A man’s first tailor-made suit is often a revelation – but the process is littered with a number of decision making. Treat it as you would buying a house or car, an large investment that considers lengthy thought and a solid choice.
Bespoke Suit Tailoring
Bespoke has come to a fashionable, if slightly ill-defined, usage in modern times. While the word implies little more than ‘custom-made’, it has become entangled with themes of cost, superiority and exclusivity.
Luckily for advertisers, bespoke is still somewhat of a transient term, leading to a wealth of questionable claims: a large furniture chain will provide furniture straight from its overseas manufacturer, restaurants can offer a list of drinks tailored to diners taste, supermarkets entice with lurid descriptions of ready-meals seemingly made specifically for your own taste, all labelled as bespoke and all within a certain degree of ambivalent correctness.
To be truly bespoke (or ‘bespoken’ in the English manner) meant in older times to have laid claim to a material and then directed the manner in which it was to be produced to an object of an individual’s taste and requirements. Within this more narrow description, it is hard to see a drink or meal as truly bespoke, unless an unusually accommodating restaurant allows a customer to peruse the kitchen and indicate the method of chopping he prefers.
Happily, within the realm of tailoring at least, the word retains its previously held meaning.
A bespoke tailoring is a process that will involve a choice of materials, styles, cut and fashion before being individually crafted and adjusted to a man’s taste.
This method is firmly rooted in historical production styles. For hundreds of years, an army of tailors would inhabit every major city, finished cloth of all descriptions at hand to produce new and exciting styles fresh from fashionable quarters for gentlemen of all descriptions. With the post-industrial move towards global economies of scale, local tailoring shrank to a hardened minority relaying on their super-rich clientèle, producing garments of superior quality that outshone factory-made items in both construction and price.
Recently however, something of a change has occurred. More and more average men, although deprived of Lordships and land, are reaching for bespoke suits. The bespoke option is the final word in suit quality, but visiting a tailor for the first time involves a man to be fairly well versed in the trends and options available. Research is key when considering any financial investment, as a well-made bespoke suit should see last for 5-10 years of wear.
Bespoke Suit Materials
The initial, and perhaps most important element of a suit to consider, is its material. Tailors should offer a range of fabric swatches for interested men, which will change seasonally based on production and fashion. These samples are an indicator of quality when selecting a tailor, as the fairly limited number of quality mills left will only supply those shops with a proven track record of success.
Some of the most popular and sought after mills are Zegna, Ariston, Dormeuil and Holland and Sherry. These prestigious cloth mills’ appearance in sample selections are useful to gauge the ability of a tailor, although with the increase in popularity in bespoke suits, more varied examples are beginning to appear. When considering an investment that may cost several thousand pounds, a small amount of research is necessary.
The exact nature of the cloth will be determined by its material, composition and thread count. Thread count is a measure of the interweaving threads used to create fabric, referred to as the ‘super’ number for suits. Generally, the higher the count the better, although serious consideration is needed. At the most expensive end of the scale, a super 450 fabric will make an incredibly comfortable and luxurious suit. However, with increasing super scales comes weakness. A super 450 suit will not last much longer than a year, and is generally considered too extravagant for most wear. The most popular super level for suits is in the low hundreds, around 110-130 being perfect. This level will produce a durable suit which maintains comfort and feel and is a perfect entrance point for a first bespoke suit.
Any cloth with a synthetic blend is unacceptable for an impressive creation. The choice of materials for a suit should always focus on natural materials. Wool is the most popular choice, offering an unbeatable combination of longevity, comfort and crease-resistance. The ability of the fabric to absorb moisture means that woollen suits can be a year-round wardrobe stable. Popular variants include worsted, angora and merino.
Flannel has somewhat fallen out of fashion, having a heavy and uncomfortable feel and a tendency to fall apart after prolonged use. For colder climates and winter use, however, flannel still has a place.
Cotton is an interesting choice: lightweight, absorbent and machine-washable, cotton-based suits have become America’s most popular suit choice. As the fabric absorbs sweat and is one of the easiest fabrics to clean, suits made of cotton are a decent choice for an everyday or summer creation, although their tendency to crease and comparatively little warmth mean they are perhaps more suited to LA than NW1. Similarly, linen is fine for summer and holiday but has the same concerns with creasing.
Bespoke Suit Cut
Tailors generally follow three basic archetypes of suits based on geographical styles. Variations adapt with fashion, but be wary of these changes when investing in a high-end bespoke item. Unless you have a complete wardrobe and are looking for a show-piece rather than a stable, choosing a basic template is usually the best option.
