Is bespoke worth it?

Wednesday, September 4th 2019
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A reader recently commented that, as a newcomer, he struggled to see why he would get into bespoke tailoring - given the number of negative experiences I often report. 

It made me realise that I rarely set out the case for bespoke (both for and against) assuming that after 11 years of writing about it, everyone knows already. 

So here’s my attempt to express it in a single post. 

First, I would like to get some smaller points out of the way. These are by no means unimportant, but they are not the major reasons I buy bespoke. 

Tradition. Many bespoke customers love the fact that suits have been made in that way for hundreds of years, and they’re tapping into history. Particularly English history, particularly Savile Row. This is the tailor Fred Astaire used, or Gary Cooper. 

I completely see this appeal, but it doesn’t hold much sway for me. Particularly after you’ve had one suit made by a traditional tailor. Too much of it is tourism. 

Craft. There is a phenomenal amount of work in a bespoke suit. Not just the cutting and the sewing, but the re-cutting, the re-sewing, the re-pressing. It makes for beautiful photography; it makes the garment feel human, as it was made by humans; it is an artistic creation, rather than a mechanical one. 

This has slightly more appeal, particularly as you get to know those people personally. But, the craft only works for me if it is functional. It might seem cold and clinical, but if the job could be done better by a machine, I don’t mind it being done by a machine.

Longevity. Again, greater appeal. Because of the way a bespoke suit is made, it can be more easily repaired and adjusted. This is something we’re covering in videos at the moment, and after years of bespoke you do realise its value.

This is especially true in an age when sustainability and vintage are becoming more important. You can have an old bespoke suit that has been well looked after, repaired and loved. You’re unlikely to do that with something from the high street. 

Environment and sustainability. On the subject of sustainability, there is definitely an argument to be made that a bespoke suit comes off well, given it’s usually all made locally, with more natural materials, and encourages re-use and repair. 

However, this is rarely straightforward. The carbon footprint is dependent on whether the wool came from Australia or Scotland, whether the tailor flew out to see you multiple times, and so on. Some customers buy in even greater volume than anyone does from the high street. In the end, buying less is the best policy, no matter how it was made. 

So what’s the fundamental benefit of bespoke? 

For me, it’s the fit achieved through the combination of hand cutting, multiple fittings and re-cutting, and the handwork that puts a swell in the chest, or a curve in the trouser leg. 

When you see a master tailor cut cloth for your body, loosely sew it together, and then drape it around you, you start to realise how different this is. 

How he unpicks the shoulder seam, to move the front and back panels closer (but at a diagonal). To run it more flatteringly down your back. 

And then, the other places that need adjustment to keep the bottom hem of the jacket straight, given the whole back has just been moved up, across, and twisted. It’s shaping material around your body.

Clothing you. 

Made-to-measure tailoring has improved hugely in recent decades. I’ve experienced very good MTM at Saman Amel, for instance, which deals with the angle of shoulders and whether one is lower than the other. 

But this is always going to be an approximation. How many options do you have available for shoulder angle? Three? Five? A tailor has an infinite number - not just in measurements by the fraction of an inch, but by re-positioning on the body exactly, pinning and then re-cutting. 

And it’s rarely efficient for MTM to include all the handwork of bespoke. Hand-attached collar? Great, but lining still by machine. Hand-padded chest? Great, but still a low armhole. 

The fit of bespoke, then, and the way it can be more comfortable, flatter you, and even add style though the control of a lapel roll, or the building of a sleevehead. 

Two more benefits come high on my list. 

Relationship. This is something it’s hard to appreciate except personally, over time.

It’s not about knowing the person who cuts your clothes. It’s the fact they will still be there next year, when you order again. That they will get to know what you like. They might even become a friend.

Brands try to do this kind of thing all the time. Have VIP rooms, give you special treatment. But it’s never the same - because the staff change, and they rarely knew anything in the first place. 

Choice. This is the one that gets most people into bespoke or MTM. The ability to pick your own cloth, cut, details. It means you can have something individual, and build your own personal wardrobe. 

However, I put it third on my list of important factors because MTM can have as many choices as bespoke, sometimes more. A brand like Ralph Lauren, for instance, will have cloths available for MTM that it has designed and are exclusive to it. 

Also, the longer you buy bespoke, the more you miss design. Because it will always be the most important thing about making your clothes look good, and because tailors are often not great at it. Choice is great, if you can choose well. 

That’s my attempt to put down the benefits, in around 1000 words. Any more than that, and I’ll overwhelm the newcomer. 

I’m sure I will have missed things out. And each of the points could of course be a post on its own. But this is a starting point, not an ending. 

The only final thing I’d say is that the problems I highlight in reviews are often due to two things. 

First, bespoke is an open, creative process. It is starting from scratch - opening wide the doors to possibility. It is the opposite of MTM, which attempts to narrow down and refine.

This means that sometimes things go wrong, but they get better over time. The hardest thing to tell first-time customers is: your second suit will be better. Because your cutter will learn how best to clothe your body, and because you’ll learn better what you want. 

Second, because bespoke is expensive (relative to RTW; it’s actually cheap for what it is), there will always be people trying to undercut on price. They’ll do this by cutting corners, or setting out on their own before they’re ready. 

This is a vast simplification of course - as is this whole article, necessarily - but it means you should always be a little sceptical about bespoke that is cheap. Because even tailors that charge a lot aren’t making much. 

So is bespoke worth it? It depends on your priorities. Consider the ones I’ve set out, and how much they matter to you. 

Don’t buy bespoke for tradition, for history, or for design. Don’t spend an irresponsible amount of money and think it will meet your wildest expectations.

But always buy the best you can afford, and if that’s bespoke, try a well-established tailor and see what you think about how the distinct way the fit makes you look. 

Other posts worth reading:

Photography: Fitting by Nicola Cornacchia. More on Cornacchia here. Shot by Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man