Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Black Lapel Custom Clothiers (Solid Charcoal 3-Piece Suit)



This has been a bit of a journey from start to finish. I first ordered the suit early this year and every piece needed a remake. However, it has ultimately been rewarding. Black Lapel make as good a suit as you can get for the price. Unlike certain other online clothiers who put a lot of money into advertising rather than the end product, Black Lapel uses no banner advertising and relies mostly on word of mouth and social media. Both cost them nothing but prove to be a lot more effective. They don’t need to shout at you that they’re good – they know it.

Now, some of my readers will recall my horror at receiving a, uh, certain competitor’s suit a couple years ago which I was pretty disappointed in for a number of reasons. These were reasons that went beyond expected fit issues and I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied even if it got remade or altered. While the company has improved in certain areas lately, even based on recent reviews of their products made from in person fittings (!!!) they still don’t seem to hold a candle to the likes of Black Lapel.

Let’s start off with what Black Lapel is. They are a custom clothier who, like many, operate almost exclusively online to reduce overhead and offer clothing to the average guy who wants a better fit than off the rack clothing, often at the same prices one would pay there. However, they have a good focus on value for the dollar.

Their fabrics are all pure Australian Merino wool in Super 110s to 150s, though it should be noted these are made in China. The linings are Bemberg rayon – something even Proper Suit doesn’t currently offer. The only drawback is that they’re all light weight, roughly 8 to 9 ounce. Some offerings in 10 ounce worsteds, flannels, tweeds, and some linen or cotton summer fabrics would be nice. Standard construction is half-canvassed, something that often costs much more. You can upgrade to full canvas, complete with hand-stitched lapels and everything, for a hefty $200 more. However, the half-canvassed construction already looks and feels great, setting itself apart from the fused suits the average man wears. It lets the fabric use more of its natural drape than a fully fused construction. It also has the side benefit of lasting longer and looking better. The full canvassed spec only makes this better and I may opt for that in the future.

Something that isn’t remarked upon much is their expertise in giving advice. Their blog is very helpful for boys who are beginning to mature into men and wish to look it. While I occasionally have nitpicks with some bits of advice (something that has probably driven Derek Tian up the wall by now), I don’t think any guy inexperienced with tailored clothing or just trying to dress better in general will look terrible taking it. Their “concierge” service also offers helpful suggestions for fit and dressing well.

Now, let’s go beyond that fluff to my personal experience.

At first I was worried that, since their fabrics were light weight, that I wouldn’t get as much drape as I wanted. (I should have asked for a swatch in hindsight, which they’ll gladly provide up to three at a time for no charge.) I couldn’t be more wrong. While it is prone to wrinkling a bit more than heavier fabrics, I found most of the wrinkles fall out after hanging the suit up for a day – and yes, you really should rotate your suits! The fabric (Super 110s Australian Merino wool in charcoal) exceeded what I thought it would be. The colour seems closer to Oxford grey than a near-black charcoal, but that’s just nitpicking. It’s been remarked on other blogs that their “navy” is actually more of a midnight blue; it reads almost as black. This gives me hope if I want to get a midnight blue dinner suit. (Update: Which is now available, check their website.)

Construction quality, again, is excellent for the price. Everything looks just right, the lines flow smoothly, and there’s no unsightly bubbling or warping to be found. The shoulders, while touted as being natural, still feel padded albeit lightly. It would be nice to see an true natural shoulder in the future made up of layers of canvas. As Matt Spaiser explains, natural shoulders aren’t just the nearly-unconstructed ones you typically see on sack suits. In any case, it's a fine middle of the road shoulder pad and a huge improvement upon the linebacker look Black Lapel initially had on their suits. The pick stitching looks great on the jacket, though I was surprised to see it on the fly and side pockets of the trousers too. Call me pedestrian if you will, but I believe those last two things are somewhat unnecessary and should be made optional. All the regular stitching is good. The buttons are black natural horn, though I wish they’d use buttons that feel a bit heavier and have rounded edges rather than straight. It would also be great to have different button colours to match the suit, such as grey and blue. Small nitpicks of course. Apart from a choice of coloured Bemberg lining for the main body, all the sleeves are finished in a traditional, ivory striped lining which I also assume is Bemberg. Waistcoats are finished with black Bemberg on the back by default, which is curious as I always thought it traditional to have it match the jacket lining. You can specify this under “Advanced Options” like some other things. Not listed yet is the option to get button side tabs a.k.a. "Daks tops" which you can request through email. (Update: This is now available.) I recommend this and/or brace buttons rather than belt loops if getting a three piece suit, though the beltless look also makes a two piece look a little more streamlined. Though some guys are afraid of braces, there's really no need to be. Hardly anyone will notice if you keep your jacket on and no one will if wearing a waistcoat.

