Tailors in the Office

How to Buy a Wardrobe without Leaving the Workplace
| By G. Bruce Boyer | From Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

"When it comes to the fittings, I usually end up standing on the coffee table," he said.

Perhaps I should explain.

When you are a busy executive, and don't have the time to go shopping for your wardrobe, you have the wardrobe come to you.

Which is what Jack Simpson, the very cosmopolitan president of Bespoke Enterprises Inc., does for Stone Phillips, the very cultivated NBC News journalist.

"I just don't have the time anymore to make the rounds of the men's stores," Phillips says. "Being in the public eye, I need a large wardrobe, and my schedule is such that it all must be done efficiently and in good taste. Jack brings the cloth swatches for the suits, shirts and ties, and we discuss what I like--basically conservative with a touch of fashion--and then he comes back with the clothes for a fitting. Usually I end up standing on the coffee table, so he can mark the proper trouser length."

Phillips couldn't be happier that all the fuss and bother is taken out of his hands. "Actually, my wife often sits in on these meetings because she and Jack speak the same language. She used to be in the fashion business and knows the correct fabric terms and how clothes should fit. I find myself just nodding and going along. And it all gets done quickly, I end up looking well-attired, and I can get on with my job."

Simpson is based in New York City, but flies to Los Angeles every other month for his West Coast clients. "I usually send along a photo package explaining our service to a prospective client, and then meet with him in his home or office." Ready access is what this business is about. Simpson can offer a client custom-made tailored garments, shirts, shoes, ties and a whole array of the most tasteful furnishings.

This business of one-on-one personal tailoring is, of course, one of the older ways of outfitting the customer. In the nineteenth-century heyday of Savile Row tailoring, a gentleman would pop by his tailor one morning, sit in the back room with a glass of sherry and a digestive biscuit, and gossip and discuss the latest stripings in worsted or width of a lapel before ordering a half dozen new suits for the season. It was all very civilized, particularly in those days when gentlemen had more time for leisurely discourse. But the principle was the same: a confident and confidential personal selection of one's wardrobe with an expert in private. It wasn't so much shopping as it was a graceful interchange of ideas.

Today, lest you think the world has gone all to hell and there is no such thing as progress, a number of made-to-measure firms have taken that idea one step further by bringing the tailor to the customer.

Most men have no great charisma as shoppers anyway, never mind the ever-increasing demands on our time these days. "What, in fact, could be a better respite from a hectic business day for an embattled executive than one's tailor coming round to the office with a fitting?" asks Nancy Hilton, director of the Dormeuil Personal Tailor Service in New York City. "The fact is that discriminating CEOs consider a private tailoring service something of an exclusive perk in a highly competitive world."

True enough. "I used to go to Brooks Brothers and other men's stores," says Brewster Ellis, executive vice president of Kansas City, Missouri-based Robert Thomas Securities and a big fan of the Dormeuil service. "The problem was that the clothes never felt that good, so I kept looking around.

"When I came to New York on business a while ago, someone told me about Nancy Hilton, so I had suits made by her [company]. There was no comparison; the Dormeuil suits just feel better, the way clothes ought to feel. So now when I come to New York--about six times a year--I always make an appointment. Sometimes I get new suits, sometimes just a few ties. But I'd never go back to buying my clothes any other way."

These personal tailors meet with you when and where you want, ascertain your wardrobe needs, provide expert advice on cloth and styling, take your measurements and in a matter of weeks show up with the clothes. It's the answer to a harried executive's prayers.

There are two considerable advantages of having the clothier come to the customer: convenience and comfort. The customer doesn't have to interrupt his busy schedule, which saves considerable time. "I'll arrange an appointment for any time that's convenient for the customer," says Atlanta-based clothier Tom Street. "I'll come to his office during business hours or meet him at his home in the evening or even on weekends. We take our customer's busy schedules seriously. I've even brought swatch books to the golf course, to show a customer between holes."

