Men used to have but one clothing decision: they bought off-the-rack, from a men's or department store, or had suits custom made by a tailor. Today a panorama of personalized clothing options--bench-made, custom-made, made-to-measure and special order--make the choices wider but a bit confusing.
In an effort to clear things up, let's define the terminology.
The term bench-made generally indicates that clothes are made in a shop that has the tailor's name on the door; further, that he is a master tailor (meaning an expert pattern maker, cutter and fitter). The work is done on the premises, an individual pattern is constructed for the exclusive use of each customer, and there is a maximum of handwork.
Most of the same criteria apply to the term custom-made, except that the work is not always done on the premises, and the name above the door is not always that of a master tailor. More often than not, the head of the establishment is someone--such as a designer--whose reputation is based on his taste and who is capable of providing excellent advice.
"Made-to-measure" clothing differs from bench- or custom-made apparel in that tailors use stock patterns that are modified to fit an individual customer. Construction and fabrics of made-to-measure garments may be of very high quality, but, because no individual pattern has to be created, prices can be considerably less.
"Special-order" suits (which we will not cover beyond this point) are made from unaltered stock patterns, but offer a selection of fabrics stocked by the manufacturer and a choice of two or three basic style models. The customer usually pays a premium of 10 percent.
The procedure for the customer is much the same whether the construction is bench-made, custom-made, or made-to-measure. All three processes afford measures of personalization and individuality that are otherwise unavailable.
First, styling--which includes general silhouette and specific details--is discussed. The customer will be asked if he favors a built-up look or a more relaxed one. Italian, English or American interpretations are typical options. Of course, the customer's preferences for fit and feel are also solicited: For example, will the jacket and trousers sit close to the body or have an easier, fuller fit? Does he prefer a higher or lower shoulder? Will the jacket have a soft or firm feel?
The customer chooses the basic form--single- or double-breasted, two-button or three. From there a plethora of details can be ordered. Should the jacket be side, center or unvented? Will the customer prefer flapped, besom, patch or hacking pockets? A ticket pocket perhaps? How many buttons on the sleeve (with working buttonholes, of course)? How many interior pockets? Lapel width or trouser rise may be an issue.
The trousers type must be specified. Will they have pleats or plain front, cuffs or plain bottoms? On-seam or off-seam side pockets, and how many back pockets? A change pocket, a watch pocket? Swelled side seams? Self-supporting waist, belt loops or suspender buttons?
Then there is fabric selection. Any reputable shop will have dozens of swatch books from which to choose hundreds and hundredsof cloths--everything from traditional worsteds, flannels and tweeds to the Super woolens (starting with the Super 80s and going up to the 180s), fine silks, cashmeres, cottons, linens and blends. Lightweight fabrics are those considered to be between 7 and 9 1/2 ounces, medium are between 10 and 13 ounces, and anything over 14 is considered heavy in our climate-controlled age. [See Cigar Aficionado, Summer 1995, for a discussion of fabrics.]
Some tailors will have cloths woven exclusively to their own requirements of weight, pattern and color (often their names will be woven into the selvage--the outside strip of the cloth--as proof of exclusivity). Others simply have an eye for that odd bolt of cloth they know their customers will appreciate.
Finally, the tailor will take the measurements. Here's where the best shine: meticulous measurements make for a suit that fits. Which is why a good tailor will leave nothing to chance. He will want to measure the length of each arm and each leg separately, the chest under and over the arms, the waist above the hips and the seat below them. He will want to measure the shoulders from one side to the other (called "point to point"), and each one from the middle of the back. He will measure the length of the coat that the customer is wearing (only as a rough guide).
The tailor will measure a variety of points on your body that you never thought had anything to do with each other. All these numbers will be recorded in the order book. Your fitter will note, in his own shorthand system, any little problems or idiosyncrasies your body might have: "EP" might stand for erect posture, "LLS" for lower left shoulder. But never mind if your neck is like a corkscrew, your calves protruding, or your back like a dowager's hump. A good tailor is part psychologist, part cosmetic surgeon. With a little nip and tuck of the cloth here, a bit of extra padding there, some slight narrowing of the trouser leg or widening of lapel, veritable miracles can be performed. (A practical note: it's a good idea to wear the same sort of shoes and shirt while being fitted as you'll match with the clothes being made, since this makes measurements more relevant to the way you actually wear your clothes.)
Before departing the shop you will be asked to leave perhaps a 50 percent deposit, and be given an assurance that you'll be called in several weeks' time--say three to six--for a fitting. Bench- and custom-made usually require two or three fittings (the first fitting is merely the shell of a garment), while made-to-measure usually requires only one (for minor alterations, button placement and a few minor details).
During the remaining fitting(s) the garment will be fine-tuned, a quarter-inch chalked off in one place, an eighth added in another, a notation made to ease an armhole just a fraction, or minutely tighten the trouser seat. Button stance will be decided. It's a good idea at this fitting to transfer anything you carry in your pockets to your new clothes, so any adjustments for a bulging wallet or eyeglass case can be made.