Black Lapel is more than willing to do special requests if you give good descriptions and pictures. I requested slightly wider 1.75” turn-ups on the trousers (their standard, like most, is 1.5”). In the future I may opt for 2” instead. My only disappointment was that there was no reinforcement tape at the inside cuff.

I wanted a four pocket waistcoat with six buttons, five to close (bottom button and buttonhole are for show). In the future I’ll suggest that they make the notch smaller at the bottom, with the edge at the fifth button rounded rather than angled. Their standard is a three pocket waistcoat with a choice of four or five buttons. For some reason, I’ve only seen that design with online clothiers who use Asian tailors. I’d really like to see them expand the waistcoat options some more.

An aside: In modern times, one’s suit jacket does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying wallet, smart phone, business cards, and keys. However, since waistcoats are cut to follow your body closely, it actually anchors down those things and doesn’t create any sag like it will on most jackets. This is how men carried most of their things back when waistcoats were a requirement rather than option (you’ll note that vintage jackets only have one or two pockets on the inside to carry a wallet compared to the four or five that many nicer ones have today). That said, I was actually pleasantly surprised with how the jacket’s inner pockets evenly distributed the weight of my items, despite the fabric being of light weight. Although not long enough to carry it reliably, my bulky Android did not show at all from the outside when placed in the business card pocket. I’ll have to ask how their tailors work that magic and if they plan to offer a hidden smart phone pocket in the future like Proper Suit and Kent Wang currently do. It would be a very welcome addition indeed.

I opted to get the trousers unlined, as this makes them easier to press and more comfortable. I’ve found the half-lined suit trousers that are standard now are actually less comfortable in warm weather because the lining sticks to your legs, while in cold weather it simply feels chilly.

Additionally, I got partial lining on my jacket. Good lord is it beautiful. It’s obvious that they’ve done partial lining before and that the butterfly type is their preferred style.  It’s what I got after emailing the representative a picture of a vintage jacket with the more common one piece lining back. They didn’t have to, yet they also reinforced the exposed edges in lining. Am I complaining? Not at all. It actually looks more luxurious this way. They surpassed my expectations.

A more minor shift from house cut that I requested was kissing buttons on the sleeve rather than the default stacked. I don’t personally prefer them, but many believe it looks more “custom” this way.









"Okay, okay, that's all great Jovan… but how was the fit?"

In addition to the standard measurements, I started by sending them front, side, and back profile pictures so they could get a good sense of my body type and recommend everyone else do the same. I ordered the Tailored Fit. This was surprisingly closer to the body than I expected.  The first thing I noticed was that the trousers tapered from 20 inches at the knee to 16 inches at the leg opening and were definitely cut to show off more of one’s... backside when the jacket is off. The jacket had a slightly closer fit than I was used to as well, having only three inches of room around the chest and tapering four inches from chest to waist. This is just an example, of course. With other body types, you may get more or less than these ratios. You know what, though? For a close fitting suit… it was pretty damn well executed! I didn’t feel overly constricted in the trousers and the jacket was quite comfortable to wear. At no point was there any unsightly rippling or pulling (except in the shoulder area, which I’ll discuss in further detail below). The waist did not have that X-shaped, tight pull at the button which so many young fashionistas unfortunately mistake for a good fit.

