Quality is one of those watchwords that have become almost meaningless through overuse. Everything is made from the finest cashmeres and richest leathers. Those that say a little more will reduce the products to just where they were made. As though everything “made in England” or “made in Italy” is of the same quality, let alone accurately represent the complex production chains that can exist nowadays.
So how does one go about examining quality? The sad news is that a lot of what determines quality isn’t readily discernible by a consumer. A suit jacket, for example, is made up of dozens of components, many of them internal. The best way to determine quality is always to first see how the garment looks on you, and go by your previous experience with a brand. As primitive as it sounds, a brand’s reputation is still one of the most reliable ways to estimate quality.
Assuming you don’t have that however, what can you look for? Well, it varies from category to category.
Suit jackets and sport coats: The only easily discernible indication of quality in a suit jacket or sport coat is the canvassing. High-quality tailored jackets have a layer canvas sandwiched between the two outer shell fabrics. This canvas helps the drape of the jacket. Cheaper jackets will be fused. How can you tell if a jacket is canvassed? On a fully-canvassed jacket, pinch the two shell fabrics below the middle button on a three-button coat, and the top button on a two-button coat. If you feel something in between, that’s the canvas. Unfortunately, you can’t tell the difference between a half-canvassed and fully fused jacket (because of how that canvassing is attached) so you’ll just have to ask the sales associate. Manufacturers of half-canvassed jackets like to advertise their garment as such.
Everything else – hand stitched linings, opened sleeve buttons, and Super 100s wools – are just marketing gimmicks, not real indicators of quality. Again, the best test is always to see if a jacket looks great on you. Quality should be something discernible.
Sweaters: Like with tailored jackets, quality here can also be difficult to determine. A quality sweater will be made from yarns spun from longer fibers, which will give fewer “weak points” where fibers can break and thus pill. You won’t know whether a sweater pills easily until you wear it for a season, unfortunately.
One thing you can do, however, is to see how densely knitted the sweater is. Many manufacturers will brag about how their sweaters were made in Italy or use 100% cashmere yarns, but they’ll skimp on the density of the knitting. If the sweater looks like it’ll easily stretch out of shape, it probably will. Check the cuffs to see if they have a bit of “bounce back” when you pull on them.
Shoes: Shoes are perhaps the easiest. Calf leathers ought to be full-grain, meaning you should be able to see the pores. Low end shoes are made from corrected grain leathers, where low-quality skins are sanded down to remove imperfections, and then “glossed over” with some chemical treatment. That layer might look great on the shelf, but it will eventually peel and crack with wear. If the leather looks supple, natural, and you can see the pores, this is usually a good sign.
The other indication of quality is how the sole has been attached. Broadly speaking, cheap shoes will have their soles glued on. Again, with wear, these can detach. Better made shoes will typically have some kind of stitched sole – whether made via Goodyear welting, Blake or Blake/ Rapid construction, or even moccasin constructing. Having a stitched on sole not only means that the sole is more likely to stay attached, but also that you can resole your shoes more often and more easily (by a cobbler, of course). Spend $200 on a pair of glue jobs and you’ll have to throw your shoes away in a year or two. Spend $400 on a pair of better made shoes, and they can last you decades with proper care and resoling.
Remember: quality should be discernible. Trust your gut and be watchful of overly stylized images and buzzword marketing campaigns. So long as you know what to look for, you should be able to make an educated guess about the quality of an item when it’s right there in front of you.