The suit should now be properly balanced (each part being where it should be, and sitting correctly) and comfortable. The buttonholes can now be cut and buttons attached. After a final hand-pressing, the suit will be shipped. The record of the measurements (in the form of a paper pattern for bench and custom), tailor's notes for alterations, and perhaps a small swatch of the selected fabric will be filed away for future orders. Figure on six to 10 weeks from order to delivery.
Personalized clothing is a true investment. Treated with respect and proper maintenance, it will more than pay for itself. A cheap suit looks cheap even when it's new; a good one looks great even when it's old.
Adrian Jules 1392 East Ridge Road, Rochester, New York; (716) 342-5886. Arnald Roberti, head of the firm, is very adept at a number of stylish silhouettes, but, if you ask him, he would prefer to see his customers on the dressy side: classic Italian styling with a medium shoulder and some shape. Double-breasted suits are strong here, and 80 percent of his business is in the Super woolens (ranging from the Super 80s to 150s). Custom suits from $1,000; jackets from $750.
Brioni 610 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 956-4155.Brioni prides itself on the classic Roman style--square shoulders and slimming shape with subtle waist suppression. Farbrics are luxurious. Custom suits from $3,000; jackets from $2,100.
Cheo Tailors 30 East 60th Street, New York, New York; (212) 980-9838. Cheo, trained on Savile Row, believes the Row's traditional cutting system is the only way to make a first-class suit. Made entirely by hand with the finest materials, the garments have good shape, but are soft and easy. Bench-made suits from $3,000; jackets from $2,200.
Gian DeCaro Sartoria 2025 First Avenue, Seattle, Washington; (206) 448-2812. DeCaro is of the Anglo-Italian school and prefers a slightly shaped coat and full-cut trousers. He likes to do softly constructed jackets in the newer ultralightweight fabrics such as the Super woolens and luxury cottons. Custom suits from $1,900; jackets from $1,500.
Chris Despos 34 East Oak Street, Chicago, Illinois; (312) 944-8833.Classic elegance is the rule here, and Despos's aim is for propriety of proportions. Updated traditional in its best form, crafted in midweight worsteds that have good drape and hold their shape. Bench-made suits from $3,000; jackets from $2,400.
Dormeuil 21 East 67th Street, New York, New York; (212) 396-4444.The tailoring firm (which makes office calls) does custom and made-to-measure clothes with an Anglo-American air (everything in moderation for the executive wardrobe). Dormeuil is also one of the world's great cloth houses and knows as much about fine fabrics as anyone. It's particularly adept at cashmere, silk-and-cashmere blends, worsted cashmere and its exclusive "Pashmina" cloth, considered finer than cashmere. Made-to-measure suits from $1,350; custom from $2,850.
Alfred Dunhill 450 Park Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 735-7543. While Dunhill is an old British firm, it takes an international businessman's approach: not as much shoulder or as high an armhole as the more fashionable looks, but with some suppression at the waist. Its goal is moderation in silhouette and detail. Bench and custom suits from $2,650 and $1,950, jackets starting at $2,100 and $1,435.
William Fioravanti 45 West 57th Street, New York, New York; (212) 355-1540. Fioravanti is the original architect and most respected advocate of the Power Look, an approach for CEOs and other men at the top: square, straight shoulders, and a trim, pristine silhouette for a dynamic appearance. This is real boardroom stuff. Exclusive fabrics. Bench-made suits from $4,250; jackets from $3,700.
The Alan Flusser Custom Shop (at Saks Fifth Avenue) 611 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 888-7100. Flusser's house style has a soft, sophisticated silhouette highly thought of by the cognescenti: some body shaping, with a sloped defined shoulder and slim hip; trousers are full-cut and slightly tapered. Reputedly the largest number of exclusive fabrics to be found. Made-to-measure suits and jackets from $1,000 and $800, respectively; custom from $1,895 and $1,295.
Giliberto Designs 142 West 36th Street, New York, New York; (212) 695-4925. Styling here runs to jackets with clearly defined lines and shape. Many customers now choose a three-button (middle button on the natural waist), single-breasted cut, with or without a vest, but the six-button/two-to-button double-breasted is still very much in vogue. Full range of fabrics. Bench suits from $1,800; jackets from $1,200.
Jon Green 903 Madison Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 734-8965. In association with the renowned shirtmaker Alexander Kabbaz, Jon Green prefers the moderate road: subtle shaping, a medium-high shoulder and armhole, a slightly trimmer trouser. Everything is balanced properly, nothing outre. Bench suits from $3,800; jackets from $2,800.
Harrison James 5 West 54th Street, New York, New York; (212) 541-6870. Harrison James is a two-year-old store for men in Manhattan, with a superb ready-to-wear collection of business and sportswear. But it also has a made-to-measure program of clothes with a distinctly international flair. Jackets sit slightly closer to the body and have high armholes, square shoulders and a bit higher button stance. Luxury fabrics are the rule. Suits from $2,750; jackets from $1,895.
