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For Your Consumption: WSJ Aticle on Suit Fabrics

StockwellDay

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I did a search and don't think this has been posted. Apologies if it has.

What's Inside Your Suit
How 'Super' is that fabric? Makers are using numbers to tout quality. We subjected suits to a battery of lab tests -- and found some don't live up to their labels. Which ones deliver.
By RAY A. SMITH
November 11, 2006; Page P1

The men's floor at Barneys New York has racks of suits in a wide range of prices, colors and cuts. But many have one thing in common: The now-ubiquitous labels that promote the quality of the fabric with numbers like "Super 110s" and "Super 150s."

Just as sheets trumpet thread counts and gas has its premium octane, suit manufacturers are using these numbers to tout their wool. Higher numbers translate to narrower fibers, which makers say are softer to the touch. It's one of several tactics the suit industry is using to combat slowing sales. On the high end, makers are pushing suits in the Super 220s range for thousands of dollars. Discounters are also adopting the system, hoping to convince shoppers that a superior suit can be had for $300 or less.
[Suit]

Industry groups and some lawmakers are now calling these numbers into question, prompted in part by makers of superfine wool fabrics concerned about lower-priced suits being labeled with high Super numbers. But the issue isn't limited to inexpensive suits.

In a test of 10 suits by The Wall Street Journal, ranging in price from $290 to $1,995, four came back with a Super grade below what was advertised. We also tested for durability and wrinkle-resistance, and found that some suits with higher Super numbers didn't deliver superior performance on those measures. A $1,595 Corneliani suit purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue, for instance, was labeled as Super 170s. Our lab test showed the fabric was actually Super 150s.

Roger Cohen, president of the U.S. division of Corneliani, says the company uses an Italian lab to conduct random tests on the fabric received from suppliers, which provide certificates noting the diameter of the fiber. Its policy, he adds, is not to "mislead or misguide any consumer."

Though there's no way for shoppers to verify a suit's Super number without access to a textile laboratory, there are a few simple tests shoppers can perform themselves in stores to gauge the quality of a suit. One trick to figure out how easily a suit will wrinkle: Clench a sleeve in your fist for a few minutes, then let it go -- a good quality fabric should rebound quickly. Rayon linings known as Bemberg are generally more durable than silk or other materials, while twills, like Herringbone, tend to be stronger materials than plain weaves.

The boom in S-numbers is part of a broader move by suit makers to set their garments apart from the competition. Sales have cooled from the torrid pace of a couple of years ago, when men started dressing up again and the casual style of the dot-com era went out of vogue. Through September this year, sales are down 10% from the same period a year earlier, according to market researcher NPD Group. Last year, sales rose only 0.4%, NPD says.
MEASURING UP

[Icon] "¢ Ray Smith explains how to gauge the quality of superfine wool. Hear the podcast.

"¢ Tests in a fabric laboratory show that superfine wool doesn't necessarily warrant exorbitant prices. Watch a video.

"¢ See the suits and how they fared in our tests.

"¢ Look inside the lab and see steps in the testing process.


The fastest-growing category in the U.S. market is suits under $300, which now account for more than half of all suits purchased. These include imports from China, Mexico and other countries that have improved their quality, helping to push down prices overall. The average cost of a suit in 2005 was $138.26, down from $142.32 in 2004, when suit sales rose 18% over the previous year. Hartmarx, which owns the Hart Schaffner Marx and Hickey Freeman labels, is among the biggest suit makers in the U.S., along with Jos. A. Bank and Brooks Brothers.

Many lower-priced suits now identify S-numbers, too. Men's Wearhouse sells a $399 private-label Pronto Uomo suit marked Super 120s. Others name the fabric mill or the country where a suit was made. Some Arnold Brant suits, for instance, tout their provenance as "Vitale Barberis Canonico," an Italian fabric maker.

Makers say S-numbers are proving the most effective. While women typically look for items that appeal to their sense of style, using their instinct or the opinions of friends, many men have a harder time deciding what to buy. The numbers add a quantitative dimension that makes decision-making less intimidating. There are also bragging rights. S-numbers give men "something to discuss at a cocktail party," says Corneliani's Mr. Cohen.

