Bespoke suit, Anderson & Sheppard
This is the first in a series of articles that will, overall, create an in-depth guide to buying tailoring. Some of these areas have been covered before on the site, but not in this much depth – and we will link to further questions and posts that provide yet more analysis.
What’s the difference between bespoke, MTM and RTW?
The revival of menswear in recent years, driven by a combination of enthusiasts, innovative menswear companies and internet communication, has meant that whether a man is looking to buy a single suit or an entire wardrobe, he has never had so many options.
Unfortunately, that choice is often obscured by brands and their marketing – particularly when it comes to differentiating between bespoke, made-to-measure and ready-to-wear suiting.
This difference is neither incidental nor arbitrary. It is crucial to the consideration that goes into buying a new suit, and can be tightly defined.
Sized coat patterns hanging up
What is ready to wear (RTW)?
A RTW suit is bought off the rack, in a cut and style determined by the designer. The development of the RTW suit was pioneered in the 1950s, when manufacturers segmented the male form into different sizes for mass production. The vast majority of the world’s suits are now made this way.
What are the benefits of RTW?
Immediacy: Each RTW suit is pre-made to a generic size and specification. So as long as you are happy with the size and style, you can purchase a suit off the rack that fits and take it home that day. No need to wait; no need for multiple fittings over several weeks; no need to imagine what the suit might look like.
Relative affordability: The nature of mass production means RTW suits are usually the most affordable, and the growth of menswear also means there are a lot of RTW choices.
The increased quality of construction, use of details once reserved for bespoke, and large range of fabrics means RTW is no longer limited to trendy suits with glued lapels made up in drab, cheap fabrics.
Better RTW suitmakers tend to be differentiated by the time they put into their suits. Indeed the very best (eg Kiton or Cesare Attolini) are largely handmade, although the extra work tends to go into finishing that the customer can immediately see and appreciate (hand-sewn buttonholes) rather than more fundamental structuring (hand-padded chest).
Working table, Kiton, Naples
What are the drawbacks of ready to wear?
A pre-defined fit: Despite these benefits and the advancement in quality, detail and construction, most men run into the inevitable issue of fit.
Even a rudimentary list of measurements such as chest, shoulder, sleeve length, waist (for both jacket and trousers) and trouser length, illustrates that few men are likely to possess the dimensions to fit a RTW suit size exactly. So while a suit may fit well in some areas, it may be too long, short, loose or tight in others.
For this reason, we would always recommend having a RTW suit altered, if only slightly.
Little personal expression: Another aspect of RTW is that the suit is imagined for you, so if a store doesn’t have the colour, cut or fabric you’re looking for, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
This won’t be an issue for some – indeed many like having the shape and cut led by an experienced designer – but those interested in menswear will over time want to start making their own sartorial choices around cloth, cut and finishing. Which brings us to made to measure…
Fitting for a Kiton Lasa (MTM) jacket
What is made to measure (MTM)?
The MTM suit is like RTW, but with the benefit of an altered fit. You visit the store, but instead of taking a suit of your choice away that day, the salesman takes a few measurements and choices in cloth and style, they are sent to a factory (usually the same factory where the RTW is made) and the result after a few weeks’ wait is a suit cut to your personal dimensions. The chest, waist, sleeve length, trouser length and trouser waist are all yours.
What are the benefits of made to measure?
Greater scope for personal expression: One interesting aspect of MTM is the cloth, buttons and other trimmings available. In some ways, the offering can be wider than bespoke.
The cloths are often more original than most of the bunches cloth mills supply to bespoke, because the MTM brand is closer to RTW, where cloths are usually more experimental. They are also often exclusive to that brand, again as with RTW.
With the resurgence of interest in personalisation, high-end MTM has also become more widely available in recent years, particularly among Italian brands that don’t do bespoke (Brioni, Caruso, Pal Zileri, Canali, Cucinelli etc).
The best of both worlds, right? So in MTM we have the (near) immediacy of RTW, especially in contrast to the months taken for bespoke. Similar (if not greater) options for cloth and finishing, at a price point closer to RTW than bespoke. And personalised measurements. It sounds like the best of both worlds.
Picking cloth from swatch books
What are the drawbacks of made to measure?
Better fit…to a point: Even MTM suits that take into account a dozen or more measurements rarely fit as well as bespoke. Imagine the long, S-shaped curve of your back (image below). How many measurements does it take to recreate that?
MTM only really deals in simple, flat, two-dimensional measurements. It can make the length of sleeves correct, but it cannot account for how much you stoop or which shoulder is lower than the other.
