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Monday, November 17, 2008

Tailor-made for the recession

My feature on 28 euro Lidl suits from last Friday's Irish Examiner

Thrifty shoppers with champagne tastes but lemonade pockets have long availed of German supermarket Lidl for their Italian hams and French cheeses, but now the bulk-buying giant has hit on an idea that’s truly tailor-made for these credit-crunched times: discount men’s suits. 

For just e27.99, you can pick up a two-piece plain or pinstriped suit, ranging in sizes from 38-44 (and while you’re at it, you can throw in a shirt for e9.99 or a rain jacket for e12.99). With competitors like Pennys offering suits for e57, and Michael Guiney’s wares coming in at e70, it is believed that the Lidl suit is the cheapest two-piece ever sold in Irish shops.  

However, while the conspicuous consumption and labels-obsession of the Celtic Tiger era might be on the wane in our new hair-shirt financial environment, will the fashion-conscious Irish punter really go in for the idea? Picking up a few groceries in Lidl is one thing, but an actual suit that you would wear to work? I decided to put the Lidl suit to the test with the man on street and experts in the men’s fashion market.  

Sure enough, I found out pretty quickly just what Irish shoppers think of the concept, because when it came to actually getting a suit, I discovered that there wasn’t one to be had in Dublin city centre. The manager in the Moore Street outlet informed me that the first arrivals had all sold out within just two weeks (there were no shirts available either). I contacted the customer service hotline, and they were able to locate one last pinstriped suit in the store in Newbridge, Co Kildare.  

I’ll be the first to admit that I initially cocked my nose up at the idea of wearing a Lidl suit, but looks-wise at least, I thought the two-piece looked perfectly fine. I have worn size 38 in a suit jacket before, but this one seemed much larger than usual. For that reason, I was never going to look very fitted in it. I considered having some alterations made, but a quick call to my local seamstress confirmed that any work done would actually cost more than the suit itself, which probably defeats the purpose. 

The suit itself is made in the Czech Republic, and is 100% polyester, so it isn’t very nice to touch. Plus on this chilly winter morning, my legs could feel every cold breeze that blew by. I figured the key to pulling off the Lidl suit experiment was to match it with a smart blue shirt and pink tie, which I had picked up in Topman and Bertoni respectively, and which, incidentally, together cost over twice as much as the actual Lidl suit itself. When I saw the entire ensemble put together, I thought I looked quite dapper. But what would members of the public think? 

I got my first opinions on Moore Street, in the heart of Dublin’s north inner city, where I was scheduled to get my picture taken. A woman on one of the fruit stalls told me I looked “like I was going off to make my Confirmation in my father’s suit”, but while I was posing for a picture outside Lidl, I solicited the ultimate Dubliner compliment from a female passer-by: “You look only massive!” When I told her where the suit was from, she seemed genuinely shocked. 

From there, I hightailed it down to the IFSC area, where thousands of men in suits work and socialise every day of the week. The first person I run into is a friend of mine whom I had told about the suit the weekend before. “It’s not at all what I was expecting,” he exclaims. “It looks a bit big on you, but apart from that it looks pretty good.” 

I then approach a group of smartly-dressed men and women on their cigarette break outside a financial institution to canvass opinion. “It looks quality enough, but when you touch it you would know it’s cheap,” one man told me. Would he buy one himself. “Yes, I think I would,” he replies. Would he tell anyone where it’s from though. He laughs. “Probably not,” is the reply.

His female co-worker pipes in: “I’d rip the labels off it! But I think with a nice shirt and tie you can definitely pull it off.” 

“I’d wear it to work, but not to a wedding or anything like that,” one of the other guys states. “I’d definitely wear the jacket on its own with jeans on a night out.” When I tell them that the suits appear to be selling out in Lidl stores, none of them are surprised. “Everyone’s looking to cut corners any way they can,” one of the girls says. “If you have a sense of style at all, you should be able to make something of the cheapest clothes.” 

So far, the suit seems to have garnered popular support. Now it was time for the expert opinion, and who better to adjudicate than renowned tailor Louis Copeland, whose store was just named Best Menswear Boutique by RSVP magazine. Standing amidst designer suits by the likes of Brioni, Kiton and Canali (the suit brand of choice for one Barack Obama) that cost anything between e2,500 and e6,000, I begin to feel self-conscious for the first time.  

“My opinion is that the suit is worth the money that you pay for it,” Copeland says. “Obviously you don’t get fitted properly, and it wouldn’t have the interlining that a better suit would. 

“The cut of it isn’t that bad. It’s all polyester so I don’t know how long it would last, but for that price, you’d get a couple of good wears out of it and that would be it.” 

Copeland adds that the market for men’s suits is thriving despite, or perhaps even because of the recession. “I find that people are dressing up rather than dressing down these days,” he says. “In times like this people appreciate the concept of value for money more. If you buy a good suit, it’s an investment. It’s going to last. Plus once you wear a good suit, it’s hard to go back to anything else.” 

Professional stylist Suzie Coen is also surprised by the quality of the suit. “I was expecting you to turn up in this plain black, shiny thing,” she laughs. “It’s better than what some of the high street chains have to offer for a higher price.  

“Having said that, it being polyester means it would crease terribly, and you would look more rumpled than normal if you were wearing it all day. Plus I think you would sweat a lot in an office environment wearing it. I’d like to see it after you got caught in a rain shower or if it was dry-cleaned, because I don’t think it would withstand those conditions. 

“However, while that shape isn’t great on you, the cut of the lapel and the pinstripe makes it look more professional. It would be a good starter suit for someone who doesn’t wear suits normally, like a kid just out of college going for an interview or if someone had to go to a funeral.” 

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