Inevitably in any online discussion of ready-to-wear clothing, someone will recommend as refuge from any ailment clothing can inflict: “Go Bespoke.” The solution to all your problems, real or imagined. Go Bespoke, young man. Travel to this fabled land where dropped shoulders are raised, where bird chests are swelled to heroic proportions, and beer bellies made to appear six-packs of San Pellegrino. How? It’s bespoke, anything is possible! If, that is, you are worthy. Pure of heart, wise in fabrics, and sagacious of fit.
This is not how bespoke works. That’s not to say that bespoke tailoring isn’t worth the time and expense that it requires. For many, there is no substitute for it. But it is not a magic elixir. Nor does deciding to spend an equivalent amount of money on ready-to-wear clothing represent some personal failing of either judgment or morals.
I hope to give an idea of what bespoke clothing can and can’t offer. This will vary from tailor to tailor. My comments are meant to be as general as possible, drawing from my experience with four different custom tailors (plus five shirtmakers and a couple of custom tie-makers, but this article is mostly meant to refer to jackets and trousers).
The closest analogy I can think of is the difference between a dinner in a restaurant and one made for you by a personal chef, except that in each case you have to commit to eating that dish once a week for years.
Ready-to-wear clothing is like food in a restaurant. You are presented with a menu of options. You may be able to change each dish slightly at the margins, but essentially everything that’s available is on the menu. Before committing to eating a dish for years to come, you can try a sample off the production line and see what you think. Of course, there are all sorts of restaurants. Some are very good and very expensive, some are terrible and expensive, some are just terrible. Finding very good and reasonably cheap is rare but not impossible.
Bespoke clothing is like hiring a personal chef. Although your dinner is made just for you, a chef tends to specialize in a certain type of cuisine. He may be talented and versatile. But even though he knows how to use a knife and stove and can look up a recipe on the Internet, it doesn’t make much sense to ask Mario Batali for Kung Pao Chicken. The fact that it’s custom-made for you doesn’t mean that you can or should ask whatever you want of a particular chef.
Since your chef is cooking just for you that night as opposed to working in a big kitchen designed to pump out hundreds of dishes a night, it’s likely (although not certain) that he will take more care with each production step, and put more thought into each design choice. You can give him general direction on what you want (what sort of dish, what kinds of flavors you like most, what will be required for a particular occasion) the vast majority of these design and production choices (what kind of pots to use, where to source the meat, how much salt in the marinade) will be made by the cook without your input, and likely without you ever even knowing that there was a choice to be made.
Nor is the personal chef guaranteed to be “better” than a restaurant. You can hire the guy flipping burgers at your local fast food joint to be your personal chef. You’ll probably get a better meal by going to a three-star Michelin restaurant. Even hiring a highly acclaimed personal chef is no guarantee of satisfaction. You may not communicate with him well. He may execute his dishes well but in a style that you don’t like. He may have a fondness for using some ingredient to which you are allergic.
Nor are you necessarily going to get a better meal by asking your personal chef to make you cobia just like they make at Le Bernardin, except just for you. Even if your chef is as talented as Eric Ripert, there are many variables that go into making the cobia at Le Bernardin. If what you want is the cobia at Le Bernardin, make a reservation there and order the cobia.
Finally, there’s no particular expertise necessary to just turn your nightly menu over to a talented chef. If you aren’t too picky and like his general style, and just want high quality food that will nourish you and be acceptable to the vast majority of guests that come to your house for dinner, choose a generally acclaimed chef (this is going to be expensive) and put yourself in his hands.
All the same concepts apply to the differences between ready-made and bespoke clothing. When you buy clothing in the store, you have a pretty decent idea of what it is going to look like on you, even after alterations. And there is high-quality RTW that looks great.
If you’re satisfied with the way off-the-peg garments look on you, there’s no need to “go bespoke” in the hopes that it’ll be the same, just better. It will almost certainly not be the same, and whether or not it’s better will likely be open to interpretation. Bespoke represents a risk, since you don’t know what the finished product will look like. You have some idea based on what you see on other clients, and you have some control over the development of the product during the fittings, but uncertainty remains.
On the other hand, when a bespoke piece really gets it right, which quality tailors are able to do fairly reliably, fellow travelers and, more importantly, its owner, will recognize it as a beautiful and unique thing that nothing from a store could ever match. The wearer also has a personal connection to the garment’s origin and development, a comfort as dignified as it is archaic. To those who recognize the value in these things, there is no substitute. They will continue to chase the woolen dragon until either their lifetime or their bank account has been exhausted.
If you have seen such a garment, and have this sensibility, then you’ll know what I mean already. We may not agree on which are the truly inspirational masterpieces. But we will share the experience.
If you haven’t had this experience, you can, of course, still commission quality bespoke clothing, if you have the money and patience for it. There are no secret code words you have to whisper to the tailor to earn his attention. It will be helpful if you can express some ways that you’re dissatisfied with the ready-to-wear garments you already own, but it is not necessary. Just answer his questions honestly and let him do his thing. As I indicated above with the chef analogies, once you have chosen your tailor, most of the stylistic decisions have already been made. You have to trust him. If you no longer trust him, it’s time to find a new tailor.
If all this sounds really scary and bothersome to you, then you’ll probably be a happier person if you just stick to ready-made clothes. It doesn’t make you any worse of a person, just as owning bespoke suits does not make you a better person.
Whatever is on your plate, buon appetito.
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