Kiton Custom Shop (at Bergdorf Goodman Men's Store) 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 339-3324. This is the custom shop for the acclaimed Neopolitan firm that specializes in the soft sartorial approach, more of an Italian interpretation of English styling. Never heavy or stiff, the rule here is shape with a light, easy fit: smaller shoulder, subtle waist and a trim hip. All exclusive fabrics. Suits from $3,700.
Leonard Logsdail 9 East 53rd Street, New York, New York; (212) 752-5030. Logsdail is a Savile Row-trained bench tailor who came to New York in 1991 and set up a bespoke firm. He prefers a mid-Atlantic business look, not as stiff as the English, but with a bit more shape than traditional American. A master tailor adept at everything from Norfolk jackets to tail coats. Full range of the best fabrics. Bench suits from $3,800; jackets from $2,800.
Oxxford Custom (at Bergdorf Goodman Men's Store) 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 339-3323. Oxxford, generally conceded to be the best-made readywear tailored clothing in the United States, has opened a custom shop in the famed Fifth Avenue store. The preferred model has natural shoulders and subtle body shaping, making for a suit that has both style and comfort. An exclusive range of fabrics, including the Super woolens and the highest quality Doupioni silks. Custom suits from $2,600; jackets from $2,000.
Edgar Pomeroy 2985 Piedmont Road NE, Atlanta, Georgia; (404) 365-0405. Pomeroy started his career by designing custom clothes that had a rather brash, high visibility to them. He's moderated a bit and is now content to deliver mere style and taste. Pin-striped suits with odd vests are his favorite, but doeskin blazers, natty tweeds and linens are right up his street. Custom suits from $1,600; jackets from $1,000.
Vincenzo Sanitate 27 West 55th Street, New York, New York; (212) 755-0937. Sanitate can make the most proper business suit. What he enjoys, though, is super lightweight garments: the smallest of shoulder pads and thinnest of interlinings go into his unconstructed jackets and trousers of featherweight Super woolens, shirt-weight linens, and blended cashmeres. Bench suits from $3,500; jackets from $2,350.
Jack Simpson 200 Central Park South, New York, New York; (212) 581-9003. Simpson (who makes office calls) likes a British silhouette--small but slightly extended shoulder, nipped waist, trim hip, and full-cut and tapered trouser--with a soft feel. He's a great believer in suits with vests, even sports jackets with matching vests. With Simpson continually on the lookout for interesting fabrics, there's always something new here. Custom suits from $1,850; worsted cashmere sports jackets $2,140.
Domenico Spano (at Bergdorf Goodman Men's Store) 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 339-3350. Mimmo Spano's preferences tend towards the elegance of Hollywood in the 1940s: a masculine silhouette, with a higher but soft shoulder, ample chest and waist shaping. He likes double-breasteds to have straight and clean-cut lapels, and either side or ventless backs. A range of fabrics designed by him and woven by Moxon of Hudderfield. Custom suits from $2,000; jackets from $1,450.
Sulka 430 Park Avenue, New York, New York; (212) 980-5200. For more than a hundred years, Sulka has been a name synonymous with elegance and meticulous craftsmanship. Best known for its luxe haberdashery, it has for some time now had a tailoring department on the premises. The look is cosmopolitan and at home in the world at large. Sulka also does a fine line of made-to-measure clothes, crafted in Italy. A range of exclusive fabrics. Bench suits and jackets from $3,800 and $2,500, respectively; made-to-measure from $2,750 and $2,000.
Giacomo Trabalza 723 North La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, California; (310) 652-6396. A craftsman of the Northern Italian school, Trabalza favors the classic look of Milan circa 1940: a decidedly urbane silhouette with an elongated line, accomplished by a slightly longer jacket, peak lapels with a higher lapel gorge, and a moderately high shoulder. He would prefer to do a long-roll lapel with a one-button closure on a single-breasted jacket, but he does two- and three-button fronts as well. Bench suits from $3,000; jackets from $2,200.
Turnbull & Asser 42 East 57th Street, New York, New York; (212) 752-5700. At this U.S. outpost of London's famed Jermyn Street shop, the tailoring is strictly English--garments are made in England and finished here--and traditional: everything in moderation, but with just a hint of flair. A fine selection of wonderful British fabrics, some exclusive. Made-to-measure suits from $1,800; jackets from $1,250.
Ventresca 315 Old York Road, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania; (215) 576-1178. Frank Ventresca is the son of a master tailor (brother Len, also a tailor, has his own shop in nearby Doylestown). He stocks a range of quality and fashionable Italian readywear, but likes a courant international look for his custom business. His customers praise his three-button single-breasted suits with vests, the jackets of which have a moderate shoulder width, square shoulder and some body suppression; the trousers are full-cut. Suits from $1,350; jackets from $1,000.
Ermenegildo Zegna 743 Fifth Ave. New York, New York; (212) 751-3468. Ermenegildo Zegna does two models in made-to-measure: the "Napoli," which is closer to an English silhouette, with a narrower shoulder line; and the "Positano," which has a slightly broader shoulder and fuller body. Suits from $1,600, sports jackets from $1000.
G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable.