This is the first article in our Guide to Suit Style.
Bespoke suit, Anderson & Sheppard
What’s the difference between bespoke, MTM and RTW?
The revival of menswear in recent years, driven by a combination of enthusiasts, innovative menswear companies and internet communication, has meant that whether a man is looking to buy a single suit or an entire wardrobe, he has never had so many options.
Unfortunately, that choice is often obscured by brands and their marketing – particularly when it comes to differentiating between bespoke, made-to-measure and ready-to-wear suiting.
This difference is neither incidental nor arbitrary. It is crucial to the consideration that goes into buying a new suit, and can be tightly defined.
Sized coat patterns hanging up
What is ready to wear (RTW)?
A RTW suit is bought off the rack, in a cut and style determined by the designer. The development of the RTW suit was pioneered in the 1950s, when manufacturers segmented the male form into different sizes for mass production. The vast majority of the world’s suits are now made this way.
What are the benefits of RTW?
Immediacy: Each RTW suit is pre-made to a generic size and specification. So as long as you are happy with the size and style, you can purchase a suit off the rack that fits and take it home that day. No need to wait; no need for multiple fittings over several weeks; no need to imagine what the suit might look like.
Relative affordability: The nature of mass production means RTW suits are usually the most affordable, and the growth of menswear also means there are a lot of RTW choices.
The increased quality of construction, use of details once reserved for bespoke, and large range of fabrics means RTW is no longer limited to trendy suits with glued lapels made up in drab, cheap fabrics.
Better RTW suitmakers tend to be differentiated by the time they put into their suits. Indeed the very best (eg Kiton or Cesare Attolini) are largely handmade, although the extra work tends to go into finishing that the customer can immediately see and appreciate (hand-sewn buttonholes) rather than more fundamental structuring (hand-padded chest).
Working table, Kiton, Naples
What are the drawbacks of ready to wear?
A pre-defined fit: Despite these benefits and the advancement in quality, detail and construction, most men run into the inevitable issue of fit.
Even a rudimentary list of measurements such as chest, shoulder, sleeve length, waist (for both jacket and trousers) and trouser length, illustrates that few men are likely to possess the dimensions to fit a RTW suit size exactly. So while a suit may fit well in some areas, it may be too long, short, loose or tight in others.
For this reason, we would always recommend having a RTW suit altered, if only slightly.
Little personal expression: Another aspect of RTW is that the suit is imagined for you, so if a store doesn’t have the colour, cut or fabric you’re looking for, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
This won’t be an issue for some – indeed many like having the shape and cut led by an experienced designer – but those interested in menswear will over time want to start making their own sartorial choices around cloth, cut and finishing. Which brings us to made to measure…
Fitting for a Kiton Lasa (MTM) jacket
What is made to measure (MTM)?
The MTM suit is like RTW, but with the benefit of an altered fit. You visit the store, but instead of taking a suit of your choice away that day, the salesman takes a few measurements and choices in cloth and style, they are sent to a factory (usually the same factory where the RTW is made) and the result after a few weeks’ wait is a suit cut to your personal dimensions. The chest, waist, sleeve length, trouser length and trouser waist are all yours.
What are the benefits of made to measure?
Greater scope for personal expression: One interesting aspect of MTM is the cloth, buttons and other trimmings available. In some ways, the offering can be wider than bespoke.
The cloths are often more original than most of the bunches cloth mills supply to bespoke, because the MTM brand is closer to RTW, where cloths are usually more experimental. They are also often exclusive to that brand, again as with RTW.
With the resurgence of interest in personalisation, high-end MTM has also become more widely available in recent years, particularly among Italian brands that don’t do bespoke (Brioni, Caruso, Pal Zileri, Canali, Cucinelli etc).
The best of both worlds, right? So in MTM we have the (near) immediacy of RTW, especially in contrast to the months taken for bespoke. Similar (if not greater) options for cloth and finishing, at a price point closer to RTW than bespoke. And personalised measurements. It sounds like the best of both worlds.
Picking cloth from swatch books
What are the drawbacks of made to measure?
