With so many lightly used designer suits for sale online, grabbing a stylish nearly-new bargain has never been easier. At least if you know what you’re doing.
But without the opportunity to try the item on before purchasing, and the ever present possibility of paying out for an expensive dud, most buyers prefer not to risk it. When you take into consideration the extra hassle and potential cost of having the suit altered by a tailor, this is perhaps understandable. However, it’s also great news for those of us that do, as it helps to reduce competition and keeps the prices of second hand designer suits relatively low. In fact, if you’re clued up about the potential pitfalls, and have access to a trustworthy tailor, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Want to get in on the action? Check out our guide to buying used mens suits online and then having them professionally altered for a perfect fit!
Although this guide is specifically aimed at those hoping to grab a bargain designer suit online, much of the info contained here will also be of use for anyone trawling physical consignment stores for lightly used brand-name suits, or even those rummaging through yard sales and flea-markets for more vintage treasures.
Why Buy a Secondhand Suit Online?
Buying a used suit online clearly carries greater potential for disappointment than buying one in a store – where you get to try the suit on for size and closely examine it for any defects. However, this is also precisely the reason why you are more likely to score a real bargain online than when buying from a brick-and-mortar retailer: quite simply, there are a lot of used suits for sale online, and relatively few people willing to buy them due to the perception of risk involved.
This is because everyone knows that the key to looking good in a suit is fit. And a nicely fitting suit costs money. As even a used suit is likely to go for hundreds, rather than tens, of dollars, it’s quite understandable that most buyers are unwilling to take the risk of purchasing something they haven’t tried on. What this effectively means, then, is that it’s a buyer’s market. And if you know what you’re doing, you can get yourself a real bargain.
Add to this the fact that, for the average man today, the suit is no longer an item of daily attire as it was in the past, but rather something that social convention occasionally forces him to wear – usually quite reluctantly, and, as a consequence, also rather inelegantly. Statistically, beyond those working in finance, the few occasions in which the modern male is at all likely to wear a suit are: a graduation, an important job interview, a wedding, and – less auspiciously – a court appearance.
But, assuming he still has his liberty, what does our man do with the suit after the big day? It goes back in the closet. In the meantime, he gets on with his life: invariably decked out in jeans and t-shirt or, at best, dress shirt and chinos.
To be sure, that suit cost money. He isn’t going to wear it just to slouch around the house in. Or for going out to get burritos, nor drinking beer and eating barbecue in the backyard. It’s for special occasions.
But occasions special enough to warrant donning a suit don’t seem to come around all that often. And by the time our man is called upon to face another of life’s great rite’s of passage, life itself has taken a toll: reunited with the suit after some years of separation, he squeezes back in. But what’s this? All those sneaky beers and burritos want in there too!
It’s no use: a new, more forgiving, suit must be purchased.
The old one goes on “the ‘Bay”. Worn once and still sporting sealed pockets. Ready to be snapped up by someone who will actually appreciate it.
Someone like you for example.
Know Your Size
Before you start looking, you’ll need to know your size. Or rather, take your measurements. Because when it comes to shopping for a second hand suit online, putting too much trust in vague concepts such as “M” or “42” will only end in tears.
Learn to take accurate measurements – both of your body and of garments (a favorite, nicely-fitting suit for example) – and you’ll be well placed to take advantage of potential bargains when you find them.
Where to Buy Gently Used Suits
There are certainly many great suits to be found on eBay, and frequently at good prices, but there’s also a considerable element of hassle associated with buying there. Sure, you’re probably covered if the seller’s description turns out to be seriously misleading – for example, if it fails to mention a gaping cigarette burn in the seat of the pants. At least if you can prove that you’re not responsible for the damage yourself.
But even an accurate description and an exhaustive set of high quality photographs cannot guarantee you will be happy with your purchase. Due to differences in your phone or computer, the color may turn out to be a very different shade to the one you expected, or the fabric may have an unappealing sheen that didn’t come across in the photos – or any number of other issues. Many of the part-time or non-professional eBay sellers will not accept returns for such reasons.
