Jonathan Clay3

 
My interview with Jonathan Clay last week went down well with readers – perhaps because he’s not the kind of person that would normally be interviewed. As the supplier of Italian ready-made suits, he sees all sides of the industry, but rarely talks about it.

I saved my favourite part of that interview for a separate post, which I present here: The old 1-6 rating system for suits. I’d suggest it should be reintroduced to the suiting industry, to give some clarity for consumers. And then rigorously enforced.
 

PS: You mentioned earlier that there used to be a rating system for suits being supplied to brands. How did that work?

JC: Each suit was given a number from 1 to 6, depending on the make and level of hand work.

So a suit from the Chester Barrie factory was a number 6, but a Brioni suit, because it didn’t have a hand-drawn collar, was a high number 5. A d’Avenza suit was also a high number 5: it did have a hand-drawn collar, but the bottom of the lining was attached by machine, rather than by hand.

Would both of those have been fully canvassed?

Yes. Then you went down to a number 4, which was a machine-made product – fully canvassed still but with little or no handwork. Number 3 was half-canvassed; number 2 had even less canvas, just a small patch in the chest; and number 1 was entirely fused.

Who enforced the system?

No one really, but it was common knowledge around the industry. So much so that as an agent, you would phone up a shop and say you had some number 4 suits to show them, and they might say no, they were only interested in number 5s, for example. Everyone knew what they were talking about.

And everyone could recognise the way a suit was made, so there was no way you could pass one number off as another?

No, you couldn’t. Any buyer would know instantly what level the suit had been made to.

Why did it die out?

Quality became less important; it was less of a selling point than the design. And the level of consumer knowledge dropped as well, so they didn’t recognise a change in quality.

There’s one Italian designer I know who has a fully canvassed line and a half-canvassed one. He still fuses the first one, rather than leaving the canvas floating, because he feels customers won’t accept a suit that feels different. The look must consistent.

Quality needs to be a selling point again, something sales assistants know about and point out to people. Don’t just have the provenance on the label; have a clear indication of quality. It’s something you should fight for.

I’ll do my best. It would also be great for online retailing – where it’s that much harder to assess quality in person.

Exactly, everything looks the same online. They’re all navy suits in white boxes.

But even in a physical shop, you can’t see much of the value of a suit – it’s mostly on the inside. You won’t feel the value until you’ve worn it for six months. Until it’s moulded to you.

Would you include anything else in the system today, such as hand-sewn buttonholes?

Hand-sewn buttonholes were included in there, but for their functionality, rather than how they looked. You don’t want to start including design elements that are personal and will go in and out of fashion – like a Milanese buttonhole. Everything has to have practical, universal benefits.

Could bespoke elements, such as a hand-padded canvas, make up a number 7?

Perhaps, yes – that certainly has practical benefits. But the system is of most use in ready-made clothing, where there is so little transparency and understanding. Once that’s established people can create their own super-numbers. There will always be people that call themselves a seven-star hotel.

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Paul

Fascinating reading, Simon. I’d never heard of the old rating system. People certainly need to be educated about quality, but that also requires the retailers to be interested in quality over mere profit.

I personally think it’s pointless to have a hand-padded canvas etc on a RTW suit. This just means much higher prices and it won’t fit any better. Why not just buy bespoke? I suppose some can’t stand the whole fittings/ waiting process?

Paul

Yes of course. Perhaps the question is, how much quality is a brand prepared to give you for your money at the expense of profit? Most shoppers wouldn’t know the difference. They buy into the image of the brand.

Nick Inkster

I had a couple of suits made up by Cheshire Bespoke, which was born from the ashes of Chester Barrie, and which was basically a continuation of the Crewe factory staffed by the same hands under the new owner, Tony Lutwyche. The quality was absolutely first rate, and on my visits to the factory I was able to see my suits being built as fully bespoke garments made by hand. That was some time ago, so I cannot comment on how things are today, or even if they still receive clients at the factory.

Nick Inkster

Things must have changed then, Simon, because when I was going there it was bespoke to the last detail; you could even go and watch them shrink the canvass in water.

My sense is that they have gone into bulk production since, but I may be wrong.

facebook_Calle Melin.609383855

Very interesting. I think its good to have one rating system for tailoring (like this) and another for quality. I often see machine made fused clothes made of expensive Loro Piana fabric . I think the industry dislikes this system because it becomes evident that “exclusive” brands make a lot of expensive clothes that only have quality level 1.

