Up until about a decade ago, bespoke suits were in the same category as hats, monocles, and people who use the word “haberdashery.” It is not that it was extinct. It was just not encountered often enough and, when stumbled upon, it elicited no small measure of surprise.
Some might argue that this infrequency was deliberate, perpetuated by bespoke tailors themselves. Traditionally, the culture around bespoke is discreet. Tailors were ensconced in the exclusivity of places like Savile Row. Very few advertised. The most reputable tailoring houses often refused to divulge the names of their current clients.
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The 90s was a turning point in bespoke clothing. Big retail companies began offering made-to-measure suits in their boutiques. Led by brands like Ermenegildo Zegna, bespoke services became more accessible. When the R&B singer Estelle released her single “American Boy” in 2008, guest vocalist Kanye West rapped, “Am I shallow ‘cause all my clothes designer/Dressed smart like a London bloke/Before he speak his suit bespoke.” It hurtled bespoke clothing into pop culture, giving it a new dimension.
Tailoring houses saw sales increase from year to year, propelled by demand and availability, and their popularity coinciding with the growing trend of autonomy when it comes to fashion. However, the reignited interest courted controversy. A few years ago, Burberry launched Burberry Bespoke. It gave clients the ability to choose the collar, cuffs, lining, and other details of their coats. It was well received, encouraging Burberry to expand the service to 70 locations. However, critics pointed out that piecemeal alterations did not adhere to the strict definition of bespoke.
The meaning of bespoke
Context is needed to understand how clothing is made from scratch. There are generally three types of clothing. The first is ready-to-wear, where an individual can come in and pluck an item off the shelf and wear it as is. These clothes are mass produced and people buy them anonymously. The second is made to measure. A person chooses from among a selection of styles, materials, and other details to create a finished product.
It bridges ready-to-wear with bespoke by offering clients the ability to customize certain sartorial details. So, when you can decide the outcome for yourself, is this not considered a bespoke experience? Not according to the true definition of bespoke. The real thing goes beyond personalizing an item through a smattering of choices. Bespoke is about creating something that does not yet exist. It means adhering to the painstaking process of measurement, pattern-creation, and an iteration of fittings. There are no exceptions; the client must be measured to get the specific characteristics and nuances of the body before the suit can be produced. From the measurements, a pattern is created. On this pattern, the tailor marks the precise areas for buttonholes and cuffs. These patterns cannot be used on another person because they go beyond simply measuring a body type; patterns make the DNA of the bespoke world, as unique to an individual as the millimeter difference in a shirt cuff when one’s arm is slightly shorter than the other.
The fastidiousness goes even deeper. The tension of each stitch is adjusted according to the movement of the body. The parts of the suit that receive the most stress are stitched more loosely so the wearer can move better and reposition himself more comfortably. It may take several fittings before the suit is finalized. In these fittings, the tailor and client work together to perfect the fit and feel of the suit.
If the definition of bespoke belabors the process of tailoring, it’s the only fitting measure of luxury menswear. Price is not the issue because some made-to-measure or ready-to-wear suits can cost just as much as bespoke. (An expensive suit does not necessarily translate to lasting style.)
The laborious process is also part of the allure of bespoke. Says Tony Chang, managing director of Ascot Chang, “I always say that to get something custom-made, there is a hurdle that you have to get over before you can order things. Custom made is not as easy as ready-to-wear.”
A relationship must also exist between tailor and client for the best results. A skilled tailor will not just take into account measurements and fabric, but also the customer’s lifestyle and personality.
Even the client’s posture is considered, because it affects how the fabric falls on the body. Then there’s trust that bonds the two. There was no need for bespoke houses to advertise because a well-dressed gentleman was the living testimonial to a tailor’s skills. By the same token, clients could reveal to their tailors the flaws they wanted to hide and know that their secrets would be safe within their records.
Along with trust, a bespoke tailor needs to have the physical goods to fulfill sartorial visions. Reputable tailors have a library of materials at their disposal. Henry Poole & Co., for instance, has a selection of more than 6,000 fabrics.
Experience is also a key factor in choosing the right suit-maker. It is no coincidence that the most sought-after tailors come from houses with decades, if not centuries, of history. Training to become a bespoke tailor has its own life cycle. It involves years of education, apprenticeship, and developing technique.
Each tailoring house has its own signature style as well. Kiton specializes in jackets with rounded shoulders that feature some rippling. Caruso suits feature high armholes. These distinctions aid the potential client in deciding which tailor is suitable.
Practical considerations help avoid over-romanticizing the selection of a tailor. But, bespoke is as much an art as it is a science. In some cases, things just click. There is room for simply being mesmerized by the skill of a tailor and getting a suit that you love.
A step-by-step guide to getting a custom-made suit
The joy (and fear) of getting something made to order comes from the promise that what you get is exactly what you asked for
Find the right tailor
Perhaps the most crucial decision in getting a suit made is where to have it done. Word-of-mouth testimonials and recommendations by trusted friends or family are often good leads to finding the right tailor, but do not follow blindly. Observe the workshop when making inquiries. If the items on display are up to your standards, then forge on. If not, keep looking.
Select the fabric
The fabric is the foundation of the suit. Consider the weather, the occasion, and your body type when choosing the material. You may also consult the tailoring house’s on-call expert to determine the material that will work best for the kind of suit you have in mind.
Wool is a classic choice. Linen is also popular, especially in warm weather. Some prefer luxurious fabrics like the vicuña, shorn from relatives of llamas that live in South America. The material you choose impacts the cost of the suit.
You should also look out for the grade of the material. Higher grades mean that the threads of the fabric have been twisted more and, thus, are finer and more durable. Ready-to-wear clothing has a grade of 80. For a suit, opt for a higher grade like Super 120 and Super 150.
Decide on the style
Do you want a classic three- or two-button suit? Or are you partial to the trendier one-button? What about vents? Do you want them on the center or at the sides? And lapels: notched or peaked?
For trousers, styles include pleated or flat-front, cuffed or not. The lining, though unseen for the most part, may be in contrasting colors and patterns.
Finally, but most importantly, you need to consider your body type. Men with bigger frames benefit from side vents because they allow more freedom of movement. Short men appear taller in trousers without cuffs because the line of the body is not interrupted.
Get your measurements taken
The more meticulous tailors go beyond standard measurements (waist, chest, and sleeve), adding the width of the leg and the wrist. Anderson & Sheppard, for example, takes as many as 27 measurements.
Preferences come into play, too. For instance, the length of the jacket depends on what the client wants and feels most comfortable in. The tailor takes personal options into account when making the final note.
Speak up during fittings
Most tailors will ask the client to come for at least three fittings. Use these occasions to communicate your concerns. Be specific when there are any issues when it comes to the look or feel of the suit, be specific when conveying issues that have to do with the look and feel of the suit them to the tailor so adjustments can be made to your liking.
During a fitting, test drive the suit. Walk around, sit, button up the jacket. Pay attention to the shoulders. The seam of the shoulder and the sleeve should extend slightly beyond the shoulder bone.
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 12 No 4 2013.