Everything you need to know about the sartorial gold standard.
Bespoke, like luxury, is a word that is often abused, misused to give something that is neither ‘bespoke’ nor ‘luxury’ a gloss of sophistication or justify a high price tag. The truth is that bespoke – exclusively something made just for you – is arguably the greatest luxury. And perhaps no more so than when it comes to a suit.
While a bespoke kitchen unit or even a fragrance is nice, a bespoke suit is a second skin, a garment that best reflects who you are because it was made just to fit you, in taste as much as in proportions.
Yes, it costs (a lot in most cases), but done right it’s an investment that will last a lifetime and mean you’ll rarely have to buy off-the-peg again. To that end, here is the complete guide to buying a bespoke suit.
The History Of Bespoke Suits
Up until less than a century ago, all men wore bespoke. Clothes were hand-made for the individual who could afford it, and those who couldn’t wore bespoke cast-offs.
It was in the late 1500s that Robert Baker set up the first tailoring business in London’s Piccadilly area – named after the ‘pickadill’, an Elizabethan term for a shirt collar – becoming suit-maker to the court of King James I in the process. As was commonplace then, like craftspeople flocked together – and soon the area, from Jermyn Street to Savile Row, became the epicentre of England’s menswear trade.
An old workshop at Henry Poole & Co, 1944
Tailoring may never have been quintessentially English – ‘tailor’ probably derives from ‘tailler’, the Medieval French for ‘to cut’ – but Savile Row, and its environs, came to be associated with the world’s best, winning a global influence such that the Japanese word for a suit, ‘sabburu’, is a corruption of the famed street’s name.
It was only in the 1950s, when manufacturing technology allowed the production of more affordable ready-to-wear clothes, that the tables were turned. Bespoke became the exception rather than the norm: for this we can thank off-the-peg pioneer Montague Burton, founder of the eponymous high-street chain and provider of many a World War Two soldier’s ‘de-mob’ attire.
With the arrival of off-the-peg clothing – getting ever more sophisticated by the season, free to follow this crazy phenomenon called fashion – Savile Row became more of an establishment calling card, where the great and good, but not necessarily the most stylish, acquired their clothing. It would take the periodic pioneer – a Tommy Nutter, a Hardy Amies, a Douglas Hayward – to shake things up and remind the wider trade that a bespoke suit wasn’t just for lawyers, bankers and business-types.
While much of ‘the Row’, as its inhabitants refer to it, still caters to those who have to wear suits, in the last two decades it has learnt to also cater to those who may just want to. There’s always been the substance. Now there’s more style.
Anthony Sinclair fits Sean Connery for a bespoke suit he will wear in From Russia With Love, 1963
Bespoke vs Made-To-Measure
Ask most men the difference between a ‘made-to-measure’ and ‘bespoke’ suit and the odds are that they’ll be unable to distinguish between the two. It doesn’t help that on occasion the terms are muddled deliberately to dress up a product. A lack of industry regulations regarding definitions has left a grey area that the Advertising Standards Association has addressed, somewhat inclusively. “Customers would expect a bespoke suit to be tailored to their measurements and specifications [but] would not expect that suit to be fully hand-made with the pattern cut from scratch,” it stated.
Adding to the confusion: fittings are increasingly required for both bespoke and made-to-measure. A bespoke service may require an individually-cut pattern, which is then kept on file should further suits be required. But often made-to-measure measurements are now stored, too. And cloths are chosen for bespoke and made-to-measure garments alike, with only the breadth of choice differing. Even hand-making, often cited as a benchmark of bespoke, is now increasingly found in made-to-measure garments, while machine-making plays some part in the creation of most bespoke suits, especially in the creation of trousers.
Savile Row workshop | R: Gregory Peck outside Huntsman Savile Row, 1953
These days, the simplest distinction lies in the degree of personal service you receive. If you get to select any cloth, must decide on smaller details such as buttons, and if the suit requires a hand-cut, one-off pattern ‘bespoken’ specifically for your body before being made under the supervision of a master cutter – then you are paying for bespoke.
If you get to choose from a limited selection of cloths, and your suit takes an existing pattern (or ‘block’) but adjustments are added in to better fit you – then you’re paying for made-to-measure.
Then there’s ‘made-to-order’ or ‘personal tailoring’, which are lesser than made-to-measure and ever closer to off-the-peg. It’s little wonder that some are calling for the use of new terminology altogether, to make the distinction crystal clear. “The fact is that the terminology of tailoring can be used as a marketing gimmick, depending on who’s using it,” explains tailor Tony Lutwyche, of Lutwyche. “The bottom line is that you want a suit that fits you well.”
Why Buy Bespoke?