A salesman can be good…but he’s not a tailor: The other problem with MTM is that the fitting is done by a salesman, not a tailor. So while the potential of MTM is quite large, the result often doesn’t fulfil it.
Unless you are an unusual size (eg tall with very long arms), a RTW suit altered by a good tailor will often fit as well as a MTM suit of the same price. The only remaining advantage of MTM is that you can pick your material, lining and style. For some, that is significant.
Chittleborough & Morgan bespoke suit.
What is bespoke?
Bespoke, as regular readers will know, involves creating a suit from the ground up. It can take any form, any shape, any material, and is usually handmade by two or three tailors.
The process begins with an initial discussion as to your needs (what type of suit you are after, your ideas on the style and cloth if any, and the ways and occasions you may have to wear it).
The tailor then takes your measurements – a seemingly endless number, with detailed notes that take into account aspects of posture and body shape that only a trained eye could notice.
A set of bespoke paper patterns is then drawn and cut (some elements by eye), with the cutter using his measurements and notes as a guide.
The cloth you’ve chosen is then cut using these patterns, and over the course of several fittings the fit is refined to the final product (usually between two and three, but potentially more until things are right).
What are the benefits of bespoke?
Superior fit: Clearly, the biggest benefit of bespoke is the fit. While there is enough detail on fit to write another whole guide, suffice to say that a good bespoke suit should fit like nothing else. It should hug your shoulders, create a clean back, and run in a sharp, flattering line from shoulder to waist. It will also often be more comfortable.
Longevity: The work that goes into everything from the lining of the waistband to the stitching of the pockets means the suit should last longer than anything mass-produced.
That handwork also makes it easier to adjust over time, and it will be adjusted by someone that has served you before and is familiar with your body and your style. Unlike a salesman who is likely to change every year.
Total creative control: Bespoke also offers the opportunity to develop a truly individual garment, not just in shape but in material, detail and finishing.
While your imagination is the only theoretical limit, a good tailor will also use their experience and sense of style to help guide you in pushing those boundaries without going too far. First-timers often make very showy suits, and then barely wear them (despite it being their highest quality and best-fitting).
A basted fitting for a Dalcuore bespoke suit
What are the drawbacks of bespoke?
Timing and expense: Bespoke takes time. Typically a first suit from a tailor will require three fittings, each a few weeks apart. Some positively enjoy this process, but it’s not for the impatient. And it’s expensive: a bespoke suit can cost anywhere from £1000 to £6000.
It won’t be perfect the first time: Some people have their first bespoke suit made and think that, because they can change everything, it will be perfect. But there is such a thing as too much freedom.
You’re opening the creative floodgates, stepping outside the mathematical rigour of mass production. It’s great fun, but there will always be things that you want to change six months later, if only because you only slowly realise what you wanted in the first place.
Tailors also refine their pattern over time. So there’s a good chance your second suit with a tailor will fit ever-so-slightly better than the first one. The first will still be better than RTW or MTM, but in that sense too it won’t necessarily be perfect.
Bespoke jacket fitting by Kathryn Sargent (then head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes)
Where the three overlap
While I’ve outlined three distinct categories, the difference is not always clear cut.
Some RTW is made better than some bespoke (eg Kiton has more handwork than Graham Browne). MTM comes at hugely varying price points and quality levels (anywhere from £300 to £4000). Bespoke also varies a lot in quality of finishing and design.
But in the end, you buy RTW for the design and the price.
You choose MTM when you want to change the fit and to personalise the suit.
And you choose bespoke when you want a mixture of the best fit and the best quality.
For me, fit is always the most important thing about a suit, as it has such possibility to flatter a man – to make him look leaner, stronger and sharper. That is the biggest reason to choose bespoke. Quality and design should be considered separately.
Edward Sexton bespoke suit
A few weeks ago I received my final pair of Foster & Son bespoke shoes. The process has, unfortunately, been both good and bad.
First, the good. The fitting I had with John Spencer – Foster’s lastmaker – was impressive. The fit around the heel cup was spot on, which is particularly important to the fit of a shoe, and particularly required for me as I have a very slim heel and ankle.
As you can see in the images lower down, that bespoke fit on a slim heel is also beautiful – one of the most attractive aspects of a finished bespoke shoe.
When I received the final shoe, the fit was even better. Not only perfect in the heel but with exactly the right amount of room for my toes to move freely.
It was the best fit (in a first shoe) I have had from any of the bespoke shoemakers I’ve used (Cleverley, Santoni, Stefano Bemer, Norman Villalta, Tim Little, Antonio pio Mele, Gaziano & Girling).