"Our clients have compressed time schedules and want us to be as efficient as possible," says partner James Egan of Allen-Petrie Clothiers in Strafford, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. "When they're not working, they'd rather be practicing their tennis serve or out on their boats than shopping."

Since the customer is on his own turf, he can be more at ease in the one-to-one relationship with an expert, which means a decided lack of intimidation and plenty of helpful advice. "We usually spend some time on what I call a fact-finding mission," notes David Shockley, proprietor of St. Louis' Savile Row Custom Clothiers. "Consulting with the customer about what he wants and needs in his wardrobe, and keeping a detailed record, is a big part of our service. We're able to manage a busy executive's clothing needs for him. And that includes the maintenance aspects--cleaning, pressing, repairing--as well."

This is what is called in contemporary parlance a support system. There's no running around, trying to get the attention of some ill-informed clerk in a crowded shop. Then there is the high quality of the clothing itself: made-to-measure tailored garments and shirting. "If a man shops in a store, he'll see perhaps 10 or 20 suits, at most, in his size," says Michael Renzi, custom clothier in Newport Beach, California. "But why should he have to settle for a style he's not completely happy with? Or a different color or pattern? Or a two-button front instead of three? Or missing some detailing he likes? I can show him literally thousands of fabrics from the world's finest mills, and he can have a suit in any fabric he wants--and he can have that suit in virtually any style and detailing he wants." With made-to-measure, selection is not limited, because there is no inventory.

There is a basic process to the in-office service. The clothier will bring suiting and shirt swatches, measuring forms and perhaps a form for profiling the customer's current wardrobe and needs, to the customer's office, home or club (or yacht, as has been known to happen). Most in-office services can provide the customer with a complete range of accessories (hosiery, ties, underwear, belts and braces, cuff links) in addition to any clothing requirements from business suits to casual attire.

Cloth selections from the better services (such as those listed below) are of the finest British and Italian woolens and best cotton shirtings. Expect to pay roughly $1,000 for a suit and $100 for a shirt.

After the customer's needs are discussed, cloth selections made and measurements taken, the clothier won't return for a month or two (allow an average of six weeks, although rush orders can usually be accommodated), at which time he will bring the garments for a final fitting. An intermediary fitting--what tailors call a basted fitting--can be arranged if the customer or clothier thinks it necessary.

Those are the basics. Some firms might have a superior selection of cloth, while others may favor a particularly fashionable silhouette or be willing to go that extra step in the realm of service. "As one of the few women in the business," says Nancy Hilton, "I feel we take a more nurturing attitude toward our clients. I've met clients at the airport to deliver a suit." Manuel Martinez, a custom clothier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who has made clothes for several Southern governors, recalls meeting a man in a restaurant one day. "When he found out I was a tailor, he asked me to measure him right there, and placed an order for several suits on the spot." Martinez takes that sort of thing in stride.

And then, of course, there are those clothing requests that cannot be adequately accommodated by your local mall menswear retailer. "About a year ago," recalls Allen-Petrie's James Egan, "one of our customers stopped by with a handsome pair of blue velvet Prince Albert slippers he'd had made by John Lobb in London. He wanted to know if we could make him a dinner suit--a tuxedo without the ornate facings--in velvet the same shade as the shoes.

"It took us almost half a year to track down the right cloth--a beautiful royal blue velvet from Germany--and we made him a wonderful dinner suit, even down to finding the perfect buttons and silk lining. There's a great deal of satisfaction in being able to do something like that."

There was a time--in those innocent days before malls and fast-food shops overgrew us--when every decent-sized town had a reliable tailor, haberdashery, or campus shop. Most of them are now video stores and pizzerias, the consequence of which is that men think they're either thrown to the cold comfort of the mall department stores--where the fellow behind the shirt counter today will be selling portable CD players on the third floor tomorrow--or that they must travel to one of the better clothing stores in a major city.