“Ultimately there are only two reasons to buy bespoke: for the fit and for the quality,” says Savile Row tailor Steven Hitchcock. “If they’re not things that interest you, or you want something instantaneously, bespoke isn’t for you. But if they are, you won’t be disappointed. You can just tell a bespoke suit, even if, on the surface, it’s just a plain blue suit. That’s because it’s been made for you and not for 50,000 people kind of like you.”
While many men can look passable in an off-the-peg suit, there’s no such thing as a standardised, symmetrical body. Bespoke aims to even out all personal quirks of stature and posture to improve your overall appearance. “Even with the most standard of bodies, there is something bespoke can improve on,” Hitchcock adds.
Bespoke also offers longevity. There’s a hefty outlay for sure, but also value for money in the long run. “Everything about the way a bespoke suit is made leans towards the idea that it will be worn for a long time,” says David Taub, head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes.
Indeed, a bespoke suit requires the skills of several experts – a cutter, tailor, trouser maker, finisher, presser and so on – which goes some way to explaining both the cost of bespoke and its longevity.
Much of the detail that makes the expense worthwhile will be hidden under the bonnet. The canvas inter-lining, which gives the bespoke suit its form, will be free-floating rather than fused into the garment to better mould to your body shape with wear. And there will also be some excess fabric, so the suit can be altered as your body fills out over the years.
Perhaps just as important to the appeal of bespoke is the simple pleasure of having bought into the wider experience. To have a bespoke suit made is also to take part in history and to be part of a culture. Admittedly, says Hitchcock, “some men buy a Savile Row suit out of snobbishness”, but those who invest in the experience are, says Taub, “taking part in something that is greater than just the suit”.
The Bespoke Suit Process
“The most important part of the process is what we start with: a chat,” says Ben Clarke, head cutter at Richard James. “Bespoke is a collaborative process, it doesn’t work if either side throws its weight around. Besides, many people still find the idea of having something made intimidating. But it shouldn’t be. It should be relaxed.”
Those new to bespoke may find the quiet examination of their posture, walk, sitting position and anatomy somewhat disconcerting, but it’s necessary for the tailor to make the best suit for you. Matters of taste, however, are largely the individual’s call – though Clarke advises first-time customers aim towards the classic, not least because it makes getting the perfect fit easier.
The process requires you to decide on every aspect of the suit, from cut to fabric, pocket type to position. But you’ll be wisely advised, both because each tailor has a house style – not imposed but favoured – and because that’s what tailors do: make an assessment of your lifestyle and needs and help you eliminate options and ideas and pinpoint what’s best.
In order to achieve the glove-like fit, you’ll be measured up – there are some 20 or so figures to collate for the jacket (known in the trade as the ‘coat’) and five for the trousers – by the cutter, the man who will cut the fabric for your suit. A basic form of the suit will then be made and tried on at the first fitting. It’s here that the tailor will make the all-important adjustments to get the suit right before a second (and sometimes even third) fitting is carried out.
Then comes the wait. From first meeting to finished garment takes anywhere between two and four months, all factors considered. So it goes without saying that bespoke is not for those in a hurry.
The Dos And Don’ts of Buying A Bespoke Suit:
- Your research. Have a sense of what you’re after from your suit, and not least because different tailors can have very different styles, from the very sharp and stiff-shouldered to the softer and more relaxed. Look into which tailor is best able to meet your needs.
- “Visit the tailor’s premises and ask to see the cutter and/or the coat-maker,” says Hitchcock. “It’s the way they dress that will give you the best idea of what they’re really good at making. Besides, if they can’t produce a cutter or coat-maker, it probably means they send your suit abroad to be made.”
- “Come with an open mind, and be open to suggestions,” advises Clarke. “What you like isn’t necessarily what is most flattering for you. That’s where the experience of the tailor comes in.”
- Go too outrageous with your first bespoke suit: opt for a more sober, wearable style that will give more usage. “There’s only so many times you can wear a suit with a big pink check before people start referring to you wearing that suit again,” says Hitchcock.
- Dress up for the occasion. It’s helpful to wear a shirt, but, beyond that, a tailor needs to assess who you are and what you like. Dress as you would normally, not like you need to impress.
- Forget that bespoke is not just about suits. “More men are becoming aware of the possibilities for casual bespoke – trousers, blazers, blousons – even if in recent years many tailors have been reluctant to offer it,” says Thom Whiddett, co-founder of Mayfair tailors Thom Sweeney.
- “Traditionally tailors have been rather good at alienating potential customers,” says Lutwyche. “But tailoring has had to change both to reflect the retail experience that customers find elsewhere, and to suit a society that doesn’t want the old levels of formality.”
Credit to the Team at Mens Style.