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The S-numbers Game - Makers Tout The Super Of Their Suit - We Put 10 To Test!

November 25th, 2006

The men’s floor at any upscale retailer has suits in a wide range of prices colors and cuts. But many have one thing in common: The now-ubiquitous labels that promote the quality of the fabric with number like “Super 110s” and “Super 150s.
Just as cotton bed sheets trumpet thread octane, suit makers are using these number to tout their wool. Higher numbers translate to narrower fibers, which makers say are softer to the touch. It’s one of several tactics the suit industry is using to combat slowing sales. On the high end, makers are pushing suits in the Super 220s range for thousands of dollars. Discounters are also adopting the system, hoping to convince shoppers that a superior suit can be had at lower prices.
Industry groups are now calling these numbers into question, prompted in part by makers of superfine wool fabrics concerned about lower-priced suits being la-bled with high Super numbers. But the issue isn’t limited to inexpensive suits.
In a test of 10 suits by the Wall Street Journal, ranging in price from $290 to $1,995, four came back with a Super grade below what was advertised. We also tested for durability and wrinkle-resistance, and found that some suits with higher Super numbers didn’t deliver superior performance on those measures.

The in store wrinkle test
Though there’s no way for shoppers to verify a suit’s Super number without access to a textile laboratory, there are a few simple tests shopper can perform themselves in stores to gauge the quality of a suit. One trick to figure out how easily a suit will wrinkle - clench a sleeve in your fist for a few minutes, them let it go a good-quality fabric should re-bound quickly. Rayon linings known as Bamberg are generally more durable than silk or other materials, while twills, like herringbone, tend to be stronger materials than plain weaves.
The boom in S-numbers is part of a broader by suit makers to set their garments apart from the competition. Sales have cooled from the torrid pace of a couple of years ago, when the casual style of the dot-com era went out of vogue and men started dressing up again. Through September this year, Sales in the U.S. are down 10% from the same period a year earlier, according to market researcher NPD Group.

Selling with S-numbers
Makers say S-numbers are proving be effective sales tools. Many men have a hard
time deciding what to buy. The numbers add a quantitative dimension that makes decision-making less intimidating. There are also bragging rights. S-numbers give men “something to discuss at a cocktail party,” says Roger Cohen, president of the U.S. division of suit maker Cornelian.
That was the attraction for Craig Weiss, a 51-year-old psychologist in Pennsylvania, who bought $3,000 navy blue Brioni suit years ago. He says he thought a higher S-number was “a thing to aspire to.” But Mr. Weiss says the suit let him down, wrinkling more than his less-expensive suits did. It also felt so light and delicate that he worried about it ripping. “It took all the fun out of wearing it,” he says, adding that he now wears the suit only for special occasions and buys lower S-numbered suits for everyday use. Brioni says it has not heard any complaints about its Super 150s.
Part of what makes the S-number system confusing is that higher quality wool doesn’t also mean more durable wool. The number relates only to the diameter of the fiber, measured in microns. Thinner fibers are usually more fragile. These suits tend to bunch up when tailored and can wear out after a few dry cleanings. “A very high S-system number doesn’t guarantee the best garments,” says Andy Gilchrist, author of “The Encyclopedia of Men’s Clothes.” Such wools wrinkle almost as much as linen. They are delicate and not as durable as less-fine wool.

The fineness of the fabric is only one measure of a suit’s quality. Strength is also a factor, and it also depends on the length of the yarn and whether it’s reinforced with another strand to make it two ply. In some cloth, only yarn that runs vertically is reinforced, while in others, reinforced yarns run horizontally as well. The latter, called “two by two,” tends to be stronger and better at recovering form wrinkles.
Suit makers acknowledge that fabrics with high S-numbers are delicate and lightweight. But are delicate and lightweight. But some say that a suit made of high quality Sipper 150s or above could be worn to the office once a week and week and would last four or five years, if it’s rarely dry cleaned. That’s roughly half as long as a good-quality Super 120s suit under the same conditions. Several salespeople at stores from York advised us not to buy suits with high S-numbers for anything but special occasions.
To determine the accuracy of advertised S-numbers, we purchased 10 suits at retail outlets and sent them to Vartest Laboratories, a New York firm that tests fibers and fabrics for lab measured the diameter. The lab measured the diameters wool fiber in microns. In addition, we tested two other factors: durability and how susceptible the material is to wrinkling.
Six of the suits we tested passed with flying colors, with results that matched or exceeded their promised s-numbers, including two of our least expensive choices and Arnold Brant and Jos. A. Bank, both Super 110s that cost less than $300. A pricier Hickey Freeman Super 120s was found to have Super 130s fibers. Hickey Freeman declined to comment.


Warp and weft
Our overall winner in the other two categories strength and wrinkle-resistance was the @300 Arnold Brant suit. Its warp, or vertical yarns, withstood nearly 37 kilograms of pressure before ripping that’s about 18 kilograms more than the industry’s minimum standard. We also tested the weft of all our suits, or horizontal yarns, since some fabric makers reinforce only the warp.
The first Super 100s wool was developed in the 1960s, by an English fabric mill. The first merchants to see it were so astounded that, in fit of exuberance, they dubbed it super 100s, according to the book “The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style,” written by Michael Anton under the pen name Nicholas Antongiavanni. By the mid-1990s, high-end clothiers, custom-suit makers and Italian mills began using Super numbers more often to market directly to consumers. Soon, the numbers began appearing on labels inside suits or on the sleeves. Says Arnold Brant, President of the clothing company that bears his name: “if it’s a navy suit and it says Super 120s, it tells the customer this is a wool that’s a better grade. This is not a typical navy suit.”



Some suit makers think S-numbers have been overdone. Oxxford Clothes, whose handmade suits are sold for thousands of dollars, plans to stop labeling everything below Super 150s, starting very inexpensive suits advertised as Super 120s and that muddies the water, chief executive
Others, like Ermenegildo Zegna, an Italian firm that makes fabric as well as suits, don’t tout the S-number on their labels either. Djordje Stefabovic, executive director of communications for Zegna, says the company relies on its reputation for making fine fabrics: “As yarn suit producers, we didn’t want to pay that number game.


By Ray A. Smith from the Wall Street Journal