One way to reduce the chances of getting badly stung when buying used suits online is to stay clear of disreputable or hit-and-miss dealers and stick to online marketplaces trading only in nearly-new designer consignments. Buy from an online consignment store with a flexible returns policy (i.e. a shop like ours) and much of the risk is taken out of buying a pre-owned suit online.
What to Look For
Naturally there’s always going to be stiffer competition when bidding on well known designer labels like Armani, Tom Ford, Dior, and Gucci. And it’s the same with the less widely known, but perhaps even more prestigious, Italian menswear labels like Kiton and Cesare Attolini. Suits from these brands will still fetch high prices on the used market. If you find one online with an incredibly low asking price it’s inevitably either going to be in a really outdated style, or else in some way damaged.
With that said, there are actually a lot of brands out there producing good quality suits. And by the time they make it onto the secondhand market, there’s likely to be many more of them available than there are potential buyers looking for them. And despite the number of people keeping an eye out for the more prestigious labels, even suits from top brands such as Isaia Napoli or Corneliani can sometimes be picked up for less than $200 – a mere fraction of their retail price when new.
When buying secondhand, it helps a great deal to become familiar with brands. If you’ve worn a certain brand before, you can predict the fit better and also expect a certain level of quality.
If you’re serious about suits, then the label indicating the fabric a suit is made of is almost more important than the one stating the brand name. In fact, beyond just the general look and style of a suit, the material it’s made from should be the first thing you check when considering a purchase.
Even suits from top brands such as Isaia Napoli or Corneliani can sometimes be picked up for less than $200 – a mere fraction of their retail price when new.
Although it should go without saying, fabrics labelled as “wool-blend” or “wool-rich” are to be avoided in suits. The added artificial fiber count in such textiles is often touted as improving the durability or flexibility of the fabric. In actual fact it’s just there to save the manufacturer money. On top of which, such mixed fiber fabrics will will age badly, and also make you sweat. Instead go for 100% wool (or cotton, or linen, or a mix of the above).
Although not in itself a fool-proof sign of quality, ideally this wool will also be labelled as Super 120s, or Super 150s, or similar. An even more persuasive sign that you’re looking at a genuinely high quality garment is when the name off the mill that produced the cloth is specified. If this mill is either Italian or British, you’re likely in safe hands.
Country of Manufacture
Not everything made in China sucks. Not everything made in Italy is great. Nonetheless, place of manufacture is another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of garment quality. If all the other signs (brand, fabric, style, fit etc.) are promising, but the suit was made in China, I wouldn’t let that put you off entirely. If it says “made in the USA” or “made in Italy” but in all honesty looks like a bag of golf clubs, keep searching. “Made in England”, however, is still unlikely to disappoint.
Cut and Style
Fashions continuously change: lapels get wider, or slim down; the break rises, and then drops; jackets get shorter, then go low again. All for apparently little real reason other than to make you buy a new suit.
We’re in something of a transitional period right now. While the slim, low-fastening, two-button suits that have dominated for the last few years are still sufficiently on-trend not to leave the wearer looking dated (at least not for the time being), we’re also seeing an increasing number of the more fashion-forward brands rolling out loose-fitting, high-fastening, wider-lapeled, three-button designs again.
As ever though, you’re safest bet is to go for the middle ground: neither overly baggy, nor too crotch-crushingly tight. This way your suit is more likely to still see regular use in five years time, while other currently more cutting-edge looks will have long since had their day.
The primary risk of buying a used item that you’ve never physically handled is of course that its condition turns out to be somewhat less pristine than expected. A clever bit of photography and a convincing eBay description could almost make an old flour sack look like the height of desirable luxury. While a good quality product from just a few seasons ago will unlikely turn out to be threadbare, the owner may have caught the jacket on a nail – creating a small hole – or stained the pants with wine. Or indeed damaged the suit in any number of other ways that may not be clearly evident from an online auction listing.
