High-end fashion designers are edging into the booming market for specially made men’s suits, prompting a backlash from Savile Row tailors about the way these makers are labelling their offerings.
Big retailers including Brooks Brothers have already succeeded in getting customers to pay more for so-called made-to-measure suits. Now, luxury labels, including Tom Ford, Versace and Jil Sander, are rolling out their own options that start at 20% to 30% higher than their off-the-rack lines.
The entrance of designers in the market is creating a greater range of options for men who don't want an off-the-rack suit. But the different terminologies for these suits—custom, bespoke and made-to-measure—are making it confusing for consumers and rankling the traditional purveyors of custom suits.
At Dege & Skinner, a tailor for 142 years on Savile Row in London, managing director William Skinner worries that customers will think that made-to-measure, which typically involves using a stock pattern that is then adjusted to fit the client’s measurements and taste, is the same thing as bespoke or custom, which means starting from scratch. “It’s like false trading or false advertising,” says Skinner, who recently joined fellow tailors to trademark the phrase ‘Savile Row Bespoke’ and develop a code describing what it means.
For made-to-measure, a customer selects a style of suit, the fabric and finishes like lining, pockets and buttons. At least six measurements are taken. The suit is cut from a preproduced pattern, adjusted according to those measurements. The process can be done by hand, machine or both. Clients usually return for at least one fitting.
While some made-to-measure and custom suits are made in the U.S., the designer brands take measurements in the U.S. and other countries that they send to tailors, often in Italy. Custom suits are made entirely from scratch—mostly by hand, in a process that can take at least two or three fittings and at least eight weeks. More than 20 measurements are taken for a bespoke garment.
With sales of off-the-rack suits down nearly 6% last year, designers are keen to find ways to distinguish themselves from mass-producers like Hart Schaffner Marx and Joseph Abboud, who are increasingly rolling out better-quality suits in the under-$1,000 range. In the U.S., the custom and made-to-measure market now accounts for 15% to 17% of suits costing more than $1,200, (approx. Rs50,000) up from 10% five years ago, estimates the Custom Tailors & Designers Association. “One of a kind is the ultimate luxury,” says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of consultant Luxury Institute.
But one of the designer’s new suits can cost more than a Savile Row bespoke suit—even if it’s made-to-measure. Ford, the former Gucci creative director who launched a menswear line this past week, is offering what he calls “custom” suits but are actually made-to-measures, starting at $5,000. At Jil Sander, which calls its made-to-measures “bespoke suits” that are “custom cut, hand sewn and precision-tailored,” prices range from $2,880 to $6,600. A Prada made-to-measure vicuña suit will set a man back $26,000.
The top price at Savile Row’s oldest shop, Henry Poole & Co., by contrast, is about $9,900 for a vicuña and silk suit.
Amid all these changes in the suit market, Savile Row tailors banded together to create the trade group Savile Row Bespoke (and later trademarked it as a phrase) in 2004. The move was a response, in part, to an increase in tailors’ claims to be making custom suits. The Savile Row group intensified its efforts to promote their tailoring last summer as Italian designer Giorgio Armani launched his custom line. At the time, Armani created a stir with a quote in the Sunday Times of London, dismissing Savile Row as “an outdated institution that has failed to keep up with modern tastes, lifestyle and technology.” Armani later said in a letter to the editor that he meant his “hand made to measure” suits blend the traditional and the modern. “There is plenty of room for both of us,” he concluded.
But for Savile Row tailors, the episode underscored how much the world had changed. “Our attitude was the quality of the products speaks for itself,” says Anda Rowland, co-chairman of Savile Row bespoke house Anderson & Sheppard and one of the group’s five directors. “We let other people eat out of our market.” The tailors decided they had to strike back.
The Savile Row Bespoke group based its code on rules set by France’s couture federation. Under the code, most of which is posted on a Web site the group launched in January, only suits that are handmade, taking at least 50 hours, and done on or within 100 yards of Savile Row, can call themselves Savile Row Bespoke. The group is still mulling how to enforce the trademark.
The designers, meanwhile, say they want to appeal to both existing customers and men who already have their clothes made to order. “It’s not only for the fashion people,” says Roberto Lorenzini, president and chief operating officer of Versace’s U.S. retail division. “It’s also for people working in finance. The customer who comes to us can have something more classical.”
But the designers may have a hard sell. Robert Storm, an attorney in West Hartford, Conn., who favours custom and made-to-measure suits, says designers don’t appeal to him. “The reason I go to tailors is that I get to select something that is appealing to me rather than something that looks like I walked out of an ad for Vogue,” he says.
Custom: $4,500 to $22,000
Comment: The new custom line is called Hand Made to Measure, but it qualifies as custom because a new model is created specifically for the customer. The suits also meet 19 other custom criteria, including having hand-stitching at the collar edge and elsewhere, the company says.
Off-the-Rack:$898 to $1,700
Made-to-Measure:$1,150 to $3,995
Comment: Customers can choose a suit with half-canvas construction, where the panel that gives the jacket its shape is glued rather than sewn in, or full-canvas construction and more hand-stitching.
Waiting time:Six or eight weeks, depending on which type of suit is ordered.
Off-the-Rack: $1,095 to $2,000
Custom:$3,500 to $22,000
Comment:The designer, best known for founding Nautica, calls his custom line Bespoke David Chu. At Chu’s custom shop in New York, 16 measurements are taken for the jacket and 10 for the trousers. Tailors near Naples, Italy, use the measurements to create suits by hand.
Comment: The former Gucci creative director, who just launched a menswear line, calls his suits “custom,” but they’re made-to-measure because they’re based on an existing model. “It is not complete bespoke,” he acknowledges, adding: “We're a hybrid.”
Waiting time: Seven weeks.
Gieves & Hawkes
Made-to-Measure: About $1,400 to $4,000
Custom:About $6,000 to $29,800
Comment:At this Savile Row shop, bespoke suits are made from scratch by tailors who do 52 hours of hand labour on each. Customers have a choice of 10,000 fabrics.
Waiting time:12 weeks, six for made-to-measure.
Off-the-Rack:$1,495 to $2,900
Made-to-Measure:$2,880 to $6,600
Comment: Jil Sander Sartorial suits are made-to-measure as they’re based on existing models that are adapted to clients’ measurements. Fabric is cut by hand. Tailors in Milan do 26 steps by hand to make a jacket and 12 to make trousers.
Waiting time:Four weeks.
Off-the-rack: Premade suits that can be slightly altered.
Made-to-measure: Suits cut from a stock pattern, then adjusted for a personalized fit
Custom or bespoke: Suits made from scratch and almost entirely by hand.
Made-to-order: An umbrella term for made-to-measure and custom suits.
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