A perennial topic on this site, and indeed other style fora, is how customers interact with their tailors when they have their first suit made.

The customer thinks he knows what he wants but he can’t quite express it – at least not in the terminology the tailor would use. And the tailor tries to divine the customer’s wishes from every source he has available: what he is already wearing, his facial expressions, his reactions to suggestions and things he tries on.

It’s a difficult process and one that takes time, hence the need for several fittings. Permanent Style spoke to Patrick Grant, owner of Norton & Sons on Savile Row, about this quandary as part of a series of pieces in a new project called Gentleman’s Corner (details to be divulged next week).

Among other things, Patrick agreed that tailors often resort to using house styles or fit generalisations (classic, slim, skinny) because of this very inability to communicate.


Permanent Style: What proportion of customers know enough about what they want when they walk in and answer all your questions?

Patrick Grant: Not many, is the honest answer. A lot of people have a good idea of how they would like to look. And a lot of them know that they like what they end up wearing, but that’s about it.

They know when the results are good. They can feel the difference from what they had before – but they won’t be able to say that the difference is because there is an inch more suppression in the waist, or the jacket is a touch longer. They know where they want to get to, but they can’t necessarily articulate how to get there.

PS: Is that first conversation difficult then?

PG: When you go into the fitting room, David [Ward, head cutter] will measure you up and have this conversation with you. It starts off a little bit broadly: ‘How would you liked this coat to be cut? Shaped, in a classic English style?’ And the customer will reply: ‘Well yes, quite shaped. But not too shaped.’

PS: So no answer at all then.

PG: Sure, but then it gets more focused, and the customer will say he doesn’t want it very fitted, really skinny. He’ll express one preference and then another, and we ease towards a vision.

Some people are also very happy to say ‘you’re the experts, you cut me a suit that is going to make me look as good as I can’. But it’s a process that takes a lot of time. On the first suit this conversation is repeated in three, sometimes four fittings. And the conversation becomes a little easier when there’s a coat to talk about and point to.

The first meeting is a little vague, but actually nine times out of ten we get it pretty right.

PS: Is it fair to say that one reason some tailors have a house style is that the customer knows what he is getting and has probably come there for that reason – saving everyone the first, vague conversation?

PG: Yes, I think that’s quite right. If you left the shape entirely up to us, you would get a suit that looks like the one on the mannequin in the shop window. That’s why the models are there, so the customer can say ‘that’s what Norton & Sons looks like, that’s what Henry Poole looks like, that’s what Huntsman looks like and this is the one I want to look like.’

PS: Do people come in and just browse sometimes? On this site we have discussed how much men would like to do that more at tailors.

PG: Absolutely, we have people come in and try suits on and have a conversation about the style, just to get an idea. It’s quite normal for people to try three or four tailors before they order.

In fact, we picked up a new customer a few weeks ago that had a suit made at ourselves and two other tailors on the Row, to see which he liked best. I won’t say who the other two were, but he had exactly the same suit, same colour same cloth, just so he could decide which he liked best.

PS: That sounds pretty meticulous. He sounds like he’s going to be a serious customer.

PG: He said he just wanted to find the best tailor for him and be able to make a real comparison.

PS: That’s what makes it hard for many newcomers to this area to get an idea of what they want – not many people, no journalist and no one on the various style sites has tried all the tailors.

PG: That’s fair. And the main reason people switch between tailors, as we’ve seen since I took over, is not an objective comparison like this customer made but just a simple feeling. They’ve been with someone for years and have a good relationship with them, but suddenly something’s just a little wrong. It’s changed and it’s not like it used to be.