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The Reinvention of the Entry-Level Suit



Right: Ludlow Suit Jacket, $425, and Pant, $225, jcrew.com; Shirt, $90, clubmonaco.com; Alexander Olch Tie, $150, barneys.com; Sunglasses, $430, Oliver Peoples, 212-925-5400; Shoes, $385, Allen Edmonds, 212-262-4070; Briefcase, $1,795, Bally, 212-751-9082 

F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal


TWO YEARS AGO, Collins Ward, 34, a principal at a Manhattan-based private-equity firm, was looking for a new charcoal-grey suit. Though his closet was stocked with $2,000-plus ensembles from Armani and Ermenegildo Zegna, Mr. Ward headed downtown to J. Crew, where he purchased a jacket ($425) and trousers ($225) from the brand's Ludlow line.

"I've worn a suit every day to work for 10 years, and I tried a lot of the nicer, more expensive Italian brands," said Mr. Ward. "Frankly, [the Ludlow] is a good price point, and has the slimmer fit of the Italian brands."

The starter suit is not what it used to be. A generation ago, a man without a great deal of means—whether he was embarking on his first job or attending his first wedding—had to settle for boxy cuts in rayon and wool-blends from departments stores. But beginning a decade ago and ramping up over the past five years, there has been a veritable revolution in men's suiting priced under $1,000.

Brands like J. Crew, Club Monaco and Suitsupply have invested in fine Italian wools, slimmer cuts and refined construction to produce moderately priced suits that offer men something similar to, and occasionally indistinguishable from, their upscale counterparts.


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"It's something that we've not only noticed but also celebrated—the democratization of fashion," said Jim Moore, creative director of GQ. "You don't just get kind of a dumb-dumb business suit. It's got all the trappings of a suit that could cost three or four times its price."

Producing the suits "overseas," usually in Asia, keeps those prices moderate. However, these brands teach their factories how to better construct the jackets and trousers. High-end fabrics help. While mills like Loro Piana and those in the Biella region of Northern Italy make textiles for the planet's most expensive brands, they're not above accepting business from a company like J. Crew, which can leverage economies of scale to satisfy a new class of educated consumers.

Those buyers know what a great suit is meant to look like, thanks, in large part, to the Internet. In the past few years, the Web has supplied young men with an ocean of information—from blogs showing the right way to wear a pocket square to street-style shots to slideshows rounding up the dapper Mad Men of Sterling Cooper & Partners.

"I cannot stress the importance of what the street-style bloggers have done," said Eric Jennings, director of menswear at Saks Fifth Avenue. " Having these images at your fingertips 24/7, you can see how it's put together. I think it's inspired a lot of Americans guys."

If there's a Lenin of this revolution, it's J. Crew, which introduced its Ludlow in 2008. Four years later, the brand dedicated an entire store to the suit in downtown New York. The Ludlow range has expanded from three initial offerings to a line of tuxedos, cotton summer suits, and offshoots, like the Traveler, made with three-ply wool meant to better hold its shape, and the Crosby, made for more athletic builds. "It took about two years to get the shape and details right. It has all the inner facings of a bespoke suit," said head of J. Crew menswear Frank Muytjens of the Ludlow development process. The suit also features a high armhole, narrow lapel, slim waist, a soft shoulder and a slightly shorter body length. These attributes are common across the new under-$1,000 suiting landscape, as is the selling of pants and jackets as separates.

“ 'I cannot stress the importance of what street-style bloggers have done.' ”

For fabrics, Mr. Muytjens looked to storied mills around the world, from Abraham Moon & Sons in England to Larusmiani in Italy. As the line became more popular, he added corduroys, Irish linens and English tweeds. "[J. Crew] hit that sweet spot that men crave—a go-to suit that fits them, but also changes a bit every season in its fabrication," said Mr. Moore.

While J. Crew may have struck while the iron was hot, there was a key precursor. Mr. Moore cited Calvin Klein's introduction of its White Label line a decade ago as a pivotal factor. The new suits "mirrored what they were doing in the [runway] collection but brought in affordability," said Mr. Moore. In 2009, the brand began to offer the Body Slim Fit suit—slimmer, with first-rate fabrics—and, in 2012, it launched the even narrower Extreme Slim Fit. Both have done very well for the company, said Kevin Carrigan, Calvin Klein's global creative director, with ever-growing distribution. "Over the last 10 years, that mainstream guy has not only moved with fashion, he's also moved with elevation of fabrics."

