Italy versus India: does it matter where your suit comes from?

In the store, or straight out of the couriered box, it looks fantastic. The fit is exquisite, the cut couldn't be sharper, and the fabric is soft and light. Your new suit couldn't be more perfect.

However, in between the joy of catching glimpses of your new dashing self in the reflection of shop and car windows, a nagging little question pops up: 'where exactly was it made?'

This should be easily answered by looking inside the jacket, but the follow-up question - 'do I care?' - can be harder to resolve.

Tom Riley, the director of made-to-measure businesses P. Johnson Tailors and Suit Shop, says it all comes down to "a value prospect".

"I think what we've got to do is separate the types of suits that you can make in various places," he says.

There's no reason you shouldn't be able to get high quality at every value point.

Tom Riley

Tailor made

With P. Johnson offering suits made in Tuscany, and Suit Shop's stock sourced from Shanghai, Riley is well qualified to speak on this issue. A fan of the passion and quality inherent in traditional Italian tailoring, he concedes the 'Made In' question can be over-thought.

"You can have a well-made suit in China, you can have a well-made suit in India, you can have a well-made suit in Romania," he says, adding he would have no trouble wearing a suit made in India as long as it fitted well.

But the seeming unlikeliness of this declaration reveals Riley's point: you should be driven by what you value. In Riley's case, this extends beyond fit and fabric to encapsulate the unique character that is created by artisan production methods fuelled by "passion, understanding and a lot of knowledge".

Value points

He elaborates using his earlier vocation as a winemaker as an example. "You can have a good quality wine at $12, $18 or $180, but high quality can simply mean the absence of faults … there's no reason you shouldn't be able to get high quality at every value point," he says.


"It's the more abstract qualities that you pay for as you go up in cost, artisanal qualities … in wine, you're paying for more fruit concentration – and still a lack of faults – but a lot more character, and the same goes for suits.

"You're paying for character, which is a result of origin, quality characteristics in construction and hand-finishing, more of it. But it takes the individual to understand it and want it."

The question of whether people do truly understand it is subject to debate, especially when it comes to the issue of appreciating where something is made. Riley says only about 20 per cent of his customers inquire where their suit will be made. Nonetheless, for Riley and business partner Patrick Johnson, it had to be Italy.

Italian job

"We've wanted to produce beautiful suits made by tailors in a workshop environment rather than a factory environment, although there are some factory processes involved to gain efficiencies and value for the customer. And for us at the moment with P. Johnson as a business, we can only find that in Italy."

In a world where provenance continually battles against brand and price, is he concerned that the cache attached to a product's origin might slip even further?

"I think it still means a lot to a lot of people, absolutely, but I think it might be starting to mean less as people start to understand knowledge is transferable and up to a point you can have a lot of good things made anywhere on Earth, as long as the understanding is there," Riley says.

How that knowledge has transferred to other parts of the world, especially China, has received a lot of attention in recent years, especially since Amsterdam-based Suitsupply started received eye-popping reviews for its Shanghai-made suits.

Blind reviews

In 2011, the Wall Street Journal enlisted the help of two experts for an unscientific, blind review of six suits.

While they found the quality of some of the suits was out of line with their price tags, the most surprising result was that both experts estimated a $US614 ($856) suit from Suitsupply to be the equivalent of a $US3625 ($5053) Armani suit.

Paul Fournier, a European-based fashion consultant, says Suitsupply's success is the result of creating a vertical brand that buys fabric from renowned Italian drapers such as Vitale Barberis Canonico, from which it manufactures its own suits.

"The most impressive aspect about Suitsupply is that they defined a market range that did not exist before. A quality entry-level suit, it just did not exist before," Fournier says.

Supply and demand

While Suitsupply's manufacturing skills have seen the label become one of the world's most respected and popular online suit retailers, Fournier warns against making blanket generalisations about origin and quality.

"This success story is the counter-example to many who have tried to cut corners by all means in order to increase the margin. These are most often long forgotten," he says.

Matthew Perolli, a director at made-to-measure outfitter Oscar Hunt, has become well accustomed to dealing with customers inquiring about where his company's suits are made. Like Suit Shop and Suitsupply, Oscar Hunt manufactures its garments in Shanghai.

"It is not something that we shy away from … I take a very rational approach, and focus the customer on what they are getting rather than where it is made," Perolli says.

"The construction of our suits utilises the best construction ingredients – high-quality European interlinings, floating canvas pieces – and combines them with world-class fabrics from the best mills, as well as Gerber laser-cutting technology. If you are ticking those boxes, then you are getting an extremely high-quality suit."