City Style: The Breakdown: How to Buy a Suit

Stitched? Or fused? The two types of men’s suits look alike. But one tends to get a bit rough around the edges. Which is worth the investment—and how to tell them apart.

Ask a high-end men’s store if it carries fused suits, and you may as well ask if it carries lime-green polyester leisurewear. “It’s just not the same,” Louis Boston owner Debi Greenberg says of fusing, the common cost-cutting process by which a suit’s fabric and shell are glued together, not sewn. “It looks good when you’re sitting still, but when you move it’s like having fake hair.” Distinguishing a fused suit from a stitched one isn’t easy, however, especially when stores aren’t always honest—or their salesmen informed—about how theirs are made. After considerable hemming and hawing, most megachains and department stores we asked copped to having suits that were mostly hand-stitched. So why is one better than the other? And how can you tell the difference?

Dolce & Gabbana stitched suit, $1,395, Saks Fifth Avenue; Joseph & Feiss fused suit, $300, Men’s Wearhouse. Which is which? See below right.

Nip and tuck: A stitched suit will generally hold up longer than a fused one. For instance, the heat and chemicals used in dry cleaning can cause the glue in a fused suit to melt, the fabric to pucker, and the back of the lapel to start blowing in the breeze. Tailoring a fused suit is also tricky. “You can only take it in,” says Newbury shop owner Alan Bilzerian. “Plus, you have to be careful not to leave tracks,” or marks from the glue.

Straitjacket effect: Ever feel like a prisoner, trapped inside the confines of your jacket? A stitched suit allows for greater freedom of movement. “Look at the inset of the sleeve,” Greenberg says, holding up a jacket made by Italian designer Kiton. “The armhole is cut very close and high to the jacket, but the actual sleeve is kept voluminous. This is amazing tailoring.” As a result, the garment drapes better. Fused suits, however, are made from patterns cut by machines, rather than by hand, which means their shape is rarely as artful.

In stitches: When you shop for a suit, what’s the first thing you look for? Color, fabric, price? Those should be the last things on your agenda, says Bilzerian, who suggests carefully inspecting the entire garment for signs of the master craftsman. “Look at the bottom of the jacket lining. If it’s done by hand, you’re on the right track,” he says. But don’t be fooled by lapels, buttons, and pockets, which are commonly stitched, even if the suit body is fused.

Pocket money: The difference in cost between fused and stitched can be akin to the difference between sitting upper deck and courtside. An off-the-rack, likely fused suit from Men’s Wearhouse might cost $300; a hand-stitched, professionally tailored number from the Custom Fit on Newbury Street could set you back as much as $20,000. More commonly, the price of a well-stitched suit falls between $1,000 and $5,000. Some fused suits, however, carry price tags upward of $1,000, like those at Ermenegildo Zegna. When in doubt, ask a salesman. If he won’t—or maybe can’t—answer your questions about how the suit was made, you’re in the wrong store.

Which suit is which? The fused suit is on the left.