Stepping out in the €27.99 suit
Lidl is selling cut-price suits, but what’s it like to wear one for a day? And how does the retailer manage to sell them so cheaply?
SUITS, LIKE furniture, were once made for life, even if the fate of that life was to be spent on a hanger. My wardrobe collection includes a wedding suit (worn twice, at most), a confirmation suit and a communion suit (which, four decades on, I can’t bring myself to part with).
Since Monday, though, those venerable old models must share closet space with a pushy new arrival, a modest two-piece black number with no great pretensions and a single claim for your attention.
My “elegant suit for business and formal occasions in a classic cut”, as it was described on the packaging, cost all of €27.99.
I no longer recall how much my parents paid for my communion suit, but I know it involved hard-won staged payments over a period of months. There were repeated visits to a sombre tailor’s attic in the city centre and I doubt somehow it was paid off with the cost of a steak and chips.
My “double-buttoned jacket with two front-flap pockets, single back vent and button detail on sleeve”, in contrast, came in a box. I picked it up from Lidl on Dublin’s Thomas Street, by the wastepaper bins and cordless phones, and just over from the scallions and courgettes.
It’s a sign of how much retailing has changed that you can now buy a suit – not to mention the €6.99 shirt to go with it – in a German-owned discount food shop. And it’s a sign of how much has changed recently that instead of idle boasts about conspicuous consumption, you are more likely to hear people gleefully recounting the bargains they snapped up.
On the face of things my purchase was good value; but was it the bargain it seemed? Also, if clothes make the man, what sort of man do I become in a Lidl suit? What does quality count for in an era of disposability? And how do big retailers manage to sell such goods so cheaply?
I took my box back to the office and tried on the suit. Buying a suit in a box, not a good idea – the jacket draped idly over my shoulders, the flaps were creased and the waistband of my trousers was so wide I could have fitted in a few volumes of the Lisbon Treaty and still not taken up the slack.
Now this isn’t entirely Lidl’s fault; I belong to the gangly branch of the Cullens and oversizing is my way of ensuring the sleeve and leg lengths are optimal. Indeed, my sleeve length was fine and with the help of a belt my trousers offered to defy gravity. Lidl says their suits are “perfect for young men going for their first job or even a student dressing to impress” and I don’t fit either bill.
Still, I experienced a frisson pulling on the black jacket and striding out manfully among my colleagues. Perhaps I had started to feel like a million dollars in a €27.99 suit. Hamlet, and the sartorial advice handed out by Polonius to his son, came to mind: “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy/But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy/For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
Sadly, my frisson was just static electricity. Polyester is like that, as I should have remembered when I was sold a fake “pure silk” suit for half nothing while on a holiday once in Vietnam.
But at least my colleagues would be there to pep me up. Wrong again.
“It’s Lidl man,” said our agriculture correspondent, hitherto better known for his knowledge of wellies and overalls. “That sort of thing gives the recession a bad name.” Others were marginally more generous. It wasn’t bad, “considering”. Someone wanted to know was I “going for an interview”. It would be good for the winter “when it’s dark”. Another colleague – the mother of teenagers, practical as ever – suggested it would be “good for a debs – if you puked on it, you could just throw it away”.
Out on the streets, people didn’t know I was a man in a cheap suit, but I hardly fared better. My oversized jacket billowed about in the wind and a drunk took a dislike to the “effin’ suit” in his way. So now I was being defined by my suit.
I popped into Louis Copeland’s to get the view of the city’s best-known tailor. “Worth every penny of €27.99 – and nothing more,” he said, rubbing the fabric between thumb and forefinger. “It’d be great for a young lad looking for his first suit – unless he was going for a job.”
Louis had me try on the jacket of a Canali suit, which cost the equivalent of 38 Lidl suits but fitted beautifully. I was flattered to hear I have the same jacket size as Barack Obama, who wears this brand.
Expensive suits are made from fine wool, and much of the stitching is done by hand, Louis tells me. Wool keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer, while polyester – well, just think of sleeping on polyester sheets on a warm night.
This jacket has shape and solidity and feel about it, and the innards, as he shows me, include a breastpiece made from the hair of a female horse’s tail (not a male – think about it). I resolve to buy such a suit one day, but not just yet. . .
The day is wearing on and my suit is wearing me down. This modelling lark is all very well but I realise that, like many Irish men, I want to disappear into my clothes rather than be noticed for them. Just look around you on the street at all the blacks and greys and the uniforms of rich and poor and you’ll see what I mean.
Besides, I’m starting to feel guilty about my €27.99 suit. How can a garment like this be made and transported to Ireland and then sold for so little? Under what conditions is it produced, where and by whom?
There is no indication anywhere on the suit or the packaging about where the suit is manufactured. I contact the supermarket chain’s PR department who tell me they don’t have access to this because it’s “confidential buyer information”.
But a quick internet search brings up references to a report by ethical clothing campaigners in the UK about the onerous working conditions of garment workers in the developing world whose factories supply Lidl and other chains with cheap clothes. The company has rejected the allegations in the report but I still start to feel pangs of guilt.
But at least I’ve learned something. As Louis whispered: “If something looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.” The price of this suit is truly amazing but its value – to this buyer at least – is considerably less.