The only thing that could have been improved was the arch of the foot, which had some excess leather. Interestingly, this is something most makers have struggled with, with the exception of Saint Crispin’s (review coming soon).
The last and toe shape was a little unusual – ‘banana shaped’ as some of the Italian makers call it. Essentially, the inside line of the shoe (A, above) was straighter and the outside line (B) more bent than any other last shape I’ve had made.
I have wide joints (where the toes meet the foot) so there is some width to get around. But other makers have angled the inside line more, to make both inside and outside more similar. Compare them to my first Cleverleys as an example.
It’s not something I feel strongly about, particularly as you only notice it when looking from the top, which no one but myself will do. But on balance I would have that changed.
You can see the effect of that sculpted waist in the image above, where the sole effectively disappears halfway along the shoe. The look is so much lighter.
My favourite area of bespoke making is the heel, however.
Look at the heel cup from the side (above). Not only does it follow a lovely, bespoke line around my heel and up into the ankle (C), but the heel stack of the shoe itself is pitched forward (D), continuing that line.
Some bespoke shoes don’t use a pitched heel anymore and I think it’s a real shame. Without being anywhere near as extreme as a Cuban heel, you can get a lovely angle that is much more in keeping with the curved line of the heel cup above it.
Of course, some RTW shoes have the same lines (eg Deco) and other bespoke makers (largely Japanese) are more extreme. But I find it striking how much I enjoy the way that shoe’s heel is shaped to mine. So many heels suddenly look very square and clunky.
Unfortunately, there were some significant problems with the finishing of the Foster’s shoes.
When I first received them, the height of the polish and variation in colour was beautiful. That’s the finish you can see in the images at the top of this post, and I mentioned how impressed I was on Instagram at the time.
But that polish quickly began to chip away. Within three days’ wear, large chips of the polish started to come off, making the colour patchy and horrible. (Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures at this stage.)
It turned out this was because the extreme colour effect had been attempted just with polish, rather than dye, and on aniline leather, which is much harder to add colour to than a crust leather.
Foster’s offered to redo the finish, and stripped back most of the colour. But that left black streaks around the welt and a pale patch on the toe where too much had been taken away.
In the end, I took the shoes to another patina-artist who was able to give them the colour you can see on all these other pictures. That wasn’t easy on aniline either, but I’m pleased we were able to rescue them.
City makers such as Foster’s, Lobb and Cleverley have never done much finishing of shoes. But they need to get it right when they do more.
If I had paid full price (I only paid for the cost of materials in this case) I would have been very unimpressed. In fact it might put the normal buyer off bespoke shoes entirely.
So a tale of two halves, but hopefully something Foster’s can correct given the fundamentals of a great bespoke service are all there.
Top images: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man, at Cifonelli in Paris
Here is the interview produced during my recent visit to the Leatherfoot Emporium in Toronto, as part of their grand opening.
Some interesting questions about quality and craft, and you get a bit of a sense of the work of Signor Francesco’s tailoring too.
More on LeatherFoot and the event here.
Earlier this year I started a bespoke summer suit with tailors Manning & Manning. They are a small operation comprising old Row cutter Bryan Manning (above) and his son, with the making outsourced to various coatmakers and trouser makers.
Rather like other tailors covered recently, such as Whitcomb & Shaftesbury, I was interested whether Manning & Manning could provide an entry-level bespoke experience, given their low costs but experienced cutting.
Bryan has an interesting background, having worked for many film and TV operations making period suits. He won an Emmy in 1985 for his work on the suits for ‘Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story’ starring Richard Chamberlain.
Bryan came from a family of tailors, apprenticed at Kilgour French & Stanbury and became a trainee cutter there a few years later, in 1959. In 1970 he opened his first shop on his own, and had outfits on St Christopher’s Place, Savile Row and Maddox Street.
In the early 1990s Bryan shifted to being a travelling tailor, and was joined by his son in 1997. He sees clients in the Holland & Sherry showrooms on Savile Row.
In yet another twist on the standard Row model, Bryan offers two services: Semi-Bespoke and Full Bespoke.
Both are cut by Bryan to a fully bespoke paper pattern, but the former has a fused chest piece and the latter a floating, hand-padded one.
Semi-Bespoke with a fused interlining costs £1000. It’s hard to recommend that, given that you can get a Graham Browne floating interlining for the same price. But the Full Bespoke costs only £1350 (both inclusive of VAT).
For the commission, I went for a summer-weight wool – the Cape Horn bunch from Holland & Sherry. (Number 1323, 8.5 ounce.)
