Reader K asks about the merits of cheap suits for women…
I’m in the process of changing from a career where pajamas are appropriate work attire to something more “professional” and need all the help I can get. I have been shopping for an interview suit (my first ever and I am almost 40!) and am not sure how to weigh quality vs cost. My clothes budget has been limited to a few t-shirts, a pair of jeans, and maybe a sweater per year so I am unaccustomed to spending a significant amount of money on clothes. I have been browsing at discount stores like Ross, Marshalls, and Kohls to try and find my interview suit for under $100. However, the more I read your blog the more I am wondering if I should suck it up and spend $200-300 on a suit that is wool from a store like Ann Taylor or Banana Republic. Aside from the fact that a well made wool suit will last longer than a synthetic Calvin Klein suit from Ross, do you think there is a significant visual difference? I figure that if my cheap suit works for the interview I can always invest in quality clothes once I have a job that pays more. However, the last thing I want is for the interviewer to think “damn, that’s a cheap suit!”. Any advice?
Great, great question, and I think we should expand the discussion to the differences between LOTS of different price ranges. (The pictured suit is actually not a cheap one, but rather an expensive one — I’ve just been looking for an excuse to share it with you guys without recommending it. Tee hee.) Here’s my take:
- Under $100. There are lots of suits to be found for under $100, but in general these are going to be sold as a single “suit” — one price for both the jacket and bottoms, whether you’re getting pants or a skirt. While the skirts can sometimes look OK when worn as a separate, the pants almost never do (at least, that’s my experience). Furthermore, because these suits are so inexpensive, the fabric they’re made of is often difficult to work with and may wrinkle easily, hold smells more easily, and start to get a bit shiny when you dryclean them. Bottom line: These suits are great for when you want to bolster a professional wardrobe — particularly if you have to wear suits 5 times a week — but for my money, I would not purchase this kind of suit for an interview/wardrobe basic.
- Under $200. There are suit separates to be had for under $200, particularly at mall stores (think The Limited, Express, or LOFT), as well as at department stores (Macy’s in particular has a number of “Every Day Value” separates from AK Anne Klein, Ellen Tracy, and Calvin Klein). These will be in basic, solid colors, you can get both pants and skirts (and maybe even multiple jackets) to match, in separate sizes (perfect if you need an 8 on top and a 6 in the bottom). The fabric will not be the best (see above), but in terms of bang for your buck, you’re going to get a lot more wear out of these pieces as a wardrobe staple as WELL as an interview suit. Furthermore, if you have to interview twice, you can wear the skirt once and the pants the next time, instead of wearing the same suit. You can also get a better suit that’s sold as a single unit for around $150 or so — I’ve had good luck with Tahari suits off the rack at Macy’s. Bottom line: If you’re working on a very limited budget, these suits are going to be a better use of your money, give you more wardrobe flexibility, and generally look better than the $100-and-under category.
- $200-$500. This is where your ability to watch sales is going to come into play, because it’s pretty common to see a $500 suit go on sale for under $250 if you know what you’re buying. This price range puts you into the better mall stores — Ann Taylor, J.Crew, Banana Republic — and you’ll start to see better fabrics here, such as natural fibers (look for wool you can wear year-round) as well as suiting separates. These suits are going to wear better, fit better, and be easier to wear as separates than any of the cheaper categories.
- $500-$1000. The fabrics just keep getting better as you get into the range of Theory, Elie Tahari, Nanette Lepore, Rebecca Taylor, Hugo Boss, and more. In addition to seeing some great basics (Theory suits are, of course, a perennial favorite), there are some more interesting, lovely suits (as we frequently discover in our Suit of the Week feature).
- $1K+. I’m sure there are differences in the fabrics and fit for this price range, but let’s just say it: if you buy a suit in this price range it’s pretty much a) to cross something off your Fashion Bucket List, or b) because you’re so rich the price just does not matter. (Neither of those are bad reasons!)
Ladies, what differences do you see in different price ranges for suits? How much does YOUR average suit cost (both in terms of sticker price and in terms of what you’ll actually pay, after any discounts)?