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Very interesting article from the WSJ : "Menswear: what's inside your suit?"


Senior Member
May 30, 2006
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Menswear: what's inside your suit?
Monday, November 13, 2006

By Ray A. Smith, The Wall Street Journal

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.

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 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to market researcher NPD Group. Last year, sales rose only 0.4 percent, NPD says.

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 percent 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

How the Suits Measured Up

We purchased 10 suits by popular makers, testing the fibers' diameter, the durability of the vertical and horizontal yarns, and how quickly they recovered after being wrinkled. Starting from the left, suits are listed from least to most expensive.

Lauren by Ralph Lauren 140s
$289.99 at Macys.com
S-NUMBER TEST: Flunked. Lab found 130s
FABRIC STRENGTH: Exceeded minimum standard for worsted wool, but an average performer in our test.
BOTTOM LINE: At 59 percent off full price, this classic, everyday suit is a good deal, but not if you want the promised 140s. Maker says Macys.com described a previous version of the suit; the Web site has since been updated.

Jos. A. Bank 110s
$299 at Jos. A. Bank
FABRIC STRENGTH: The vertical yarn, or warp, held up well, but the weft was weaker, withstanding only 46 lbs. of pressure, 20 lbs. less than one of our strongest suits.
BOTTOM LINE: Not especially durable -- it also did the worst on our wrinkle test. Maker says customers who look for S-numbers want a "luxurious hand feel" and are less interested in strength and wrinkle recovery.

Arnold Brant 110s
$299.95 at Sierra Trading Post
S-NUMBER TEST: Extra credit. Lab found 120's
FABRIC STRENGTH: The most durable in our test; withstood nearly 83 lbs. of vertical pressure -- more than twice the industry minimum for worsted wool.
BOTTOM LINE: Great quality suit -- and a great deal at 34 percent off suggested retail price.

Pronto Uomo 120s
$399 at Men's Wearhouse
FABRIC STRENGTH: Exceeded lab's minimum standard, but was among the weakest in our tear tests.
BOTTOM LINE: Overall, this private-label suit is a good buy for the money if you're looking for fine wool, though it was a little stiffer than our pricier 120s. Men's Wearhouse had no comment.

Donald J. Trump 150s
$416.50 at Macy's
S-NUMBER TEST: Flunked. Lab found Super 130s
FABRIC STRENGTH: The weakest suit in our test, just barely meeting the minimum standards for horizontal strength, known as weft.
BOTTOM LINE: A lawyer for the maker says our test was "inappropriate" because it isn't possible to determine wool quality from a finished product.

Brooks Brothers 110s
$898 at Brooks Bros. S-NUMBER TEST: Passed
FABRIC STRENGTH: Holding up under 76 lbs. of pressure, this was our second strongest suit.
BOTTOM LINE: Overall, a durable, good quality suit for conservative dressers. Also a good bet for frequent travelers -- it passed our wrinkle test with flying colors, recovering quickly after being compressed for 20 minutes.

Hickey Freeman 120s
$1,195 at Hickey Freeman
SUPER TEST: Extra credit. Lab found 130s.
FABRIC STRENGTH: Strongest in our horizontal test. Fabric withstood nearly 66 lbs. of pressure, 50 percent more than the minimum.
BOTTOM LINE: A durable high-quality suit with a silky feel. Labels also tout "Loro Piana Tasmanian" wool and a durable rayon lining known as Bemberg.

Corneliani 170s
$1,595 at Saks Fifth Avenue
S-NUMBER TEST: Flunked. Lab found Super 150s
FABRIC STRENGTH: Withstood 68 lbs. of pressure, more than some 120s.
BOTTOM LINE: A classic style, but an S-number that didn't deliver in our test. Maker says its suppliers provide a certificate noting fiber diameter, and it also randomly tests fabric at a lab in Italy to ensure quality; its policy isn't to "mislead or misguide any consumer."

Canali 150s
$1,795 at Bloomingdale's
S-NUMBER TEST: Flunked. Lab found Super 140s
FABRIC STRENGTH: Exceeded minimum standards, but didn't do as well as others in our test.
BOTTOM LINE: Though it didn't deliver on its 150s promise in our test, suit has a luxurious feel. Canali says its fabric was tested by an Italian lab and determined to be Super 150s.

Ermenegildo Zegna 120s
$1,995 at Bergdorf Goodman
FABRIC STRENGTH: Though fabric exceeded industry standards, it was among the worst performers in our tests.
BOTTOM LINE: Looks and feels as luxurious as the price would suggest, but not an everyday suit. Company says finer fabrics are more delicate, and its products are intended as luxury items, rather than "workhorse" suits.

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

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