Mark E. Seitelman

I would like to see a return to the “number system”, but I think it is unlikely because:

1. The “customer” no longer cares much about workmanship. The “designer” or “label” carry more weight.

2. Very few suits would reach “6”. Therefore, the manufacturers and retailers would not to let it be known that their suits are “3’s”. Oxxford is a “6”. Hickey Freeman is probably a “3”. I would say that most suits fall in the “1” to “3” classification. Only the manufacturers of the top of the line suits would allow their product to fall under such rigid scrutinty. E.g., Oxxford, Attolini, Kiton, etc.).

3. When the number classification system was alive, generally, the numbers were not advertised. The retailer would tell the customer that such as such was a “6”. From the customer’s viewpoint, he had to trust the salesman and trust the brand.

When I used to shop with my father in the 1960’s and 1970’s, he bought “6” suits. The salesman would tell him that they were “6’s”. You had to rely on the word of the salesman and the store. At that time men were driven to high quality manufacturers and not designers. One bought a Hickey Freeman or H. Freeman or Norman Hilton suit. It was unheard of to buy a suit from a designer (e.g., Ralph Lauren) or a womens manufactuer (e.g., Yves S.t Laurent).

Jack Floyd

I have the same recollections as Mr. Seitleman, of shopping with my Dad beginning in the late 1950s. The owner and salesmen felt like their own reputations were riding, literally, on your shoulders.

John

Hi Simon,
Thank you so much for posting this second part of the interview with Jonathan! It’s not surprising at all why PS really stands out! And I won’t say it enough: we are ABSOLUTELY greatful to you for what you have been doing!
“Quality needs to be a selling point again, something sales assistants know about and point out to people. Don’t just have the provenance on the label; have a clear indication of quality. It’s something you should fight for”.
Thanks for your commitment “to do your best”, Simon! But as you know, we are ALL stakeholders. I mean it’s in our upmost interest to see a rating system reintroduced in RTW. To keep buying quality jackets by sheer happenstance is not at all a sensible option.
To move forward, I believe this issue should be at the center of one PS’s next gathering in London aimed at – I would suggest – exploring how and when we could witness such a sea change in the menswear industry.
Obviously, this is going to be real revolution!
By the way, I am surely not the only one who has immediately sought to rate his current jackets upon reading this interview!…
Thanks again, Simon!
John

John

It’s just dawned on me that I left aside an important question in my first comment: how had worked such a rating system for suits specifically designed for the Summer, not the British but the South Italian or French kind?

Paul

Why do most RTW suits look so inferior? It’s the fit. The quality of construction, though important, has far less impact visually. The cut is also crucial. Look at many designer brand suits on the catwalk. Some are stylish and some are laughable. I give you Prada! Good construction cannot overcome a poor line on any garment.

If the RTW industry was prepared to place more emphasis on alterations for suits (as Suit Supply does), things might improve. Of course, extra inlays on seams are very helpful. Don’t hold your breath for that to happen…

TC

It would be aesthetically more pleasing – and mathematically more practical – if a base 12 system were to be adopted.

Jonas

Fascinating read Paul, thank you for this! I wanted to get back on your Underwear Project, which you concluded that Zimmerli was of the highest quality. I’ve been very interested in Håndvaerk quite some time but have yet to try their underwear. Do you have any opinion, experience and/or thoughts on the brand? http://www.handvaerk.com/

Jonas

Oh my mistake acutally, was writing an email simultaneously! So coincidence.

Simona

5 stars also for the 2nd part of the interview. This is what I call relevant content

Gordon Morrison

Simon, It would be interesting to see the 1 to 6 rating for the bespoke tailor you have reviewed. An objective score is another dimension when comparing value, style and the other elements that go into choosing a tailor.

GM

could you pls remove my name and use GM. many thanks

John

So based on this rating system, what type of suits does Jonathan make now?

James Lowther Lonsdale

Dear Simon,

This article is a masterpiece.

The old label Chester Barrie suits were some of the best RTW of the world and at affordable prices.
What factory now use Chester Barrie ? I saw for their gold label that is was a factory in Italy. But for the black label or the ” by Chester ” it could be a factory in Mauritius or in China or Est Europe apparently.
I am afraid this today another product.

Cheers

James

Theodore

Hi,
So in Chester Barrie’s garments there is not any fusing?

Will

Hi Simon,
Quick question on full and half canvasses. In you opinion, is half canvass necessarily ‘worse’ than full canvass, particularly in hotter climates? Living in a climate that is consistently around the 30+ degree mark on average for most of the year, would you still opt for a full canvass?
Thanks,
Will