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Ask Suzy! Handbags in Florence, Shoes in Vietnam -- and Buying Bespoke Suits

The world shopping guru answers your questions!

Our Born to Shop author Suzy Gershman is answering your global shopping questions for the next several weeks. Send mail to Her new book, Where to Buy the Best of Everything: The Outspoken Guide for World Travelers and Online Shoppers, hits stores this week.

Dear Suzy,

Where in the world would I find the best fake handbags? I live in New York and have found some decent fakes, but I have no idea how they compare. I'm heading to Italy for the first time in August. I've heard that Florence has good fakes -- true? I am not looking for a particular bag, just something inexpensive that feels high quality. I would rather have something generic like a nice leather bag than something with lots of logos all over it. Any advice? -Rachel, New York City


First off, our legal team tells me I should mention we can't condone the purchase of fakes because it is an illegal activity. They go on to mention that FBI investigations have proven a direct link between knock-offs sold on the streets of New York, for example, and organized crime and terrorist organizations. What has the world come to?

In any case, I think you'll have good luck finding inexpensive bags in Italy -- though I hope you'll get out into the small towns and avoid touristy places where the shopping is sooooo expensive.

In Florence, don't forget to go to local markets (there's a great one on Tuesday mornings at the western edge of town called Cascine Market; ask at your hotel) and also outlet malls such as Barberino Designer Outlet, Via Meucci, Barberino di Mugello (tel. +39-055/842-161; Better still, generic bags that are well made are not hard to find -- try the famous Leather School, Piazza Santa Croce 16 (tel. +39-055/244-533;, inside the Santa Croce Church. As a matter of reporting, I will tell you that the blatant fakes are sold from blankets usually in high traffic tourist areas like the Ponte Vecchio -- there is no reason to buy a fake here anyway, so don't demean yourself.


The San Lorenzo market, Piazza del Mercato Centrale, is not a great place for bags, but you can look. Also check out the Straw Market, on Via por Santa Maria. Both of these markets are in the heart of Florence and are open daily except on Mondays. I'd try the back alleys that lead from the Straw Market toward the Leather School (look at a map). You'll find many mom and pop places here that are less touristy. Don't forget your tax back refund if you spend $175 -- though I once bargained $100 off a bag because I was willing to pay cash and waive the tax-refund paperwork, so go figure. Buon viaggio.

Dear Suzy:

Where do you find the most interesting shopping in Asia? And are there any good under-the-radar cities that don't have the throngs of tourists? Or should I stick with the big cities for shopping options? Most importantly, is there any sort of Asian mecca for inexpensive shoes? -Allison, Philadelphia


Allison, you have hit the right chord on my throbbing heart -- or is that foot? Sure, we all love Europe but with prices what they are, please look to Asia. Any and all of Asia is a good beginning, and I plan to write an entire book about the subject, so I can't begin to tell you everything you need to know in this little letter. But wait: You remember Vietnam? Not only are the shoes here western and chic and competitive with French/Italian products, they are made up to size 41 (about a US 10.5) and are not at all the touristy junk you may think of. My last score was a pair of raffia mules with colored flowers embroidered across the pointy toe and a few wooden beads thrown in for texture and extra pizzazz. Price: $36. I'd vote for Hanoi over Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but maybe that's just because I know it better.

And when you finish shoe shopping all of China and Thailand and Southeast Asia, remember to head to Brazil. They've got a lot of coffee, yeah, but a lot of cheapie shoes, too.

Dear Suzy:


I have your Born to Shop Hong Kong book, which I found helpful on a recent business trip. It's great that you list tailors for men -- though, unfortunately I didn't have a chance to visit them during my last visit. It's on my list for next time. Since you are writing an international guide, my question is: Are these generally the best tailors in the world or would you give the prize to another city or region? -Richard, Cincinnati

Tailors and bespoke suits are very tricky things, and getting a good suit takes education and effort because you can spend a lot of time and money on a dud. I've heard stories of inexpensive tailors in Bangkok and Vietnam, but the truth is that I haven't tested them properly and since these destinations do not have a history of tailoring or of decades of clients who demand suits (Shanghai did pre-Mao) you are always best with a Hong Kong tailor who escaped China in the mid 1940s. The best tailors left Shanghai to flee the Communists, set up in Hong Kong to serve the British expat businessmen (and therefore know the western body type), and then returned to China recently with new laws that appreciate their talents.

For the best suit in the world at the best price, I would actually send you to Shanghai to W.W.Chan, 129-A02 Maoming Nan Lu (tel. +86-21/5404-1469;, because the law in China sidesteps certain taxes. The same suit you'd get at Chan's Hong Kong shop is 20% less in Shanghai.


Also note that once you've been properly fitted in person in China (Hong Kong or Shanghai) you can order in the US when the firm makes one of their twice-a-year tours. You will pay $800 to $1,200 for a suit that if made in NYC or London would cost $4,000 or more.

And don't forget a few shirts to go with it.

Now that we're on the topic of suits -- Richard, thank you for the segue -- allow me to excerpt the following suit tips from my new world shopping book. The following is from the "Menswear" chapter and should clarify some terminology before you head to W.W.Chan:


Buying Bespoke

There are three kinds of suits most readily available to the man who wants a traditional business suit -- off the peg, bespoke and customized. Often, a firm does two -- maybe three -- of these formats.

Off the peg: Readymade suits sold by chest measurement and often available in one of three sleeve lengths, S for short and L for long. There is no delineation for normal, although it is spoken of as "regular." Alternations may be needed according to body type.

Customized: Your basic offÂ?the-peg suit which has been modified from one fitting. Sometimes "customized" is dressed up as "made-to-measure," which is wrong. It's not bespoke but parts of the garment are made to measure.


Bespoke: Suits made from scratch to customer's measurements and choices. Three fittings are usually required, sometimes more. The proper bespoke suit takes into consideration how a man moves so the suit moves with him and also takes body shape faults to task by masking them; the tailor spends 50 to 60 hours making a bespoke suit. A bespoke suit is a serious investment, in both time and money. When done properly, the suit will last for many years and you'll look like a million bucks.

Before you authorize the first cut, take the time to discuss all aspects of the process with your tailor:

  • Make sure you're really getting a custom-made suit; ask about a personal pattern. Bespoke clothing is created without a pre-existing pattern, as opposed to made-to-measure which alters a pattern to fit the customer. Some tailors will take your measurements, and then create a suit using a standard pattern which has been modified to fit your specifics. It will probably be a great suit, but it won't be bespoke.
  • Ask about the tailor's technique. Along with the cut, fabric and trimmings, you should be concerned with who's actually sewing the garment. Some make a firmer coat with more stitches per inch, creating a sharper image and less fullness; you may prefer easier stitching for a more relaxed look.
  • Find out which parts of the suit will be machine sewn (the outer seams on the jacket and pants) and which will be done by hand (the buttonholes). Confirm that your coat has a floating canvas (a lightweight fabric lining the front for body), and ask to see it at the fitting. If a fused canvas is used, your jacket will be glued together and won't last.
  • Request horn buttons, not plastic.

If you're not completely satisfied with the fit, speak up. A good tailor would rather remake the jacket than have an unsatisfied customer.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.