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More recently, other brands, such as Club Monaco and Jack Spade, have joined in and more than caught up. For Club Monaco's Grant suit, the company's head of menswear, Aaron Levine , started with the shoulder, which he considers the key to the way the rest of the coat fits. "It has to gently hug the back of your neck as it falls forward," he said. For materials, Mr. Levine looked to Vitale Barberis Canonico for flannels, Loro Piana for cashmere and E. Thomas for specialty fabrics.

Dutch import Suitsupply, which opened its first store in the U.S. in 2011 and now boasts 13 American locations, is the prodigious upstart of the category. The label places an even greater emphasis on fashion-forward suiting (think: bold patterns and double-breasted blazers), but adheres to the same construction and fabric standards as J. Crew and Club Monaco. In 2011, The Wall Street Journal asked experts to do a blind test for quality; Suitsupply's $614 suit was declared on par with a $3,625 suit from Armani.

It's not just mass brands that are catering to this new demand. Kent Kilroe, managing director of Freemans Sporting Club, sells American-made, hand-tailored suits for $2,200 to $2,500 at the company's boutiques in New York's Lower East Side and in Tokyo. In 2012, he noticed guys without $2,500 to spend wanting a similar type of suiting, and began developing the Freeman, a $1,200, hand-tailored, fully canvased suit—made in America. "The Ludlow Suit is imported," said Mr. Kilroe. "Generally, when a brand doesn't specify where a suit is made, it's because they don't want the customer to know."

Traditional brands have also altered their strategy. In 2007, Brooks Brothers began its Suiting Essentials program, which lets customers customize a $580 suit with an array of details and fabrics, and in 2012 launched the Red Fleece line, which offers its slimmest suit fit ever.

Classic department stores are heeding the winds of change, too. Mr. Jennings said that Saks Fifth Avenue is carving out space for contemporary tailored suiting options from its moderately-priced brands, like Billy Reid. Does he expect his high-end customers to leave their expensive suits behind in favor of these new options? Men like Ludlow-convert Mr. Ward notwithstanding, his answer was no.

"Guys don't trade down," he said. "Even during the recession, if they were buying Armani, they didn't trade down. They just waited. When they're at a certain level, they like to stay there. It's their pride."


THE PLAYERS // Brands that are changing the suit landscape

THE BAG MEN | Jack Spade

Price: $698 for all jackets, $298 for all pants.

Cuts: Just one, the Benton, a not-overly-trim shape in the neat and functional spirit of the brand's popular bags and briefcases. "It won't alienate different body types," said design director Todd Magill. He said he tinkered "by millimeters" to get it right.

Construction: Half-canvas for durability and better fit; pick-stitched lapels and collar; a Bemberg—finely woven, breathable rayon—lining.

How Bespoke Can You Go? So far there's only one fabric, an Italian Marzotto wool, which comes in a few shades.

THE REVOLUTIONARY | J. Crew

Price: Varies. The cheapest (in Japanese seersucker) is $358, while the most expensive (in Italian cashmere) is $1,490.

Cuts: Two—the trim Ludlow and the slightly more relaxed Crosby.

Construction: The suits boast what designer Frank Muytjens calls "inner bespoke facings," such as a floating chest piece.

How Bespoke Can You Go? The beauty of the Ludlow has been that it's a single standard suit, which now has a few off-shoots. However, it's currently available in 17 types of fabric.

THE DARK HORSE | Club Monaco

Price: From $620 ($425 for jacket; $195 for pants) for tropical wool to $820 for wool cashmere.

Cuts: Two—the slim, two-button Grant; and the slightly more relaxed, two-button Wright.

Construction: Designer Aaron Levine—who is recasting the brand in a whole new light—is a shoulder guy. "It sets the stage for how the whole jacket is going to fit." He uses a split canvas "to give the lapel a roll to the shoulder."

How Bespoke Can You Go? As of early 2015, when the brand debuts its "Made to Order" program stateside, you'll be able to customize the Grant with one of three lapel styles, over 100 fabric choices and more.

THE IMPORT | Suitsupply

Price: From $399 to $999.

Cuts: Thirteen, including a tuxedo, ranging from ultra-conservative to double-breasted styles with peacock-y flair. Individuality is a driving force. "It's the right fit for somebody who doesn't want to fit in," said vice-president Nishantha de Gruiter.

Construction: The brand goes to extra lengths to create a softer lapel that still has structure.

How Bespoke Can You Go? Very and then some. Suitsupply offers two levels of personal tailoring; the top line has a selection of 600 fabrics, including pure cashmere and Super 110 to Super 180 wool.

John Ortved - Wall Street Journal

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