It’s a high-twist fabric, so like Fresco it can have a slightly open weave and wears cool in the heat. It is also pretty crease-resistant, making it good for travelling. Hard creases will need to be pressed out, but that’s the same with most high-twists.
It isn’t as coarse as Fresco, which makes it nicer against the skin, although not as hard wearing (not much of a concern for me as it’s unlikely to be an everyday suit).
I liked the colour as it is a muted tan, with a touch of olive. Not too classic and colonial, but definitely a summer suit.
The photographs here are of the second fitting. Bryan likes ready-made fitting jackets alongside measurememts, which some people sniff at but several high-end tailors (including Camps de Luca) also use.
He makes use of that system to go straight to a forward fitting, with no baste. This works well if fundamental things like balance are correct straight from the off, but involve more work if they are not. In my case, the front-to-back balance did need some alteration.
The second fitting was good. Just a few minor things to clear up here and it should be ready.
Bryan’s style is solidly English military, with a built-up shoulder, structured chest and longer jacket. (By comparison to the French and Italian tailors, rather than others around the Row).
Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man
Shirt: Luca Avitabile
Shoes: Bespoke, Stefano Bemer
Tie: Green cashmere, Howard’s
A couple of years ago the Royal Academy asked Bryan to comment on Moroni’s well-known painting of a tailor. There are a few nice points in the video create, here:
The following is an extract from my book Best of British: The Stories Behind Britain’s Iconic Brands, published by Prestel. Dedicated copies are available to buy here
James Smith & Sons
Two or three times every day, a bell rings through the shop of James Smith & Sons in London. It proclaims, to the waiting shop staff, that an umbrella is ready.
When a customer purchases one of the house’s single-stick umbrellas, the tip of the umbrella must be cut to a length that corresponds to the customer’s height.
A single-stick umbrella is essentially a walking stick with a canopy, and is strong enough to be used in the same way. The customer must be measured, therefore, using an old adjustable stick, and the tip cut to size.
The adjustment is done in the workshop downstairs, while the customer waits. He peruses the rare snakewood canes, perhaps, and their ornate carved handles. Or stares out onto the busy street outside: James Smith & Sons is, as a writer once said, an island in a sea of traffic.
Then all of a sudden, the clear peal of the bell. A subterranean worker, rather than walk all the way up to the shop, has struck the bell with his finished umbrella and left it hanging on an adjacent rail. It’s a delightful way to be informed that your order is ready.
The existence of such traditions will not surprise a casual visitor to Hazelwood House – the building James Smith & Sons has occupied since 1857 on New Oxford Street.
There is a myriad of souvenirs from almost 150 years in continuous business, including an odd little mezzanine – where clerks can look down suspiciously on customers – and a horseshoe hanging from the ceiling – to ward off the bad luck of opening umbrellas indoors.
Robert Harvey, who runs the firm today, is the fifth generation to be in charge. The name hasn’t been Smith for a while – it changed through marriage – but he is proud to still run a family-owned company in the centre of London.
His son-in-law, Phil, also works in the shop, and recently had a son. “That boy’s future is all set out for him,” Robert quips.
The company was founded in 1830 on Foubert’s Place, just off Regent Street. James Smith was a one-man band with a workshop in the back and a counter in the front. Customers would ring for attention and he would come out to take orders.
“I like to think that we retain some of that same atmosphere,” says Robert, “with the workshop downstairs and orders coming up and down.”
There have been a few eccentric orders over the years (though fewer these days, with many of the customers international or online).
One customer famously wanted an umbrella in every English wood that was available. James Smith & Sons fulfilled the order, with over 40 umbrellas in total. “We could probably do the same today, but most of the woods wouldn’t be grown in England unfortunately,” says Robert.
The trouble is trees must be farmed specifically to supply sticks for umbrellas. They are ‘coppiced’, with the trunk cut off about three feet from the ground and new shoots allowed to grow out.
So apple wood, perhaps the most English of the materials available, cannot be harvested from apple orchards. It requires dedicated farming – most of which is now in Italy or eastern Europe.
Most visitors to James Smith & Sons are not looking for dozens of woods, however, or even something special. They just want a well-made, functional umbrella – and this is precisely what the company has always prided itself on supplying.
“We like to think of ourselves as a democratic operation, with an emphasis on quality and utility,” says Robert.
The shop still sells umbrellas for £15, as well as £500, and can repair almost anything. It’s a far cry from the disposable, £5 umbrellas sold at most London train stations – but also refreshingly different from the sniffy boutiques of Mayfair.
Photography: Horst Friedrichs