That was the attraction for Craig Weiss, a 51-year-old psychologist in Holland, Pa., who bought a $3,000 navy blue Brioni suit made of Super 150s wool a few years ago. He says he thought a higher S-number was "a thing to aspire to." But Mr. Weiss says the suit let him down, wrinkling when he traveled more than his less-expensive suits did. It also felt so light and delicate that he worried about it ripping. "It took all the fun out of wearing it," he says, adding that he now wears the suit only for special occasions and buys lower S-numbered suits for everyday use. Brioni says it has not heard any complaints about its Super 150s.
[Cutting up the sample]
Cutting up the sample

Part of what makes the S-number system confusing is that higher quality wool doesn't also mean more durable wool. The number relates only to the diameter of the fiber, measured in microns. Thinner fibers are usually more fragile. These suits tend to bunch up when tailored and can wear out after a few dry cleanings.

"A very high S-system number doesn't guarantee the best garments," says Andy Gilchrist, author of "The Encyclopedia of Men's Clothes." "Such wools wrinkle almost as much as linen. They are delicate and not as durable as less-fine wool."

The fineness of the fabric is only one measure of a suit's quality. Strength is also a factor, and depends on the length of the yarn and whether it's reinforced with another strand to make it two ply. In some cloth, only yarn that runs vertically is reinforced, while in others, reinforced yarns run horizontally as well. The latter, called "two by two," tends to be stronger and better at recovering from wrinkles. Ply is rarely noted on a label, but is sometimes mentioned in descriptions of products on the fabric maker's Web site.

Suit makers acknowledge that fabrics with high S-numbers are delicate and lightweight. But some say that a suit made of high-quality Super 150s or above could be worn to the office once a week and would last four or five years, if it's rarely dry cleaned. That's roughly half as long as a good-quality Super 120s suit under the same conditions. Several salespeople at stores from Saks Fifth Avenue to Barneys New York advised us not to buy suits with high S-numbers for anything but special occasions.
[Examining the fiber]
Examining the fiber

To determine the accuracy of advertised S-numbers, we purchased 10 suits at retail outlets and sent them to Vartest Laboratories, a New York firm that tests fibers and fabrics for retailers and manufacturers. One suit made by Italian label Canali, priced at $1,800, came back with results indicating that the S-number was overstated. The lab also measured the fibers in a $417 Donald J. Trump suit labeled Super 150s, and found them to be the diameter of Super 130s -- the same grade it found in a Lauren by Ralph Lauren suit we bought on Macys.com that was described online as a Super 140s.

A spokeswoman from Canali says its fabric was tested by an Italian lab and determined to be Super 150s. Peerless Clothing, which manufactures the Lauren suit, says the description applied to a previous version of the suit and should have been changed on the Web site (the site has since been updated). A lawyer for Marcraft Apparel Group, which makes suits under the Donald J. Trump label, says our test was "inappropriate" because it is not possible to determine wool quality from a finished product. Other industry executives said testing finished goods is not unusual and is often used to check quality.
[The stretch test]
The stretch test

Six of the suits we tested passed with flying colors, with results that matched or exceeded their promised S-numbers, including two of our least expensive choices -- an Arnold Brant and a Jos. A. Bank, both Super 110s that cost less than $300. A pricier Hickey Freeman Super 120s was found to have Super 130s fibers. Hickey Freeman declined to comment.

Our overall winner in the other two categories -- strength and wrinkle-resistance -- was that $300 Arnold Brant suit, which we found marked down from $895 at Sierra Trading Post. Its warp, or vertical yarns, withstood nearly 83 pounds of pressure before ripping -- that's about 40 pounds more than the industry's minimum standard. We also tested the weft of all our suits, or horizontal yarns, since some fabric makers reinforce only the warp; experts say a suit that has a strong warp and weft will last longer.

The first SUPER 100s wool was developed in the 1960s, by an English fabric mill that worked with yarn from sheep bred especially for that purpose in Australia. It was far silkier than anything available at the time.

The first merchants to see it "were so astounded that, in a fit of exuberance, they dubbed it Super 100s," according to the book "The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style," written by Michael Anton under the pen name Nicholas Antongiavanni. Italian mills soon developed looms that could rapidly weave the fine wool without tearing it.
BEHIND THE NUMBERS

We purchased 10 wool suits from popular makers at a wide range of price points and Super numbers. We didn't test any suits above Super 170s, since most of those are only available made to measure or by special order.
In addition to checking Super numbers, we tested two other factors that are important to men shopping for suits: durability and how susceptible the material is to wrinkling.
We had the suits analyzed by Vartest Laboratories in New York, which is accredited by the International Organisation for Standardization in Geneva, Switzerland, and has conducted tests for retailers and manufacturers. To check the suits' Super numbers, the lab measured the diameter of the wool fiber in microns. Vartest said that while there could be differences between measurements of raw wool fibers and those in finished products, they probably wouldn't be large enough to change the Super number.

