Tip of the day: how to find & buy great suits thrifted on eBay?

People ask me the question all the time: how do I buy such great suits on eBay, and in particular how do I make sure that they fit right, without being able to try them on before purchase?

Here are some precious words of advice from someone who has bought many truly amazing suits and SC’s on eBay (e.g. Kiton, Brioni, Oxxford, Luciano Barbera, Cesare Attolini, Canali, Belvest, Cifonelli, Huntsman, Caraceni, Chester Barrie Handmade, Caruso, Zegna, Hartwood, but to name a few), all paid usually only between 5%-10% of regular retail price.

First, I only target suits in pristine condition, and luckily there are lots on ebay, whether brand new with tags (BNWT), or without (BNWOT), or second-hand. If a suit has an unspecified defect, you can usually return it for a full refund, as I’ve done. Sometime you can even return a suit for a full refund if you just don’t like it, or it doesn’t fit right, as I’ve also done. Be sure to read the return policies, which are specific to each seller. Whatever the case, you can usually get the seller to go your way, as the seller rating system on eBay means that regular sellers are terrified at the idea of getting a bad rating from a disgruntled buyer.

As for prices, they vary alot on eBay, so you can really afford to wait for the right suit to be offered at an unbeatable price sooner or later. Use the alert system of the iPhone eBay app to screen for great deals by size and make, or by size and seller ID — you will discard 99% of the items that show up on your radar filter, but every now and then an amazing deal pops up. Then it’s pure bliss when you beat out the competition to snag an amazing deal, especially when you outbid them by just one euro. To do this succesfully, I recommend using an eBay sniper app like LastMinBid. If it’s a direct offer without auction, make an offer 30% below the asking price — most of the time the seller will agree to it, in my experience. Identyfying professional sellers who specialize in your areas of interest (such as Italian bespoke) is worthwhile as I’ve managed to do some great off-eBay deals by taking the conversation over to regular email, so I had first dibs on amazing suits that weren’t yet posted for all to see.

However, dealing with a professional seller or an individual makes no noticeable difference on prices. Sometimes the pros are too greedy on price, but sometimes they also move merchandise at unbeleivably low prices. On the other hand, individuals sometimes ask for too much or too little simply because they have misguided perceptions about the fair value of what they are selling. Follow all sellers, you never know where the good deal is going to pop up. (I can only conclude that, as a general rule, German sellers tend to offer lower prices for Kiton & Brioni, unexplainably, and US and UK sellers tend to offer lower prices for some exquisite European suits that just happen to have lower brand name recognition in their home markets, e.g. Cifonelli, Ravazzolo or Hartwood.)

For bespoke suits on ebay, it’s obviously going to be a suit that was created for someone else initially, and subsequently that person
either put it on consignment with an eBay specialist reseller, or put it onsale themselves on ebay. The whole trick is finding a suit made for someone of almost the exact
same proportions as yourself. Sellers on eBay will post detailed measurements for the main elements of sizing you need to check for: length down the center of the back taken from the bottom of the collar (BOC); shoulder width on the back accross the blades from seam to seam; sleeve length from shoulder seem to hem; waist circumference taken at button closure height (sometimes indicated as half the number); chest circumference taken under the armpits (also sometimes indicated as half the number); trouser waist; trouser rise (distance from seat of crotch to under the belt); trouser leg inseam length.

Take your absolute best fitting suit at home, and note of all of these measurements. Then, when you eventually find a suit that you may be interested in on eBay, first check all of your own measurements against the measurements of the suit. Most often, something doesn’t match up and you’ll discard the item from your ebay watch list. But every so often, you come accross an item where all of the measurements seem to line up. Even so, usually the measurements don’t match up perfectly, just close, so you need to know what can be modified by a good alterations tailor, and what cannot.

Here’s my watch list of possible alterations, the product of countless hours spent with alterations tailors:

1) trouser waist: easy to take in, but trickier to let out if there is
not enough fabric left inside, so you have to verify this point with
the seller;
2) shoulder width: impossisble to modify — don’t bother buying a suit with shoulders that are even slightly too wide, it costs a fortune to take in shoulders, and only a few tailors know how to do it right; and forget about widening shoulders, it’s imposisble; as Simon Crompton rightly points out, shoulder fit is the single most important criteria when buying a suit, as almost everything else is alterable;
3) chest: possible to take in, though tricky, and basically impossible to let out;
4) jacket length: can be shortened if the vents, button stance and pocket flaps are high enough; can be lengthened by 1,5 cm at the very most, if you are lucky to find enough fabric inside;
5) sleeve length can be shortened or lengthened, if there’s enough fabric left inside, but you also have to check whether the buttonholes are functional. Non-functional buttonholes allow you to displace the buttons up or down the sleeve, as needed, but funtional buttonholes will prevent you from shortening the sleeve length, other than by taking it in from the shoulder seem, which costs a fortune;
6) jacket waist: easy to take in, a bit trickier to let out because
it’s a gamble on how much fabric is left inside, nearly undetectable from the outside without opening up the jacket, so sellers often misjudge this;
7) trouser rise: cannot be modified beyond + or - 1 cm; for me, high rise usually means wearing the trousers with braces;
8) leg length and width: about the easiest thing to alter, unless there’s not enough fabric left inside, should you need to lengthen or enlarge;
9) fabrics: wool is quite easy to take in or let out but cotton, on the contrary, only goes one way — you can always diminish measurements with cotton, but you cannot extend as it leaves a permanent mark from where the old stitch used to be.

With ready-to-wear sold on eBay, it’s a bit easier to get it right, as you can always walk into a store that sells the exact same RTW suit, try it on, take note of the exact model and size referenced, and then buy the same suit on eBay for 5% of the price.. I’ve done this quite succesfully for my Zegna, Canali and Brioni ready to wear suits thrifted on eBay. I tried them on beforehand in stores, so I know my size to a tee for those 3 brands. When the eBay package arrives, the suit usually fits perfectly.

But it’s not enough to know your generic size, as every brand sizes differently, so you have to know your size in the specific brand : Zegna typically sizes one size smaller than others, and Brioni on the contrary sizes almost one size above others. You also have to know your ‘drop size’, which is the difference between the circumference of the chest and the waist of the jacket (drop 6, 7 or 8). You also need to know whether your are Long, Regular or Short. And you needto be familiar with EU & US sizing differences. As a rule of thumb, the US size is the EU size minus 10.

The other thing to be careful with on eBay is the issue of VAT payment when buying items outside of the European Union. With the recent boom of e-commerce, Customs are extremely effective now at blocking parcels until VAT is paid off. Customs will estimate the amount of VAT owed based on the declared value of the parcel, but most professional eBay sellers will refuse to declare a different value from what you paid, so you will end up getting slapped with a 20% fee at customs, on top of what you already paid. Unless you insist, as I always do, that the seller declare a bogus value on the package, something like $50, just so it’s not suspicious and doesn’t get opened up by Customs. Most often, even with a lowball value of $50, you still end up paying something like €35 in taxes, plus all of the hassle of having your package blocked by customs until you pay up. Individual sellers are usually more open to listing a bogus value on the package, so often their package gets through customs without taxation, because it’s seen as a person-to-person expedition, with no companies on either end of the transaction.