Be wary if an eBay seller’s photos are too dark, out of focus, or only show a very limited part of the item. While these are often errors that can be blamed on laziness or lack of photography skills, they may just as equally be deliberate attempts to hide the poor condition of the item. Be sure to check the photos carefully and ask the seller questions if necessary.
Assuming that the photos are clear and comprehensive, keep an eye out for abrasion damage on the seat of the pants, or at elbows and knees. Inspect the cuffs, button holes and other edges for fraying. Look for the tell-tale wrinkling of old fusible – an interlining that is glued into the front panels and lapels of cheaper, non-canvassed suits – as this can become unstuck overtime. Check also for sag caused by heavy wear at the knees, seat, pockets, or even in the drape of the jacket. Examine pocket corners for tears, and lining for rips.
Find a Tailor
In order to confidently buy used suits online, you will need access to a decent tailor. Someone at the local dry cleaners who merely knows how to do repairs or hem alterations will not suffice for anything but the most simple of suit alterations. An inept tailor could ruin the fit of your suit in numerous ways, so it pays to find someone who knows what they are doing.
This is almost equally true for new suits as it is for used ones: it’s very rare that any suit will fit perfectly straight off the rack, so a trip to the tailor is almost always necessary in order to get a truly great fitting suit. Used or otherwise.
Know What Is and Is Not Sartorially Possible
Even if you have access to accurate dimensions of the garment, and know your own measurements, when buying an item you’ve never seen before – let alone tried on – you should probably work on the assumption that there will be some element that doesn’t fit right. For sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky, and your purchase will need no more than the hems adjusting. Other times the suit will need a little more work.
For this reason, it pays to understand which particular parts of a suit may potentially fit badly. And what, if anything, can be done about this.
Congratulations if you’ve found a really skillful tailor whom you trust. But remember that they are only a tailor, not a miracle worker. It’s no use you gasping in horror at the ungainly scarecrow in the mirror at the end of it all, when in actual fact you were the one who insisted that the tailor rip through seams here and chop off great bolts of fabric there, all against their better professional judgment. Having unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved by a tailor will only lead to disappointment on both sides. And the reality is that some problems just can’t be fixed.
Thankfully though, most can. Let’s take a look at precisely what is and is not possible.
Suit Jacket Alterations
Adjusting the width of the sleeves is a relatively straightforward task for a skilled tailor, and a sack-like suit can be massively streamlined by having its sleeves trimmed.
Just as equally, if there’s any extra fabric in the seams, then the sleeves can likely also be let out for increased movement if necessary. However, just how you establish from an online listing whether there’s spare cloth in the seams is another matter entirely, as they will be covered by the suit’s lining.
Depending upon which direction you need to go in, adjusting the length of a suit jacket’s sleeves is either fairly straightforward, or nigh on impossible.
Shortening the sleeves is done at the cuff or in some cases at the armhole, and is not a complicated job.
Lengthening the sleeves could be done either at the armhole or at the cuff, but in practice can rarely be done to lengthen them more than 1 – 1.5 inches. So if you’ve got gorilla arms like me, you’re in trouble if the sleeves are too short.
The waist is the one area of a suit jacket that not only can be adjusted without too much difficulty, but almost certainly should be adjusted.
That’s assuming there’s not too much bodily girth under there already. In which case you better hope that there’s some extra fabric in the seams (I wouldn’t bet on it), or hit the gym.
More commonly, if you’re of a fairly average build and the rest of the suit fits you quite well, you’ll want to clip the waist in a little. Giving it a sharper and more stylish look.
If you buy a jacket that fits you well at the shoulders, pretty much everything else will follow – or at least shouldn’t be too far off the mark and can be adjusted to perfection without a lot of hassle and expense. Clearly then, the shoulder measurement is one that you’ll want to take very accurately.