For years, the terminology was used mostly by fabric and suit makers. By the mid-1990s, as competition was heating up in the U.S. suit market and luxury labels were taking off, high-end clothiers, custom-suit makers and Italian mills began using Super numbers more often to market directly to consumers. Soon, the numbers began appearing on labels inside suits or on the sleeves. Sales people in department stores started receiving training on how to explain why the super wools cost more.

"The label says 'this is special,' 'this is unique,'" says Arnold Brant, president of the clothing company that bears his name. "If it's a navy suit and it says Super 120s, it tells the customer this is a wool that's a better grade. This is not a typical navy suit."

In part because of the profusion of S-numbers across all price levels, the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute decided to test the veracity of these claims. The Boston-based trade group that includes makers of superfine wool fabrics started testing finished products two years ago, at the urging of some of its members who noticed lower-priced suits were increasingly being labeled with high S-numbers.

In its test of 20 suits, the institute found that roughly two-thirds of them were mislabeled, including suits purchased from Men's Wearhouse, Filene's (now part of Macy's) and Sierra Trading Post. The group then notified the stores and manufacturers, which either stopped selling the suits or changed the labels.

There is no universal standard for defining S-numbers. The International Wool Textile Organisation, a trade group, has issued guidelines, but suit makers say mills in some countries don't follow them. In our test, we used those guidelines.
[Results]
A Close-Up View: Results from the strength test are graphed and analyzed.

At the urging of several trade groups, the U.S. House of Representatives in September approved a bill that would codify the IWTO's guidelines, setting specific measurements for S-numbers up to Super 250s. The bill would give the Federal Trade Commission the power to fine fabric suppliers, garment manufacturers and retailers that don't abide by the standards.

The proposed legislation would "give our industry protection" and "help the consumer so that they are going to get what's advertised," says Hickey Freeman chairman Duffy Hickey, who is also president of the Tailored Clothing Association, a suit makers' trade group.

Some suit makers think S-numbers have been overdone. Oxxford Clothes, whose handmade suits are sold for thousands of dollars at stores like Barneys New York and its own shops in Chicago and New York, plans to stop labeling everything below Super 150s, starting next fall. A key reason: "You're seeing very inexpensive suits advertised as Super 120s and that muddies the water," says Mike Cohen, the company's chief executive.

J.C. Penney stopped labeling the Super numbers on its Stafford suits last year because the number "doesn't reflect the entire quality story of our product," says Richard Honiball, Penney's Stafford brand director. The suits are made with many fabrics that qualify for Super designation, up to and including Super 120s, he says.

Others, like Ermenegildo Zegna, an Italian firm that makes fabric as well as suits, don't tout the S-number on their labels either. Djordje Stefanovic, executive director of communications for Zegna, says the company relies on its reputation for making fine fabrics: "As yarn producers, wool producers and suit producers, we didn't want to play that numbers game."

Write to Ray A. Smith at [email protected]

[Suits]
[Suits]
* * *

[Inside the Lab]

 

Artisan Fan

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I was interviewed for this but wound up on the cutting room floor.


I think it's quite educational but I find it misleading, based purely on my experience with Kiton, Brioni, Oxxford and Zegna, to suggest that higher number Supers like 150s wrinkle easy. It just has not been the case with me until you get into superfine fabrics like 180s and 14 Microns. Still Ray makes an excellent point that judging by Super # is like only looking at one dimension. Some 120s to 150s are much better than others in areas like strength, hand, etc.
 

Jared

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What they don't mention is that the Trump suit comes with a business lesson about how to market low-quality goods.
Rather damning that the three Italian makers that get discussed the most here all were "mislabelled". Makes you wonder what else they're doing to compete with the suits being manufactured in sweatshops.
 

Tomasso

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Originally Posted by Artisan Fan
I was interviewed for this but wound up on the cutting room floor.


Why does than not surprise me?
 

rabbimark

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The average cost of a suit in 2005 was $138.26, down from $142.32 in 2004

this disturbed me so much I had to go lie down. Could it be true? Are our American brothers so aesthetically handicapped -- nay, deranged! -- that this is the average cost? And it's actually falling from year to year?