"But that's not true," emphatically states Bo Hussung, a custom clothier in Nashville. "There's really a revolution going on in men's clothing today. There are a number of 'direct sellers' around the country who offer incredible selection, top quality fabrics and expert tailoring. This approach to providing men with quality clothing has stepped into the vacuum left by the disappearance of the local men's quality clothing store."

A Brief Guide To In-Office Clothiers

Allen-Petrie Clothiers
687 West Lancaster Avenue
Strafford, Pennsylvania 19087
(610) 687-2330

The Philadelphia Main Line has always been a bastion of conservative good taste, and at least 75 percent of Allen-Petrie's suits are ordered in an updated traditional silhouette. ("But we do get an order now and again for a more Milanese approach," notes manager James Egan.) The firm prides itself on exceptional service--even to the point of refurbishing umbrellas for clients--and on helping a man to develop his own sense of style. Suits and topcoats from $900; sport coats, $600; shirts from $100.

Bespoke Enterprises, Inc.
150 West 56th Street, Suite 4207
New York, New York 10019
(212) 581-9003

While the majority of Jack Simpson's clients are executives, a good number are celebrities in the entertainment business, which is why he makes regular trips to Los Angeles. It is understandable, then, that he should favor a highly sophisticated silhouette: single-breasted suits with peak lapels and postboy waistcoats (with either a natural, international, or 1940s English-styled shoulder). "Even the question of buttons is an important issue," he says. Bespoke boasts many exclusive fabrics. Suits are priced from $1,150 to $2,500; shirts from $185 to $250; shoes at $1,500; Super 100s midnight blue tuxedos with grosgrain lapels, $1,680.

Dormeuil Personal Tailor Service
40 Central Park South, Suite 2
New York, New York 10019
(800) 506-4400

This service combines the sybaritic fabrics of Dormeuil (European cloth merchants since 1842) with the tailoring firm of Nancy Hilton. The team has garnered a reputation for uncompromising concern and peerless craftsmanship. It has an elite establishment clientele, most of whom prefer a basically traditional look, eschewing the trendy in favor of the timeless, such as jackets with subtle cashmere blazers at $1,800; other sport coats from $800.

Bo Hussung Clothier
913 Battery Lane
Nashville, Tennessee 37220
(615) 269-6705

Bo Hussung's clientele is mainly of the professional ilk--brokers, attorneys, that sort of thing. This being Nashville, though, Hussung has more than his share of men in the music business, "mostly on the management side," he says. Which makes sense, since the preferred house style is updated classic, with perhaps just a slightly extended, but soft, shoulder line, and just a tad lower button stance for a more sophisticated line. Suits range from $850 to $2,500; sport coats from $650; shirts around $100; and individual trousers from $250.

Martinez Custom Clothier
1669 Lobdell Avenue at Jefferson Highway
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70806
(504) 928-9107

"I usually spend as much time discussing what the client wants as I do taking the measurements and styling details," says Manuel Martinez. And with good reason, since he is fanatical about getting things right. "We try to minimize the less flattering features and accent the favorable ones," he says. The firm prefers an elegant English silhouette with medium-square shoulders, and either side of ventless back. Double-breasted suits in tropical-weight Super 100s are very dressy, while silk-and-wool, cashmere and linen sport coats offer an elegant alternative. Suits from $900; sport coats in Loro Piana cashmere at $1,950; shirts from $85.

Nathan's Custom Tailors
828 East Main Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
(800) 343-0508

Barry and Michael Zell are the owners of the custom-tailoring business their father started 60 years ago. Their clientele consists of upper-echelon businessmen--more than 20 are on the Fortune 500 list of CEOs--and not a few Washington politicians. ("When I visit the Senate Office Building to do a fitting, the Senate police always find a good parking space for me," says Barry.) Everything the firm provides is custom-made except for ties and cuff links. The preferred style here is decidedly international. "We like a shouldered coat," says Michael, "because it's more flattering to the line of the body." Close to 500 cloths are always in stock, and thousands more are found in the swatch books. Suits from $895; sport coats from $595; shirts (of which there are over 700 fabrics from which to choose), $75 to $200.