Bear in mind that a jacket should fit snugly at the shoulders, hugging you across the back as you move. Of course, it certainly shouldn’t feel restrictive, but nor should your shoulders be slipping around loosely in there. Get this measurement right, and track down suits that fit the bill, and the battle is half won.
If the shoulders of a jacket you’ve bought are too tight, there’s a limit to what can be done. As ever, the feasibility of enlarging the shoulders will entirely depend on how much spare cloth the manufacturer has left in the seams. Sadly, hidden away under the jacket’s lining as these particular seams are, this is not a question that seller of the suit is likely to be able to answer (unless they were also its wearer, and know that they had the shoulders taken in at some point).
While there’s also a limit to how much you can start cutting away at the shoulders before this will begin to have an adverse impact on other areas of the jacket, tightening up the shoulders is probably the single most effective thing that you can do to save a loose-fitting suit. In fact, to a certain extent, if the shoulders and collar fit well, then all else is down to personal style and taste (although you’d probably do well not to repeat this last sentence on Savile Row or in certain neighborhoods of Naples).
The risk of going too far with cropping the shoulders is that this area will begin to pull on the back and chest, causing the fabric in those areas either to wrinkle or rise up away from the body in an unattractive manner.
A certain amount of fabric can be removed from the back of the jacket without it causing other problems, and in many cases this will considerably improve the fit of the garment. However, as this is not an adjustment that can easily be predicted from looking at the measurements on an eBay listing, but only by trying the jacket on, it is not something we’ll discuss in any more detail here. Suffice to say that if, when your suit arrives in the mail, it is flapping around in the breeze back there, this issue can likely be fixed easily.
After the shoulders, jacket length is probably the number one thing to consider. In fact, in some respects it’s more important than the shoulders. As noted above, the fit of a suit jacket can often be significantly improved, and with no noticeable compromise in the balance of the design, just by tightening the shoulders or bringing in the waist. Sadly though, the same can’t be said for the length of the jacket. Indeed, in most cases, chopping more than a fraction of an inch off the length will entirely upset the jacket’s proportions. Effectively ruining it.
There are exceptions of course. If the jacket is unusually long – and particularly if there’s a lot of space beneath the pockets – then you may be able to get away with hacking up to an inch off the bottom without it starting to look too strange. But most of the time, such a drastic alteration to this area of the jacket will pretty much guarantee it never gets worn again.
Think about the way that the front of a suit jacket is designed. There’s an opening at the top; the lapels descend and meet, drawn together by buttons; and then it widens out again at the bottom. In order to create a balanced and graceful figure for the wearer, the ratio of these dimensions must be carefully maintained. As there’s no way to move either the button holes or the pockets upwards in order to compensate for the shift in balance caused by shortening the bottom of the jacket, you risk rendering it top-heavy. Not a good look.
If you’re of an especially slim build, or you buy a suit that is much too big for you, you can do a lot to improve the fit by taking the jacket in at the waist and shoulders. But if it is too long, and can’t be altered without leaving an obviously too short expanse of fabric below the pockets, then with your slimmed-down but ultra-long suit, frankly you’re going to look like a bean pole.
Seriously, if the collar doesn’t fit you well, you’d probably be better off just buying a new suit.
This is because, as you may have noticed, the collar of a suit jacket is made of one continuous piece of cloth that curls elegantly – and seamlessly – around the neck from lapel to lapel. The only way to make an adjustment directly to the collar would be by chopping it in two at the back of the neck, and then sewing it back together again once excess cloth has been removed or extra material added.
This would not look good.
I once had a suit that didn’t sit well at the collar, effectively because it was too big. Amazingly my tailor managed to fix the problem without going to the extreme method outlined above. Unfortunately though, I don’t really know what he did, so I can’t share that information with you (although if I remember right, he made an adjustment somewhere on the back of the suit that made the collar behave differently).