Better fit…to a point: Even MTM suits that take into account a dozen or more measurements rarely fit as well as bespoke. Imagine the long, S-shaped curve of your back (image below). How many measurements does it take to recreate that?
MTM only really deals in simple, flat, two-dimensional measurements. It can make the length of sleeves correct, but it cannot account for how much you stoop or which shoulder is lower than the other.
A salesman can be good…but he’s not a tailor: The other problem with MTM is that the fitting is done by a salesman, not a tailor. So while the potential of MTM is quite large, the result often doesn’t fulfil it.
Unless you are an unusual size (eg tall with very long arms), a RTW suit altered by a good tailor will often fit as well as a MTM suit of the same price. The only remaining advantage of MTM is that you can pick your material, lining and style. For some, that is significant.
Chittleborough & Morgan bespoke suit.
What is bespoke?
Bespoke, as regular readers will know, involves creating a suit from the ground up. It can take any form, any shape, any material, and is usually handmade by two or three tailors.
The process begins with an initial discussion as to your needs (what type of suit you are after, your ideas on the style and cloth if any, and the ways and occasions you may have to wear it).
The tailor then takes your measurements – a seemingly endless number, with detailed notes that take into account aspects of posture and body shape that only a trained eye could notice.
A set of bespoke paper patterns is then drawn and cut (some elements by eye), with the cutter using his measurements and notes as a guide.
The cloth you’ve chosen is then cut using these patterns, and over the course of several fittings the fit is refined to the final product (usually between two and three, but potentially more until things are right).
What are the benefits of bespoke?
Superior fit: Clearly, the biggest benefit of bespoke is the fit. While there is enough detail on fit to write another whole guide, suffice to say that a good bespoke suit should fit like nothing else. It should hug your shoulders, create a clean back, and run in a sharp, flattering line from shoulder to waist. It will also often be more comfortable.
Longevity: The work that goes into everything from the lining of the waistband to the stitching of the pockets means the suit should last longer than anything mass-produced.
That handwork also makes it easier to adjust over time, and it will be adjusted by someone that has served you before and is familiar with your body and your style. Unlike a salesman who is likely to change every year.
Total creative control: Bespoke also offers the opportunity to develop a truly individual garment, not just in shape but in material, detail and finishing.
While your imagination is the only theoretical limit, a good tailor will also use their experience and sense of style to help guide you in pushing those boundaries without going too far. First-timers often make very showy suits, and then barely wear them (despite it being their highest quality and best-fitting).
A basted fitting for a Dalcuore bespoke suit
What are the drawbacks of bespoke?
Timing and expense: Bespoke takes time. Typically a first suit from a tailor will require three fittings, each a few weeks apart. Some positively enjoy this process, but it’s not for the impatient. And it’s expensive: a bespoke suit can cost anywhere from £1000 to £6000.
It won’t be perfect the first time: Some people have their first bespoke suit made and think that, because they can change everything, it will be perfect. But there is such a thing as too much freedom.
You’re opening the creative floodgates, stepping outside the mathematical rigour of mass production. It’s great fun, but there will always be things that you want to change six months later, if only because you only slowly realise what you wanted in the first place.
Tailors also refine their pattern over time. So there’s a good chance your second suit with a tailor will fit ever-so-slightly better than the first one. The first will still be better than RTW or MTM, but in that sense too it won’t necessarily be perfect.
Bespoke jacket fitting by Kathryn Sargent (then head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes)
Where the three overlap
While I’ve outlined three distinct categories, the difference is not always clear cut.
Some RTW is made better than some bespoke (eg Kiton has more handwork than Graham Browne). MTM comes at hugely varying price points and quality levels (anywhere from £300 to £4000). Bespoke also varies a lot in quality of finishing and design.
But in the end, you buy RTW for the design and the price.
You choose MTM when you want to change the fit and to personalise the suit.
And you choose bespoke when you want a mixture of the best fit and the best quality.
For me, fit is always the most important thing about a suit, as it has such possibility to flatter a man – to make him look leaner, stronger and sharper. That is the biggest reason to choose bespoke. Quality and design should be considered separately.
Edward Sexton bespoke suit