The perfect black suit: a guide

The black suit is a basic of any man’s wardrobe; I don’t own any other colour. (Yes, I know a ‘warm spring’ complexion like mine is better suited to greys and blues, but I just don’t like them.) There are plenty of good ones around off-the-peg, but good is the enemy of great. So what are the elements of the perfect black suit? Here’s a guide.

1. Work out the value curve.

Unless you truly don’t need to look at costs, this is where you start. Obviously the very best suits are hand-tailored, from £3000 up; my tailor once showed me a gold-threaded one he was making for a Saudi for £18,000. While that’s a high price, it’s nowhere near the highest value. Three times the price doesn’t mean three times better looking; a truly great handmade suit might look a few percent better, and then only in the eyes of a trained pro. The perfect black suit is about value, not price.

That same tailor greatly admires a £200 suit at Marks & Spencer; his expert eye couldn’t fault the cutting or draping. But a £200 suit still underperforms on the value curve, because it’ll still look like a £200 suit. Nor are the big names – Armani, Boss, Brooks – on the value curve, because you’re paying for the brand name. That’s at least a 50% premium. A £1500 Hugo Boss is the same quality as a good off-the-peg on the High St, and you’re £500+ down on the deal.

There’s a plethora of small houses in France and Italy making high-quality mens’ suits for export; this is where value lies. The perfect black suit, in the UK today, costs around £800-1200. This is where you should set your budget.

2. Stitched and buttoned, not fused and glued.

Next come the ‘hygiene factors’: checking the £800 rack really does contain proper suits rather than pale imitations. The two basics are stitching and buttoning. Examine a sleeve – you’ll have to look closely – and check that a) the seams are joined together by actual threaded stitches, and b) the buttons are real go-through-a-hole fasteners, rather than decoration glued onto one side. If it’s not stitched, you’re being stitched up.

3. Next, decide your fabric.

The perfect black suit may be linen or wool; I go for wool since it’s easier to take care of. Since the perfect black suit is something you can wear everyday, don’t go fo the ultra-fine wools like Super 200; they’ll wear out quickly. Super 100 and below, conversely, look a bit workaday. I go for Super 120-150. My latest suit, a nice light summer weight, is Super 130 with 5% silk woven in.

4. Check the details.

The perfect black suit is about style, not fashion. That means no one-button or four-button jackets: two is the happy medium, three if you’re tall. I’m 183cm but almost always go for two buttons.

Peak or notched lapel (pointy ends to the lapels, or a straightforward W shape on its side) is up to you; my perfect black suit isn’t about drawing attention to itself, so I go for notched. Peaks are a bit more look-at-me.

The ‘vent’ – splits at the back that let the jacket tail fold rather than flap when you’re gesticulating wildly or reaching into pockets – always feature here, since the perfect black suit is versatile. (No vents is dressy but looks worse if you need to reach pockets.) A centre vent (down from the small of the back) is normal, whereas side vents – a vent pointing down to each bum cheek – looks smarter. I usually go for side vents.

Single or double breasted is again about choice; I have both. One rule here: if you’ve got much of a stomach, go for single. Tall and lean men can wear double breasted without problems, but I still go for single most of the time.

5. Make sure it’s your size.

This is harder than it sounds. Most men think ‘fit’ is at least a size too big; this destroys the waist and makes you look formless. Since you’ll be tailoring it later, the only thing that matters is the jacket. One rule: the edges of the jacket’s shoulders – where the shoulder meets the top of the sleeve – must sit exactly on the bone of your shoulder. Everything else is moot.

However, to bridge the gap from good to great, check these hygiene factors:

Stand sideways against a wall. If the pad of the shoulder touches the wall before your arm does, the suit is too big. Ask for a size down.

Wear a proper shirt to the shop. You should see 1-2cm of shirt collar above the jacket collar at the back, and the jacket collar should be touching the shirt, not hanging away. And if you see a crease of excess fabric below the jacket collar, try another jacket or see the tailoring tips below.

Check the length. The jacket’s lower edge should hang level with the base of your bum, where your leg starts. That’s the basic rule. If you have really short legs, go for an inch above; really long legs, go for an inch longer; but no more than that.

Check the arms show some shirt. Sitting at a desk with arms resting on it, there should be 1-2cm of shirt cuff protruding.

Button it up and make a fist. Too much space between suit and chest makes you look shapeless. If you can fit your fist between the buttons and your body, it’s too big.

6. Don’t skimp on the trousers.

The only rules here are a) trousers rest on your hips, not wrap around your navel; and b) the cuff breaks over your shoe and hangs down to the top of your heel. As long as they look symmetrical (falling straight and centred over each foot) that’s all you need.

– Flat fronted works best if you are. But much of a stomach means a few pleats will help. I wear flat fronted.

– Most tailors don’t like belts, but in a world of phones and Blackberries belts are too useful to do without. So make sure there are plenty of belt loops; the best ones come in pairs 5-10cm apart around the waist.

7. Last but not least: take it to a tailor.

Remember the £800-1200 it takes to get a really good suit? There’s another £200 to budget for: take it to a tailor.

As long as you’ve got the basic fit, any tailor can do amazing things with a nip or tuck: remove ruffle at the collar, take out billow from the legs, even lengthen or shorten cuffs proportionately if you’re not quite symmetrical (and nobody is.) Of all the stuff above, a tailor’s what really counts; without any stake in selling you the suit, he’ll tell you what’s wrong and what works. Listen to him.

And that’s the perfect black suit.

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