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Suiting Up

Personal Tailors Fashion Custom-Made Products that Fit Beautifully and Precisely
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

By nature, tailors are not gloomy men. No, indeed. Optimistic if anything. How else could they take all the time and trouble to make us look our best? You couldn't blame them, though, if they were a bit on the dour side. When it comes to excessively demanding customers, tailors have seen them all.

The most exasperating-customer-story award must go to Leonard Logsdail of New York. "When I had my shop in London, there was one customer who was never happy with the length of his trousers," explains Logsdail. "He would complain about the unevenness of the carpet, or the height of the heels on his shoes, or that the fabric had stretched. He was obsessive, and there seemed no way of convincing him that the measurements were accurate. Finally, in desperation, I rigged up two tape measures from the top of the door jamb, made him stand in the door frame and marked the measurements with ink on the side of the jamb to satisfy him. He was actually one of my best customers, but absolutely bonkers about the length of his trousers."

There's something endearing and satisfying about the level of service a tailor is willing to provide. More and more men seem to be disenchanted with the service and quality provided by the consumer marketplace. What ever happened to personal attention, to quality, to style? Well, it's still out there.

A man used to have two choices when buying a suit: he either got it off the rack or he had it custom-tailored. Today there are several other choices, even as the distinction between off-the-rack and custom tailoring has blurred considerably. The confusion makes entering the waters beyond the safe shores of department-store racks a tad dangerous. But once you wade in, you will undoubtedly find that it's worth the effort. Men who have their clothes tailored for them have seen that the level of quality, service, selection, convenience and individuality simply cannot be found in off-the-rack garments. And, of course, these lucky individuals receive the physical comfort and self-esteem that accrues from wearing something made especially and exclusively for them.

And the price? Ah, yes, the price. A suit made expressly for you is most assuredly expensive in initial outlay, but as an investment, it's unbeatable. Why? Simple. We shouldn't merely think in terms of initial outlay, but of maintenance and longevity as well. If you buy a suit for $200 and it lasts a year, and you buy another suit for $1,000 and it lasts 10 years, which is the less expensive suit? The truth is that a cheap suit looks cheap even when it's new, while a good suit can look great (if you take care of it) even when it's old.

To help make the sartorial choices facing a man today a bit clearer, let's start with ready-made suits. An off-the-rack suit is just that: you pick from what's in stock and an alterations tailor will try to make it conform to your body in a few obvious places: sleeve and trouser length and perhaps an inch in or out at the waist. Some stores offer "special order" for a percentage more in price (usually 10 percent to 20 percent above stock). Special-order offers a selection of fabrics (from a swatch box) and a choice of style models (usually two or three), but the suit will still be cut from the factory-standard pattern.

The higher forms of the art--"made-to-measure" and "custom-tailoring"--both mean personalized, individually tailored clothing. The difference between the two is in the pattern from which the garment is made. The most expensive, time-consuming and exacting work is found in true custom-tailoring (also referred to as "bench-made" and "bespoke") because an individual paper pattern is constructed for that customer. At its best, there is no better garment for fit, styling, quality and durability.

With made-to-measure, a standard pattern is modified to account for the many ways in which the customer may differ from the norm: a high shoulder, perhaps, or a forward-sitting head, a lower left hip or a pigeon chest. Choices of fabric are the same as for custom, and styling is usually open to all but the most idiosyncratic requests.

Made-to-measure is, in a very real sense, an attempt to bridge the wide gap between a ready-made garment (which, because it is constructed to fit everyone, usually fits no one very well) and custom-made (which is expensive and in many cases unnecessarily fastidious). It should be noted that while custom-tailored and made-to-measure employ a high amount of skilled handiwork and the finest fabrics and findings (those parts such as linings, pads, threads or buttons), they are not always evidence of quality, depending on execution. The best made-to-measure suit is considerably superior to mediocre custom work. Names such as Brioni and Oxxford bring top-notch quality to that category.

The real problem with personalized clothing is finding the tailor who's right for you. This is usually done in a variety of ways. A man may seek the tailor who dresses certain celebrities or his boss or someone his wife hears about from a friend. There are better ways.

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