After a series of difficulties and an eventual breakup with an online made-to-measure company I’d been using for years, I decided to finally try Black Lapel.
Direct-to-consumer custom suits are a relatively new development in the Disruptor Age of the last decade. They provide a real solution for discerning budget-conscious men who aren’t served well by the size or style constraints of ready-to-wear suits. If your measurement profile is accurate, you get a perfectly fitting custom suit delivered to your door, usually with no shipping cost. It’s a terrific prospect, though not without its pitfalls, which usually involves getting (or not getting) your measurements right.
This model of custom suit delivery was started in 2006 by a Vancouver-based company called Indochino. While a brand may be the first, experience has shown me that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. Others can arrive later, improve on the original idea and deliver a superior product. Black Lapel is an example of that. Founded in 2012, they weren’t the first to offer affordable online made-to-measure suiting, but their finished product is elegantly executed and nicely made, which is ultimately what counts.
My first step with Black Lapel was to create my account and enter my measurements. They sensibly suggest having another person (ideally a professional tailor) help you with the measurement process, but I decided to use my original measurements from my profile with my previous suit maker. After I chose my suit fabric and added my customizations, I placed my order. The next day, I got a polite email from a Customer Service Concierge alerting me that my measurements didn’t seem quite right and suggested that I make an appointment with a stylist at Black Lapel’s Midtown Manhattan showroom just to confirm that everything was right. So I did just that.
The next day, I met with a nice guy named Chris, who took very detailed care in making sure my measurements were accurate, including the taking of photos for my profile so that the tailors could get an idea of my proportions and posture. Among several ways Black Lapel differs from my previous experience is with identifying and accommodating specific quirks in the body. Chris and I determined that although I have a normal posture, my shoulders sloped slightly and that my left shoulder sloped slightly lower than the right. Good to know.
Black Lapel also has three different fits of their suits to accommodate one’s body type and style preferences: Slim Fit, Tailored Fit and Standard Fit. Since I don’t like super-slim sausage casing tailoring or roomy “classic” tailoring, my original thinking figured that I should get something in between, i.e. the Tailored Fit. Chris assured me that my body type and style were best suited for the Slim Fit. (The models on the website wear a Slim Fit.) I took his suggestion.
I don’t necessarily consider myself an expert on tailoring by any means, but I do consider myself much more informed than the average customer. I have a good sense of history, an appreciation of rich tailoring traditions that are proven to optimally flatter the male form, and a good sense of myself and what I like. I’m not new at this party. That said, I’m always wary of salespeople or stylists, particularly when they’re young. It can be hard to trust someone without years and experience under his or her belt when making decisions about tailoring and how something should fit. While I was very clear and specific with Chris about my likes and dislikes (as any customer should be), I did listen to his suggestions. As a new customer to Black Lapel, I did not know the product and the fit as well as he, and I found him to be extremely well-informed about tailoring in general and about the design specifics of his particular brand. He was very helpful, and I’m glad I made the appointment to go to the showroom in person.
For the suit itself, I went with the Midnight Blue in a super 110 all-season fabric that reads slightly darker than navy ($449). A pretty basic all-purpose choice that can work in pretty much any situation. My customizations were my usual: a single-breasted, two-button notch-lapel jacket with pick stitching, double vents, straight flap pockets with a ticket pocket, and functional sleeve buttons and boutonnière. For the jacket lining, I went with a sky-blue Bemberg. The pants would be flat-front with no cuffs and no belt loops with side tabs instead.
Among the smart suggestions Chris made was to have the finished suit shipped to the showroom instead of my home so that we could have a fitting and make any necessary tweaks. Four weeks later, the suit arrived, and I went in for a fitting. For a first custom suit with a new brand, where the margin of error can be disappointing, I must say that the first fitting was pretty remarkable. The shoulders, which is anyone’s biggest concern, were terrific, as were most of the other areas. After a little pinning to take in the sleeve length, the sleeve width and the trouser width, the suit was sent to a local tailor for the finishing touches at no extra charge. My new finished suit was ready a week later. It was terrific.
After spending so much time in custom suits from another brand, I noticed major differences in Black Lapel’s product right away. The first thing I noticed was the lapel width, which came in just under 3.5 inches (slightly wider than the current skinny trend). Chris told me that Black Lapel adjusts the lapel width specifically for each customer, meaning a wider guy would get slightly wider lapels. I was also very pleased the very light padding, creating a structured but very natural shoulder. The button stance of the jacket is also slightly lower than what I was getting before, hovering just above the navel and revealing less shirt below the button. Like my other suits, the jacket was half-canvassed, although Black Lapel has a premium Savoy Line which features full canvas construction.
The pants were pants, at a glance. (Cheesy rhyme. Sorry.) The big noticeable differences were all about the waistband, which sounds boring but isn’t. First, the side tabs were button adjusters sewn into the waistband instead of slide tabs on the rear hip that stress the fabric. Also, a thin rubber grip was sewn inside the front of the waistband to prevent a shirt from slipping. The waistband overall seemed more solidly constructed than the suits from the other company. Another nice feature was a more durable fabric for the pocket lining. And – bonus – there was a little inner pocket sewn inside the right pocket for keys or coins. Nice.
Overall, the suit is great. I’d have to say that the construction seems more substantial than the suits from my previous resource, which almost feel whispy by comparison. Little things like the sturdy waistband, strong pockets and button reinforcement are not such little things when you wear suits with any regularity.
The only thing I didn’t love was the stacked kissing buttons on the sleeves. My preference is non-stacked kissing buttons or even non-kissing buttons. I didn’t see any options for the sleeve button style in the customization process, but I can live with it. Though I do like how it seems that functional sleeve buttons are the only option with Black Lapel. (A custom suit should always have working sleeve buttons.)
Other areas for improvement have little to do with the suit, really. As I’ve written before, custom suit maker Indochino has the best functioning website in the entire menswear industry, in my opinion. It should be a case study for all brands, and Black Lapel could borrow a few pages from their web application playbook, in terms of both design, function and user experience.
Another area that could be better was the New York showroom. To be fair, the company had just moved into the new space at 10 East 38th Street just days before my measurement appointment. But when I returned weeks later for my first fitting, it still had the “just moved in” temporary flavor. The walls are painted bright cocaine white, which could be warmed up with some mid-century modern furniture, some chic rugs, beautifully framed photos of men’s style icons on the walls… Things like that. It could use the help of someone with real design experience and taste. As of my last visit, it was a work-in-progress that looked like it was headed in a somewhat cold and characterless direction. (In the time since my last visit, it could have been completely charmed up in a different and wonderful way. I don’t know.)
At the end of the day, though, all that matters is the suit, which is terrific. For men who aren’t millionaires or billionaires, i.e. most of us, Black Lapel is a fantastic resource for handsome, affordable and well-made custom suits. Big thumbs up.