Oy.
 

grimslade

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Shocked me too. I'd like to know more about that number.
 

rdawson808

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I noticed that average price also.

However, think about what gets sold. For starters, how many people on this forum only buy the high-end stuff when it's on sale at a discount store? That's dropping that $999 tag down to half and hence bringing the average down. Then consider how many people buy suits at a place like Jos A Banks, K&M, Men's Wearhouse, etc. They oftentimes have sales that would pull a suit down to $99 or so. And if they are selling the most--the average price figure isn't that surprising.


bob
 

Manton

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The average cost of a suit has been falling for a long time, at least in inflation-adjusted dollars, and certainly relative to other goods. The average price of an upper end suit (not sure how to precisely define that), however, has been rising sharply.
 

Dmax

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I don't know about other readers, but I don't really care if my suit can withstand 68lbs. or 56lb in a horizontal stress test.

The full article I read through AAAC link had a picture that proudly displayed all the pants that were destroyed for this test. I say if you are going to destroy some italian suits at least tell people what makes them different from the Trump and JAB numbers. Things like quality of stitching, fused versus canvassed construction, the feel and the drape of the fabric, what are the buttons made from, etc.
 

Leaveitothexperts

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Originally Posted by rdawson808
I noticed that average price also.

However, think about what gets sold. For starters, how many people on this forum only buy the high-end stuff when it's on sale at a discount store? That's dropping that $999 tag down to half and hence bringing the average down. Then consider how many people buy suits at a place like Jos A Banks, K&M, Men's Wearhouse, etc. They oftentimes have sales that would pull a suit down to $99 or so. And if they are selling the most--the average price figure isn't that surprising.


bob


Try $85 or "Buy 2 for $150" . . . . I saw that this weekend at K&G in NJ
 

Leaveitothexperts

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Originally Posted by Dmax
I don't know about other readers, but I don't really care if my suit can withstand 68lbs. or 56lb in a horizontal stress test.

The full article I read through AAAC link had a picture that proudly displayed all the pants that were destroyed for this test. I say if you are going to destroy some italian suits at least tell people what makes them different from the Trump and JAB numbers. Things like quality of stitching, fused versus canvassed construction, the feel and the drape of the fabric, what are the buttons made from, etc.


I agree the evaluation may not be comprehensive for most on this forum. However, the stress test may have implications about longevity of the suit!?
 

retronotmetro

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Originally Posted by Leaveitothexperts
However, the stress test may have implications about longevity of the suit!?

Or it may not, unless you use your trousers as a climbing apparatus.

Testing the tensile strength of a fabric won't tell you anything about how well it can withstand abrasions, resist picks and snags, or stay shine-free in the seat and elbows. I suspect that most suiting fabrics have adequate tensile strength to resist tearing from normal day-to-day stresses. It's the other qualities that will differentiate a good suiting from an average (or bad) one.
 

Artisan Fan

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The average cost of a suit has been falling for a long time, at least in inflation-adjusted dollars, and certainly relative to other goods.
I'm not sure that we should care given that we here generally buy higher end suits. I guess it is alarming for general trends. I do see a lot of bad, fused suits out there.
 

TIEALIGN

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I agree with what the article said about the brooks brothers suit. I have several and they are my preferred travel suit beacuse they hold up so well and still look good after a long flight. They also tend not to age as quickly as my very nice super 150s campagna suits which show signs of wear much faster.
 

dkzzzz

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Originally Posted by rabbimark
The average cost of a suit in 2005 was $138.26, down from $142.32 in 2004

this disturbed me so much I had to go lie down. Could it be true? Are our American brothers so aesthetically handicapped -- nay, deranged! -- that this is the average cost? And it's actually falling from year to year?

Oy.


I own 129.00(sale price) suit from H&M. It is made of Italian yarn Super 110,according to the label. The fabric is very smooth and silky to the touch. Buttons are plastic and suit is fused, hand stitching on lapels is probably simulated, but it fits me, off the rack, as well as my 900.00 Isaia.
So to shed light on this 138.00 dollar suit situation I have to say I happily wear my 129 dollar suit that looks better than ....insert the name...
Unfortunately it is too often that masterful canvassing, turtle shell buttons and precise hand stitching all end up to be part of the potato sack that would require extensive alterations and additional expenses before it fits half as good as cheap H&M suit.
It’s the reality weather we like it or not.
 

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