to purchase their suits because they aren’t confident enough to purchase them on their own – or they simply don’t have the time. One thing they do have is money – and plenty of it. But what about those who don’t have money to toss around for a suit – much less pay someone to purchase the suit?
There are several options, but first let’s review the beginning: never underestimate the power of a tailored suit. And for the men who may not be able to understand the power I’m talking about, perhaps Mr. Draper can best explain: “A man is whatever room he is in.” That’s only if you’re a man – and if you dress like one.
A good suit will cost you no less than $500 (think Calvin Klein or Joseph Abboud), but a suit that will make a lasting impression will be in the range of no less than $1,000 (think Dolce & Gabanna or Emporio Armani). Not carrying that kind of cash? Understandable.
Here are the options: save up for the long haul; put it on the Christmas list; or do what I did and storm your grandfather’s closet. If you think this idea is silly, then you either didn’t know your grandfather very well or he just didn’t care about suits.
To preface my grandfather so as to not lead anyone astray, my grandfather retired at the age of 40, not because he was rich, but rather because he was smart. He invested in real estate when few did – buying up houses and renting them. He was hard-working and knew how to do everything from paint walls and lay cement to plumbing and electric work. You don’t have to be a model to wear a suit, just preferably a model citizen. He didn’t spend lavishly on his clothes, but he didn’t buy cheap suits.
Ahmed looked at the two suits I had brought with me to his store, Ahmed’s Custom Clothiers, and knew I was attached to them on an emotional level. I spoke with him about my grandfather and how I had asked him for the suits because I knew how rare the suits were simply from a vintage perspective.
A Price on Power
“I see you’re very attached to your grandfather’s suits,” he said. “I can’t put a price on them.”
But I asked him to do just that – put a price on these suits. The suit I handed him was a vintage 1980 Botany 500 suit from Battelstein’s, a Houston-based department store that was sold and closed down in 1980. He felt the fabric and named what kind of suit it was without looking at the tags. The suit’s fabric stopped being used by manufacturers in the early 1990s, making it even more rare. The cut is only of its era, with the coat angling out, which is far away from the current trend of Italian cuts. The crotch area hangs lower than today’s suit pants, making them look slightly awkward.
It was a learning experience from an experienced bespoke. Had it just been me and a local seamstress, I would have suggested adjusting the jacket to an Italian cut, which would have made it look absurd when buttoned. Adjustments made to the pants could have been disastrous. Seamstresses and tailors are mainly good for hemming and slight waist alterations.
So he told me the price. $500. That’s how much my grandfather spent on his suits, of which I have five. More than 30 years later the price of these suits are now at $1,500 each. It’s a price I would never be able to afford – even $500 is a major stretch. I have approximately $7,500 in suits for which I paid nothing.
Ahmed told me that the people he deals with are mainly concerned with quality and convenience, not price. Me, on the other hand, well, I’m all about price.
As much as I would like to be like Don Draper – in more ways than just fashion – I can’t afford to spend like he does. Having the opportunity to dress like him, for free, is an opportunity available for more than just me. So before you visit the local secondhand store or spend a small fortune at Banana Republic for their Mad Men line, check out your grandfather’s closet. Or your great uncle. Or, if you’re a man of a certain age, your dad’s closet. That’s the great thing about genetics, you’ll most likely be close to the same size.
Close to the same size, so you will still need to make adjustments and alterations to the suits. Chances are the alterations will be more than a hemming of the pants. The jacket may have to be unstitched and reassembled. Sleeves may have to be cut. So how much will free cost you?
I gave Ahmed some scenarios. The first suit I showed him fit me fairly well before any alterations. I had the crotch raised ($50) and had the jacket pulled in on the sides ($100). Had I opted to have the waistband lowered, which would have been more work, it would have cost $120 rather than $50.
The jacket from the next suit I showed him wasn’t much different from the previous. It only needed a slight alteration to bring in the sides (fits gorgeously now). The pants, however, needed to be brought in four and a half inches. This would have been a lot of work and would cost about $170.
If you find a nice suit, or a suit that has sentimental value – like mine, and it needs a lot of work, it could cost you between $300-$500. Is it worth it? Yes. Unless you’re the type to underestimate. Take your time and save up. The suit will only become more vintage.
Ahmed said there are times when people start spending more than the suit is worth. He told me a story of a customer who had a suit that belonged to an actor from an old movie. He considered this an extreme case due to the sentimental value and the final cost – $950 – to alter the suit.
“I wouldn’t have done it,” he said, “but he was attached to the suit and he didn’t care about the price.”
A Serious Man
A bespoke’s business is a very different place from anywhere else. It’s a serious place. As Ahmed said, he doesn’t compete with seamstresses. Tailoring is not an act of simplicity – it’s an art.
“We’re for the people who know,” he said, “and they’re willing to get fit for their physique. We are for $1,700 and $1,800 suits. Not someone’s first suit.”
He said if a guy is looking for a cheap suit then it wouldn’t be fair for him to come to a bespoke because he’s just looking for a suit that will fit him decently.
There is nothing wrong with looking decent in a suit if you’re in high school, or even in the midst of your college career. But you’re a man now. There are a few things manhood requires – one of them is a good quality suit. You don’t have to break the bank to get one. Even if I didn’t have my grandfather’s $7,500 worth of suits, I would still have a go-to suit. It’s a $700, silver, Joseph Abboud suit. I played it smart. After several wedding rental tuxedos and other purchases from Men’s Warehouse, I received a 50% off coupon for any suit in the store. I asked for the suit for Christmas. Another free suit.
A friend of mine, who is about my size, recently handed me two Express suits, which run about $200-$250 apiece. I had needed a black suit.
So here I am. Eight suits in my closet at a net worth of approximately $9,000, and, aside from the minor alterations, I haven’t paid a cent for them.
Perhaps it’s luck. Or maybe it’s just knowing where to look, but my grandfather did me a favor when he bought himself those suits. He gave me a bit more power. He made me a Mad Man.
Sources of Power
If you aren’t sure how to wear a suit, here are some places – including movies and television shows – you can learn for free:
This choice is rather obvious since we’ve discussed the AMC television show in the article:Mad Men.
It’s a law firm-based television show on USA which has some of the best dressed actors in television:Suits.
This USA show steps away from business-formal and offers an insight on how to look incredible in business-casual and how to help people out of jams: Burn Notice.
This movie is incredible as is, but the suits left a lasting impression on me: Inception.
If there is ever a place to find out how to dress well, this is it. This site should be visited at least on a monthly basis to gather tips on what is right and wrong with your wardrobe: GQ.
-Dustin Bass, @dbass_cmn