Renzi Custom Gallery
220 Newport Center Drive, Suite 22
Newport Beach, California 92660
(714) 729-4445

"Good clothing is expensive, and men shouldn't settle for a suit they're not totally happy with," says Michael Renzi, the firm's owner. "We give our customers infinitely greater selection than the stores do with their limited inventory. And we don't ask them to interrupt their schedules to shop." The Southern California clientele, which includes entertainment celebrities and high-profile athletes, prefers a more wedge-shaped silhouette, with wide shoulders and trim hip. High twist crepes, serges and failles are the fabrics of choice. Suits from $1,295; sport coats, $995; trousers at $395; shirts, $125.

Savile Row Custom Clothiers
9773 Clayton Road
St. Louis, Missouri 63124
(314) 567-8500

"We think of ourselves as a personal wardrobe management service," says proprietor David Shockley. "From first consultation to cleaning and repairs, we are there for our customers." These pampered gentlemen favor the firm's easy Italian silhouette and extended shoulder stance, with some drape in the chest and blade for a more relaxed elegance. Suits from $995; sports coats start at $750; shirts at $95.

Michael Smith Custom Clothier
8110 West Central, P.O. Box 352108
Toledo, Ohio 43617
(419) 841-6112

Michael Smith endeavors to provide anything a man needs for his business wardrobe. "Our styling is traditional, but several clients want something a little more individual," says Smith. "One longtime customer is an attorney who likes 1940s-styled clothes, and we make all his things in that style, right down to the black-and-white spectator wingtip shoes. He's dapper as hell, and we find those sort of fellows inspiring." Suits start at $600; shirts from $70 to $150.

Tom Street Custom Clothing
5 Bohler Mews N.W.
Atlanta, Georgia 30327
(404) 351-9093

"My customers like their traditionally cut clothes with a bit of flair," says owner Tom Street. "We pride ourselves on our fancy silk linings and unusual fabrics. We carry what's called in the cloth trade 'millionaire's cashmere'--exceptionally fine. It would cost about $4,500 to run up a sport coat, so we don't get many orders, but we like to keep it around for those special occasions." Other sport coats from $595; suits start at $750; shirts at $85.

G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990).

An In-Office Original

In many ways, the real pioneer in the in-office clothing field is Spencer Hayes. In the mid-1960s, Hayes was president of Southwestern Co., a thriving firm that published and sold door-to-door Bibles, dictionaries and cookbooks. But books weren't his only passion. Always having a fondness for, and belief in the value of, a good suit of clothes, Hayes hired a consultant to determine the best type of clothing to sell to busy executives--and the best method of selling. In 1966, Tom James Co. was born.

"The results of that study," says CEO Jim McEachern, who, along with Tom James and Mack Isbill, was hired by Hayes to run the company, "showed that personally tailored clothing was the best avenue, because you could offer the customer a much better selection and do it with a smaller inventory. In addition, it was discovered that there were a tremendous number of businessmen who would appreciate someone coming to their office to serve them." That was all McEachern needed to hear: He saw a niche, jumped into it with both feet, and, according to Hayes, he has been the driving force of the firm. Hayes, for his part, financed the venture and has provided much of the direction.

Tom James is now the country's largest manufacturer and retailer of personally tailored men's clothing sold directly to customers in their offices and homes. The company, whose clientele exceeds 75,000, has manufacturing facilities for both tailored garments and shirts and 384 sales representatives in 121 locations around the country. The firm reported sales of $150 million last year and it has maintained a growth rate of over 30 percent a year.

The firm's slogan is "We Come to You," and many of you are very well turned out indeed. Suits $650 and up; shirts, $65 to $200.

Tom James Co.
990 North Walnut Creek Dr., Suite 1001
Mansfield, Texas 76063
(800) 237-2140