Without a doubt, the biggest mistake I made in preparing to live in the Middle East, more troublesome than neglecting to take recommended medications or forgetting necessary visa paperwork, was my failure to bring a suit with me. I remember thinking, “I’ll be in the desert! I won’t need a suit!” False. YOU ALWAYS NEED A SUIT. And thus, as circumstances arose for which I needed said suit, I set out towards the downtown area in search of one. While one may be tempted by the convenience of an Italian outlet store in some high-class mall, the street suit shopping experience yields much greater returns in suit quality, price, and cultural exposure.
The key is to get as far from the main street as possible; look for alleys. There will be no signs or shops, rather, you’ll find the best suit merchants set up in small concrete cubicles in the bowels of a given alley, hidden away from sunlight and customs officials, their wares suspended from cables running across their respective stalls. At the onset, one must take care not to appear at all interested in buying a suit. I personally prefer the “I’m lost” pretext, as in “I’m just looking for a place that sells Nutella, would you happen to kno — say, are you selling suits?”
Once you’ve determined that a vendor’s suits are of an acceptable quality, assert yourself as a suit aficionado. Comment on any hand-ticking, criticize the craftsmanship of the lapel cut or the quality of the buttons. Let the vendor know that you’re a “suit guy.” This will immediately establish a bond of respect that will play an integral role in the eventual purchase of the suit.
A word on selecting fabric: don’t be afraid to laugh and act incredulous at the selection of fabrics displayed. Demand to see the “real stuff.” If you’ve gone down the right alley and landed in the right shop, you’ll be led into a back room filled with bolt upon bolt of Egyptian cotton, tweed, linen, poplin, cashmere, whatever your heart desires. If the shop you go to has no back room, you’ve chosen poorly and should go home and learn more about suits.
Once you’ve selected your fabric and your measurements have been taken, a wait of 1-2 weeks is common. (Thus, attempting to purchase a suit on very short notice can be problematic.) If you’ve really established a rapport with the vendor, he may offer to “expedite” the creation of your suit. Respond graciously—this may mean he wants you to stick around and talk suits while your suit is made. Such an opportunity is not to be missed — important insights on future suit purchases, region-specific industry jargon as well as humorous local suit vendor anecdotes can be gleaned from such an encounter.
Such congeniality with the vendor also means that discussions of pricing are bound to be amicable. If you’re unable leverage the Great Bond of Suit Enthusiasts to your favor, your best shot is to wait until your suit is being tailored to start renegotiating the price. If (when) the vendor starts shouting in Arabic, it’s a good idea to start yelling at the same level in another language (except French, which is a show of weakness). Needless to say, such negotiating styles are unduly stressful; concentrate your efforts on forging a building a relationship over your love of suits.
Importantly, as valuable as the experience is, a “backup” suit should always be brought from home, as one never knows when one may need its elegance and versatility at a moment’s notice.