The American style of suit, also known as the Ivy League, arose during the 19th century state-side and gained popularity with the financial elite of the 1920s. While the iconic version is most notable for its bagginess, the more modern version has moved towards a slimmer cut while maintaining the straight lines and single vent. American style profiles are now more enhanced with light shoulder padding and non-pleated trousers, adhering to the general move towards body-form cuts. This version of the suit is designed around long-term use and the need to maintain a full range of bodily movement, but is perhaps the least common version outside of the USA.
Italian style suits are characterised by a very slim cut in both jacket and trousers, adhering to the body as much as possible. Currently the most popular choice for the fashion conscious man, an Italian style suit works best for those tall and slim as the silhouette can be unforgiving. Jackets are shorter overall and traditionally without vents (but two are becoming common) with a deep V shape in the front and high buttons. Materials are generally lighter in weight and padding, with regional differences accounting for temperature. The Italian style dominates today, especially in younger and trendier men, and when handled with care by an experienced tailor, a bespoke creation can enhance a man’s overall appearance tremendously.
Finally, the British style of suit sits somewhere between the two: cut to fit the body, shoulders are accented with a high armhole. Heavier cloth is traditionally used alongside thick shoulder pads, giving the suit a defined frame perfect for the average man. Trousers are given a generous cut with two or more pleats, coats have two or more side vents and the overall silhouette is well-defined without being overly figure hugging. British style suits are viewed today as a traditional option, with a continuing popularity in senior business circles.
These general styles give a starting point when considering a bespoke suit but personal preference will dictate smaller details. Slim body cuts are predominate in most suits today, and while some men enjoy the tight feeling, others may opt for more room via additional vents or a wider jacket. Tailors will fall into one of the styles based on their location: Savile Row suit makers are the accepted home of British tailoring but are sensible to trends, while Italian tailors in fashionable New York locations will tend towards a slimmer house cut. Again, function will influence a man’s choice when deciding on a bespoke suit. Good tailors will have pre-made options that you can trial to give an impression of their usual operating methods.
Bespoke Tailoring Cost
The main difference, beyond quality, between off-the-peg and bespoke suit options will naturally be the price. A bespoke suit’s price will encompass many separate elements: the basic materials used, labour costs of one or more experienced tailors and any and all overheads. A fully bespoke suit hand-made in England will range from £750 to £3,000, needing around 50 man hours to produce. The whole process is usually completed, from initial consultations to final touches, in around 6-8 weeks. However, other options are available.
A recent trend to emerge is the suit tourist. Despite the costs inherent in travel, many have found that a short visit to one of East Asia’s many tailoring hotspots can offer serious savings. A bespoke suit can be made in Hong Kong or Thailand for £200 or less due to local differences in the cost of wages and materials. A one week-long trip can fill a wardrobe for the price of a single English suit, with the additional bonus of a holiday thrown in. With these tailoring holidays becoming more and more common for American businessmen, quality tailors are popping up to fill the need.
Bespoke Suit Tailor
Perhaps the most important detail you can share with your tailor is trust: a bespoke suit is an investment that can’t be simply tried and returned. Ask about how the suit will be made, future alterations policy, satisfaction policies and pay attention to the exact responses. A shop that claims a suit will be fully stitched by hand can be a warning sign, as while detailed work on lapel holes and sleeves requires intricate thread and needle work, straight lines do not. Canvassing should be discussed and agreed on by both parties. A canvas is an internal layer within the jacket that can be fused, partially, or fully canvassed. Each of these options has a separate cost and impact to the final product, so make sure an agreement is made.
Tailors are professionals who ensure men look their best for a living, so make sure you find a shop that has a decent reputation and that you are happy with, and then allow them to make suggestions based on your initial concept. Choose something simple that will outlast current trends for your first bespoke item. Once an idea has been formed at your initial consultation, lasting around half an hour, repeat visits will be necessary for alterations, so choose a tailor in the knowledge that a solid relationship will mean a trouble-free process.
One important element to consider when choosing a bespoke option is your own body. While anything other than a super-trim Italian suit will allow for some minor variation in weight, large transformations will impact the overall impression given by a suit. Get to a weight you are comfortable and confident in being able to maintain before ordering a bespoke item, and consider your tailors policy on alterations. They should all maintain a file on your measurements and any previous changes, but individual shops may present additional charges for changes. Be aware that while trousers can be easily adapted, jackets present a separate challenge.
Bespoke creations are a daunting concept. The room for error, due to the up-front costs and limited recourse for an unsatisfied creation, are real but the end-result will more than repay any doubts. For a first suit, keep it simple, do the research, ask questions and make sure you are happy with your choice. A tailor made slim-cut grey or navy blue suit will become the most versatile item in your wardrobe and give an indication of where to go next for your bespoke items.