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A Winning Off-the-Rack Wardrobe

The Best Off-the-Rack Wardrobe
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

The Duke of Windsor was a stickler for detail. Fanatical when it came to his clothing, he was precise about the number of buttons on his jacket sleeve and the height of his trouser cuff. He had special linings sewn into his custom-made ties to produce the exact thickness of knot he desired, and when he decided that he really preferred American-style trousers with an English-style coat, he simply had his suit jackets made in Savile Row and the trousers made in New York City. It was something of an international compromise, which his wife referred to as "Pants across the Sea." But then, that is not quite as precise as the inclinations of George "Beau" Brummell, the great Regency dandy who reputedly had a different glove maker for each hand.

There are those men who wallow in the very "process" of custom-made clothing,

studiously pouring over the swatch books, luxuriating in the endless discussions of details and the numerous fittings over weeks and months. There is a great deal of pampering as fitters take the corporeal measure of a man, and there is no denying its arcane charm--if you've got the time and the inclination, not to mention a decent tailor and boot maker.

But many of us don't, and we merely want to look well turned-out without all the fuss and bother. We want a well-made suit that fits with minor alterations, one that we can examine and try on, rather than just imagine how it may look.

The problem traditionally has been that the gulf between custom-made and ready-made business wear--tailored clothing, shirts, ties and shoes--was both broad and deep. Selection, in terms of styling and silhouette, has always been rather narrow with ready-to-wear; and assembly-line work cannot begin to duplicate handmade quality. The designer movement in menswear these past two or three decades has only made more men aware of these disparities. There are some designer clothes that have a sense of style but no real quality to them; and then there are one or two quality manufacturers whose idea of brio is someone with all the dash and élan of Henry Kissinger. So the question remains: Where can a man get some stylish-looking quality gear without a lot of endless bother?

Do not despair. There is, as it happens, an international handful of ready-to-wear firms that are every bit the equal of custom quality and styling, firms that employ the finest craftsmen, use only the best materials and have a sense of classic taste.

At a time when hand-tailoring has been in steady decline, a few firms have created an innovative concept as a commercial basis for manufacture: a "factory" of craftsmen. Whether in the United States or Europe, the recipe for producing exemplary ready-to-wear is virtually the same: Success depends upon a happy marriage between technology and craftsmanship.

Success calls for the ability to use technology where it can do a better job and the foresight to keep the craftsmanship where handwork cannot be surpassed. That means using technologically advanced machinery and computers where they can do the most good--recording orders, keeping track of inventories, filing patterns, mailing correspondence and other clerical duties--while also bringing craftsmen together and organizing a workplace for the manufacture of handwork: hand-stitching, hand-cutting, hand-pol-ishing and whatever else cannot be duplicated by machinery.

Let's be clear what we're talking about here. When you have talented craftsmen working with the finest materials--the best woolens, cottons, leathers, horn buttons and the rest of it--the only difference in custom work is the use of individual patterns. With handmade

ready-to-wear, quality is assured, styling is superb and fit depends upon the silhouette a man prefers. And the results at this level of competence must be judged on styling: We are discussing the relative merits of a Rolls versus a Bentley. Prices, needless to say, are as comparable to custom work as is quality.


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