The Market for Cheap Suits
by Gary North
I'm not cheap. I'm just careful with my money. That's why I wear careful people's suits.
Mark Skousen once dedicated a book to me: The New Scrooge Investing. Of all of his books, that's the one that best matched the dedication.
I have this special place where I buy my suits. It's in the garment district of Los Angeles. I don't get out to L.A. much anymore, especially downtown L.A. So, I don't buy many suits in a decade, but when I do, I buy them four or five at a time. The place is really careful!
I first started buying from the hole-in-the-wall store in the mid-1960's. My father had located it. He was in the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover was a stickler on clothing. A G-man had to wear a suit and a hat. The rule remained in place long after men's hats – except for Stetsons in Texas – had gone out of style. I mean, even Burt Blumert couldn't make a living selling hats by 1965. He had switched to selling coins. But FBI agents all wore them, which made them easy to spot if you were a Commie, a bank robber, or other suspicious type. When you saw some guy standing on a corner, hat in hand, trying to look inconspicuous, you knew where he worked. Anyway, I did.
J. Edgar finally relented on hats, but not suits.
The FBI didn't pay stock broker wages to its agents. So, they needed a place to buy inexpensive suits that were J. Edgar Hoover-conservative in styling. So did the plain clothesmen with the L.A.P.D. They bought them at one place: Al Weiss Men's Clothing.
My father tells a story of a petty crook who walked into the store, pulled out a gun, and demanded all the money in the till. He had three guns pointing at him within 30 seconds. The story is probably apocryphal. It was probably no more than two guns.
AROUND THE WORLD FOR $80
The first suit I ever bought there was in 1965, I think. I was in graduate school. To say I was low on funds doesn't do justice to the situation. So, I went in to shop around. I bought a nice gray suit. I think I paid about $55. I noticed the made in tag: Japan.
The next time I went in, I had a little more money. I bought a suit that had been made in Korea. That was probably 1970.
My next trip in was when I had left FEE in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and had returned to the L.A. area. I liked three-piece suits. (I still do.) I could buy them off the rack at that store. I paid under $100 for a wool suit. But by 1973, the suits were made in Chile.
It really was amazing. I had not changed shape, and neither had the suits. But the origin of the suits moved with the cost of labor.
In my last shopping spree, in 1994, I bought five suits. All of them were made in the Northern Marianas. I looked it up. It's about 2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C., population 75,000, and spread out over islands, including the world-famous Maug Islands, Agrihan, Anatahan, and the intriguingly named Pagan. Tinian is there, and Saipan. Believe it or not, it's part of the United States. "Westward the course of empire," etc.
I called recently to speak with one of the salesmen. I asked where the suits come from now. Half of his answer amazed me: Canada and Italy. The other half didn't: mainland China and Indonesia.
The suits always fitted me well. I paid very little for alterations – another advantage of buying from the store. It was as if they had the same guy modeling for the suits in my size. He kept moving: Japan, Korea, Chile.
This was another example of the international division of labor. The retail market determined the size and shape of the suits. The producers conformed themselves to the market.
The last time I went in, I paid $170. But the three-piece suits were gone. I had to buy two-piece suits. This is agony. I put them in my closet. I just recently had one tailored for me, when my daughter got married.
I bought them in 1994, two days before the Los Angeles earthquake. But they are still in style. There is a reason for this. Fashions in men's suits don't change because old men don't change their idea of what looks good, and young men don't wear suits except to impress a jury.
SUIT? WHAT'S A SUIT?
I wear a suit to church. I bought most of mine in 1980. Fortunately, my weight is what it was in 1980. Also 1970. My main motive for losing weight is not to look better. I gave that up years ago (1957, as I recall). But I am not going to pay to have a closet full of perfectly good suits altered.
I attend a conservative Presbyterian church. Dress in a church matches its liturgy, or so it used to be. Presbyterians are kind of mid-church liturgy, with Catholics as high church people and Pentecostals as low church.
These days, it's hard to tell where you are, ecclesiastically, based on dress styles. A friend of mine and I were in California in the late 1980's, and we visited a famous church, one of the up-and-coming megachurches. As we walked toward the building down a concrete pathway across an enormous lawn, I noticed people stretched out in chaise longues. They were dressed in Bermuda shorts.
There were loudspeakers outside, so that they could join in the festivities. I guess this was the congregation's application of the New Testament Greek word for church, ecclesia, which means "called out."
Inside, my friend and I – on a business trip – were the only men dressed in suits except for the door greeters, the ushers, and the ministers on stage. I thought of Dylan's lyrics, " 'Cause something is happening, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" Or maybe it was Al Jolson's: "California, here I come."
California came east. In my church, there are no greeters. There are no ushers. The pastor wears a suit. I wear a suit. One guy who is my age occasionally wears a suit. That's about it. From age 12 to age 85, there are at most three suits in a church of 60+ men. The Levi-Strauss company does better in churches today than Brooks Brothers. Even if you count only the women.
As for three-piece suits, you don't see them too often these days, do you? At open-casket funerals, maybe.
The times, they are a-changin'.
The market for suits still exists. You can still drive downtown in Los Angeles and buy off-the-rack imported suits at discount prices. But you have to know where to look. The FBI moved to West L.A. a long time ago. They got pay raises. I wonder what the future of that store is. Probably pretty good. It stays in the family. But it's not the wave of the future.
Nevertheless, until Congress stops bringing in corporate executives to testify on their accounting practices, the market for conservative business suits will survive. It's not into a head-and-stuffed-shoulders pattern yet.
The free market works as described by Adam Smith. All over the world, people who don't know a single American work to make conservative suits for men of my generation. But there a lot more of them who are stitching blue jeans.
[I'll send you the name and address of the store as a bonus for subscribing to my free e-mail newsletter. Click this link and then click send. You'll receive the information within ten seconds. Then you can forward it to your father. He will be appreciative.]
July 10, 2002
Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North's twice-weekly economics newsletter, click here.