This article was originally published on Christies International Real Estates blog Luxury Defined.
Suits come in every shape, style, and price point. They can be conjured from utilitarian cotton or the finest wool and cashmere blends. Yet when it comes to the end result—how it looks on you—there is nothing that outclasses a bespoke suit. Why settle for the clothing equivalent of a city run-around when you could have the full-throated purr of a Rolls-Royce?
A tailor will take dozens of measurements during the fitting process to ensure a perfect fit. Image: Getty Images
The History of Bespoke Tailoring
The word bespoke, in relation to tailoring, was first coined in 18th-century London. It referred to a roll of cloth which was “spoken for,” or reserved for a gentleman who would then instruct his tailor to transform it into a suit.
Today, in much the same way, a bespoke suit is handmade by highly skilled tailors from a single length of cloth with the addition of lining, padding, and buttons. A tailor will undertake several years of apprenticeship after learning basic skills such as fitting sleeves onto the body of the coat. Cutting patterns, taking over 80 detailed measurements of a customer’s body, and sewing seams and edges by hand are all part of the process.
Tailors are able to offer expert advice on which styles work well together and customers can choose between many different fabric patterns and materials. Image: Getty Images
Bespoke is the closest menswear comes to couture—the rarified world of Parisian one-off fashion—as every suit is unique. It is designed to fit his—and increasingly, her—body like a glove. On a slightly longer left or right arm for instance or broad shoulders or narrow waist, a bespoke suit will accommodate, yield, and mold itself to the wearer’s form.
Today, more women are choosing a bespoke suit and enjoying the comfort of such a precise fit. Many women are still, after more than 40 years, taking inspiration from an incomparable example—the versions created by Edward Sexton for Bianca Jagger in the 1970s.
“The first Sexton bespoke woman customer was Bianca,” explains Dominic Sebag-Montefiore, creative director at Edward Sexton. “This has remained the basis of our women’s bespoke to this day. We also put internal pockets in women’s jackets so they can carry a credit card and other small things,” he adds.
Mick and Bianca Jagger understood the appeal of the tailored suit—while Yves Saint Laurent made Bianca’s wedding suit (shown), London-based tailor Edward Sexton made a range of others for the couple. Image: Alamy
Only recently Edward Sexton made an elegantly fitted bespoke suit for singer Annie Lennox. She described the thrill of wearing it as making you “want to stand up tall; your whole posture is adjusted.”
The pleasure of a bespoke suit is found in the details and the measuring and fitting process, which can create an intimate relationship between tailor and customer. A bespoke suit’s trousers, for instance, are usually longer at the back than the front so they “break” over the wearer’s shoe in a precise way while still touching the shoe’s heel behind—a detail regarded by tailoring aficionados as the ideal length; both covering the ankle and lengthening the legs.
The production process behind making a custom-made suit jacket is complex, and requires the skill of a master tailor. Image: Getty Images
The Difference Between Made-to-Measure and Bespoke
To be clear on the difference, a made-to-measure suit has already been made up and would have been machined rather than hand-sewn. Yet it can be infinitely adjusted by hand to fit the customer making it closer to a bespoke suit than an off-the-peg style. It will be about 20–30 percent less expensive than a bespoke suit, which may cost several thousand dollars depending on fabric and finish.
“We come to New York and Los Angeles four times per year,” says Sebag-Montefiore. “New York clients mean business and they want to show it. They are less reserved than our British clients. In L.A. people seem to have more fun with their clothes: more outrageous pieces and more flexibility in what they can wear, even for traditionally conservative professions like the law.”
“There is no off-the-peg suit that can compete with the precision and craftsmanship of a handmade bespoke suit,” says Thom Whiddett of Thom Sweeney, a tailoring duo from London which recently opened its first store in New York City. “We would take a suite at the Gramercy Park Hotel every two months,” Sweeney explains. “We’d bring a couple of our cutters over from London to create an informal, friendly space to help our customers choose their cloth, and be measured and fitted for our bespoke suits.”
To make a bespoke suit, a tailor will take several measurements and then cut a pattern from tissue paper, before attaching it to the chosen fabric. Image: Getty Images
Typically, a bespoke suit needs multiple measurements of the customer’s body. Not only their arm length, but also the distance between shoulder and elbow and knee to ankle. Such precision ensures the suit’s eventual custom fit. Slightly sloping shoulders instantly became broader and balanced. Leg length differences are “corrected” by the accommodating fit.
The Intimacy of the Bespoke Suit Experience
“Bespoke tailoring in its essence is trend-free,” says Patrick Grant, creative director of Norton & Sons in Savile Row, London, a bespoke tailoring house formed in 1821 that once made suits for actor Cary Grant. “The only trend we follow is making excellent bespoke tailoring. We are fully aware of what’s marching down the catwalks on a seasonal basis, but customers who come to us aren’t looking for fashion, they are looking for style. And style doesn’t follow trends,” Grant adds emphatically.
Thom Sweeneys atelier in Londons Mayfair, where the bespoke tailoring appointments and fittings take place. The workshop is situated in the basement.
This is the intimacy that the bespoke suit experience offers. The experience of sitting in an elegantly appointed atelier discussing your next bespoke suit is so appealing. Imagine being hosted by a charming, elegantly suited tailor while leafing through fabric swatches and nursing a tumbler of single-malt whisky as you plan your next party suit. This is about as far from the squeal of modern fashion as you can possibly get.