Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Meaning of Bespoke

Every so often, a newspaper or magazine that caters to those who have a not insubstantial disposable income will run an article that fits into the "Gee, aren't bespoke suits neat?" genre. This month, that periodical is New York magazine, and the article is "Me, My Suit, and I" by Michael Idov. An indispensable part of this type of article is the rundown of the Cool Details that you can get in a bespoke suit:
The remaining two categories—the rich and the wannabes—often simply replace label worship with tailor worship: in the Lehman Brothers hallways, Henry Poole must get name-dropped more often than Ben Bernanke. For this type of buyer, there are some easy signifiers of bespokeness, what Tom Wolfe calls “status details.” The most famous one is working cuff holes. On most off-the-rack suits, that row of buttons on your cuff is simply sewn on, because this way you can move them up or down during alterations; once you’ve cut the buttonholes, you can’t make the sleeve shorter or longer without screwing up the look. Another area of obsession is the stitching. On the front buttonholes and the flower loop, it shouldn’t be too even; on the lapels, staggered “pick stitching” is a big plus. When laymen claim they can smell bespoke from a mile away, most tend to mean these little signatures. But focusing on flourishes betrays the big idea. That idea is that you can ask for anything—40 pockets, a sewn-in gun holster, a third leg—and, to a certain type of person, anything else is tyranny of the designer.

Surprisingly enough, Idov doesn't mentioned the ne plus ultra of status details that are used to sell "bespoke" suits: wild lining. You can get purple polka-dotted lining if you want to! Isn't that cool? Of course, nowadays, you can get working buttonholes and pick stitching on any number of down-market off-the-rack suits; and any manufacturer with a stock special or made-to-measure program worth its salt will offer a plethora of wild and crazy linings. Moving past the Cool Details, Idov moves on to the definition of bespoke:
Intrigued, I take a quick survey of top tailors with one dumb-sounding question: What is bespoke? Considering the marketing power of the word, it is perhaps inevitable that its meaning should depend on who’s talking. Olga Fioravanti offers the most cut-and-dried, if slightly reductive, definition: “A real bespoke tailor belongs to the Custom Tailors and Designers Association of America”—of which her husband is, incidentally, the president.

He then moves on to some obfuscation from a representative of Duncan Quinn and then a more intelligible definition from a guy who writes for the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is really not that difficult. To me, there are really two components. First and foremost, bespoke means what the client wants it to mean. If I want my tweed jacket with turnback cuffs, a throat latch and flapped patch pockets with billows, I should be able to get it. Angled hacking pockets and a half belt in back? No problem. If it's technically possible, the tailor should gladly make it. Now, he may think that what I want is a bad idea, and it's his responsibility to tell me so and explain why. But ultimately, it's my decision (and he can decline the commission if it offends him). If I'm confronted with a handful of models and can't alter them in a meaningful way, it's not bespoke. If I can't change the number and configuration of any pocket on the jacket, internal or external, it's not bespoke. And so on. Second is the method of construction. Bespoke garments are cut one at a time from a paper pattern individually created for a particular client. Period. This is not to say that tailors won't have various standard proportions (ie, if this measurement is this, then the length of this seam is that); the best will because it allows them to get the pattern right with less trial and error. However, if the tailor is altering a standard pattern, if every single seam length and measurement isn't up for grabs, then it's not bespoke.

It recent years, there has been a good deal of obfuscation about bespoke, and most of it has come from designers and their ad men who want to reap higher margins from glorified stock specials. Gucci? Tom Ford? Duncan Quinn? Not bespoke, no matter what their ad copy and slick salesmen say and how much free champagne they pour down your throat. Vincent Nicolosi? Chris Despos? Henry Poole? Bespoke, no matter how bad and threadbare their decor might be. As these sort of articles go, Idov's isn't that bad (although I don't much care for the trousers of the suit he got). It just is incomplete and doesn't really get to the heart of the matter.

By the way, the picture above is of a fitting that Will from A Suitable Wardrobe had with Thomas Mahon, a British tailor formerly a cutter with Anderson & Sheppard and Steed. Mahon, like most A&S alumni, does forward fittings, where the jacket is mostly made. This is significantly less dramatic than a basted fitting, where the pieces of the jacket are loosely stitched together with white thread. By the end of a basted fitting, the arms are likely to be torn off the body, the collar removed, and the back and front panels disassembled and pinned together again in a slightly different configuration. It's highly entertaining.


mamacita said...

Didn't Oswald Boateng supposedly sew "Bollocks" into the lining of Prince Charles' jacket when he was at A&S? I thought I heard that once.

And you totally need more purple polka dot linings.

Soletrain said...

I believe that it was Alexander McQueen who claimed that rather than Boateng. If I recall correctly, the A&S people maintain that McQueen is full of crap and said that just to promote himself. BTW, while Mahon was at A&S, he cut for Prince Charles.

dq said...

hey soletrain. happened across this blog and think it may be interesting for you to see the e-mail I actually sent to Mr Idov explaining 'bespoke' which he chose to ignore for the sake of his story...perhaps after reading it you won't lump us in with the marketeers...by bespoke, we mean bespoke, as in "we'll build you a gold rolls royce if you pay us for it" as the old joke on the Row went...feel free to provide me an e-mail address and I'll send it to you.

Soletrain said...

Hi, dg. I'd love to see your e-mail to Mr. Idov, and I would be more than happy to publish a retraction, correction, or amplification if appropriate. You can reach me at soletrain (dot) tlsbf (at) gmail (dot) com.