That said, I’d recommend that most guys start with the Standard Fit first. I know Black Lapel will say differently, but the fit differences are about an inch or less most places according to them and something that small can be taken in if desired without throwing off the proportions. They also build fabric allowances into all the seams should you gain or lose weight. An inch may sound small, but it makes a surprising difference in the silhouette, as you’ll see in the following pictures. The Standard Fit (which my remade suit ended up essentially being) is not at all a boxy department store fit.
Before making the suit, they made a few adjustments to my off the body measurements compared against my pictures that they thought would give a better fit. These included both decreasing the shoulder width and lengthening the sleeves half an inch. One thing that really surprised me is how they lowered the rise on the trousers an inch. I was slightly miffed given that I prefer a natural rise and didn’t think it needed adjustment. I think a better system would be to contact the customer before going through with these changes.

There were a few fit problems. Rumples on the back of the sleeves and a slight roll under the collar, both when standing naturally. Sleeves ended up being a good inch too short. The shoulders were also too wide. Those two measurements are probably best taken from the top of the shoulder bone rather than all the way to the exact end of the shoulder, in hindsight. The waistcoat was too long, even with the slightly lowered rise of the trousers. I personally think they need a standard measurement to specify waistcoat back length, since getting the right distance from bottom of neck to bottom of trouser waistband is crucial in making everything look harmonious.
I sent pictures of the suit to their concierge service, where they recommended changing the posture setting from “normal” to “erect” for the sleeve pitch and collar fit, lengthening the sleeves an inch and quarter*, narrowing the shoulders an inch, specifying “lower right shoulder”, lengthening trouser rise back to what I specified, and shortening the waistcoat two inches. I also requested that the chest, jacket waist, sleeves, seat, knee, and leg opening all be let out an inch for a bit more comfort. While the rep insisted that the Tailored Fit looked good on my slender physique, I prefer something with a bit more ease. “Mad Men” rather than modern day GQ, if you will. These all seemed to work well when my remake came in, though the stomach measurement was adjusted slightly too large by the tailors and both waistcoat and jacket needed to be taken in by a local tailor. These alterations were minor, though, and didn’t throw off the proportions in the least. There’s still the slightest bit of rumpling on the back of the sleeves and the side of the jacket from my lower right shoulder (which happens with many of my jackets unfortunately), and perhaps the shoulder width could come in ever so slightly, but I’m satisfied overall. I’ll tinker with these things later if they really bother me – it’s still a far better fit than I’ve gotten from ready to wear clothing. When it came back from the tailor and I tried it on, I couldn’t take it off for at least two hours. I felt just that confident and comfortable – proving again that tailored clothing isn’t restrictive if done right – wearing it.

*The justification being that the sleeves, even with working buttons, could be taken in or let out a quarter inch while still looking proportionate and that it’s better to err on the slightly long side. I’m inclined to agree as it turned out perfect in length without needing adjustment.

Overall? Even with the fit problems I encountered, I still recommend Black Lapel wholeheartedly. They will work closely with you to make sure things are right and are always looking to improve. They are knowledgeable and very personable.  (Compared to a representative I spoke to from that certain other e-tailor who didn’t know what the difference between polyester and rayon was when I asked what the lining was made of…) Most of all, they get more of the fit right the first time and have higher quality standards than the other e-tailor shops I have tried in the past. Pro tip: If you live in New York City, go and get measured by them in person for best results. Derek Tian, Warren Liao and the rest of the team are great people who stand by their product and want to make every guy look good.



DISCLAIMER: Nouveau Vintage received material compensation in the form of a discount for this review. However, every effort has been made to remain objective.

3 comments:

  1. My first venture into custom clothing was with Black Lapel. I actually met Warren at my regular tailor. So I don't have experience with their online presence (i've only dealt with Warren directly, in person). I will say that their customer service is great, the quality is fantastic and they're just a great bunch of guys.

    I actually had Warren over for a Suit Party. (my own invention, trademark pending! lol) This was before their website launched. He sold suits to my friends while I educated the masses on single malt scotch. Great time!

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  2. I first ordered the suit early this year and every piece needed a remake. ... wool3piecesuit.blogspot.com

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    1. Sometimes you have to be patient in online MTM.

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