Suit Pant Alterations
Unlike with the jacket, pants that are a size or so bigger than your correct fit can often be made to look pretty good without too much hard work (or indeed expense).
Clearly it’s important to establish that the inseam (i.e. inside leg measurement) of any suit you plan to buy is sufficiently long that it will cover all your legs. Thankfully, in order to make them suitable for any buyer, most manufacturers produce their pants with legs that are way longer than is necessary for most buyers. Indeed most legs.
However, as we’re talking used suits here, it’s likely that the pants will already have been altered to fit the height and taste of their previous owner. Fear not though, as any good tailor will have left an inch or so of extra cloth turned up inside the leg when adjusting the hem: check with the seller if this is not clear from the product description. If the suit is made of wool or another entirely natural fiber (as indeed it should be), unpicking the stitching and taking down the hem will not leave any visible stitch marks or other damage.
Conversely, if the pants are too long, its an extremely quick and easy job to take them up.
Depending upon your body type and style preferences, the look of suit pants can be improved by tapering them from the knee downwards. Although, as already mentioned, current trends are starting to move towards a wider and looser look, so if you are particularly concerned about such matters, make sure that whoever does the alterations for you keeps a good swathe of fabric inside the leg so that you can let them out again if needed.
Be warned, though, that slimming pants too much below the knee, while leaving them considerably wider above, can sometimes result in a slightly strange shaped silhouette, with the extra fabric in the upper part of the leg hanging down in an inelegant manner that is somewhat reminiscent of a goat’s leg. Or the devil’s. This may or may not be the look you want.
Pant Waist Size
Found a suit with a jacket that’s exactly your size? But the pants drop immediately to your ankles when you put them on? All is not lost: taking in the waist is a simple operation that generally does not result in any noticeable side effects.
However, I don’t recommend buying enormously oversized pants in the hope of turning them into skinny-fit hipster ball-crushers by means of creative tailoring. The one area of pants that cannot be profitably altered is the front fly. And tight pants with a groin zipper reaching halfway down to the knee would likely be too much even for the most fashion-forward of our readers. i.e don’t expect to turn your size L pant into an S.
Adjusting overly tight pants is also a simple task, provided that there is sufficient extra material hidden in the seams. The more expensive the suit, the more likely it is that the manufacturer has left some extra cloth in there specifically to facilitate adjustments of this kind by the customer. Even if it’s a fairly mass-market suit – with the rather less generous attitude to fabric that membership of this category usually entails – it’s always possible that the suit’s previous owner was a stick insect who had the waist taken in, and that the tailor left some surplus material in place in anticipation of future middle-aged spread.
As pants are not lined down the leg, the seller will easily be able to check if any extra fabric is present at the seam, so be sure to ask if this is a potential concern for you.
Over the years I’ve made pretty much every mistake listed here. In short, I’ve found out about buying secondhand suits online the hard way. Now you don’t have to.
Having said that, don’t let me put you off, as there really are some great bargains to be had out there: if you are willing to put in the time and effort to search for them. Although this article may seem somewhat alarmist with all it’s talk of sartorial disasters, in actual fact, if you are of a reasonably average build, most secondhand suits will only need a couple of adjustments in order to look great on you. And even if your body shape is less typical, there’s little reason to believe that you will have to face even half of the adjustment scenarios we cover here. Really these situations are just listed in order to make you aware of potential problems and so as to provide you with sufficient information to make informed and satisfying purchases.
While I’m of course perfectly happy for you to ignore the insights and advice I’ve shared here – as it effectively means less competition for my own suit hunting – in my experience there are actually many more used designer suits on the market than there are people interested in buying them, so be my guest!
For more info on secondhand suits, be sure to read our first article in this series – 5 Basic Steps to Sell Your Pre-Owned Suit. If you’re already suit shopping, be sure to check our store for the latest arrivals on consignment.