PURSUITS
Pur-suit of perfection
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, April 27, 2012

Bespoke tailoring at Savile Row continues to be on a roll, proving class — as far as men’s suiting ranges are concerned — can never go out of fashion

Here’s a statistic that might intrigue you. During the current near-recession when menswear designers all over the world are offering discounts and holding sales, guess how many people have lost their jobs at the tailoring establishments of Savile Row?

None.

Yes, that’s right. Not a single tailor has been sacked. No salespeople have been retrenched. And the grand old firms continue to hire new apprentices in their tailoring department.

To put this in perspective, you must realise how expensive a genuine Savile Row bespoke suit is. At most tailors, the starting price for bespoke is over 3,000 pounds. And that’s just for the basic two-piece suit. If you want a waistcoat, the suit will cost more. And there’s no limit to how high the price tag can be once we consider fabrics that are a few degrees above basic.

The expense is only one part of the process. There is also the waiting. Typically, a customer who wants a bespoke suit will be shown a range of fabrics and asked to select one. Then, he will be told about the tailor’s signature style and asked if he wants his suit cut to that shape. If the customer says no, then other options will be offered.

But even once the tailor and the customer have agreed on style and fabric, there are dozens of little details that need to be attended to. Does the customer want the pockets on a suit slanted? Does he want flaps over them? Does he want two inside pockets or just one? Is he going to wear his trousers with a belt or should the tailor make provision for braces (suspenders)? What kind of buttons would the customer prefer? And so on.

After all this is over comes the actual act of measurement. A cutter takes detailed measurements of the customer’s body and asks if he wants the trousers to fit snugly. Or would he prefer an extra inch around the waist to help him cope with the odd kilo put on after a holiday? (Contrary to what I have read in innumerable books, I have never actually heard a Savile Row tailor asking, “Does Sir dress to the left or the right?”)

Once the customer leaves the shop, the real work begins. A master cutter draws out the pattern of the suit on a piece of 
stiff paper.

This drawing is life-size: it mirrors the actual proportions that the final suit will assume. Tailors will then cut the fabric according to the drawing so that the suit matches exactly with the cutter’s vision.

If the customer is a first-timer or if his proportions are unusual, then the tailor may decide not to touch the fabric at all. Instead, a cheaper kind of cloth will be used for the first version of the suit. (Some tailors still do this but the practice is dying out.)

The first fitting for the suit will take place a month or six weeks after the customer has first ordered it. At this stage, the suit will look nothing like the finished version even if it is made from the actual fabric. The stitches will be visible and the entire front of the jacket will look like a work in progress. Most customers will not be able to tell, at this stage, what the finished suit will look like. But the cutter will know. He or she (and women have finally entered this formerly all-male bastion) will cast an expert eye over the way in which the suit fits and will make the necessary adjustments. I’ve been to fittings where entire sleeves have been ripped off and drastic surgery conducted on the spot.

By now, the shape of the suit is set. But even so, the cutter will insist on a second fitting. Now, the garment will look like a suit but there will be scores of tiny details to attend to. Does the sleeve fall straight? Do the trousers ‘break’ at the right spot? (‘Break’ is the technical term for the way in which the hem of the trouser meets the shoe.) Does the back crease awkwardly when the customer walks? Does the jacket taper perfectly in the manner that Savile Row is famous for? And so on.

Assuming that there are only minor changes to be made, the suit should be ready in three or four weeks. But even at that stage, the cutter will insist on a fitting and if he or she is not entirely satisfied with the way the suit looks, will insist on taking it back for further adjustments before allowing the customer to walk away with it.

Mark Henderson, deputy chairman of Gieves and Hawkes, one of Savile Row’s most famous names, says that all good establishments endeavour to make the process seem as agreeable as possible. Because nobody actually enjoys being fitted, such tailors as Gieves and Hawkes try and add an element of luxury to the experience. There will usually be a comfortably-appointed room where the fitting takes place. Customers will be offered something to drink and there will be a sense of ceremony to the occasion.

All this costs money. Which is why a general rule of thumb is that a 
bespoke Savile Row suit will cost roughly three times as much as a similar suit bought off the peg from Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Ermenegildo Zegna.

So, why are people still willing to pay so much for a suit in these troubled times?

Partly, I suspect, it is because men enjoy the whole sensation of having the world’s best tailors make something for them. And partly, it is because people appreciate the quality: every Savile Row suit is stitched by hand from a pattern specially drawn for that suit.

To some extent, I guess, it is also about the fit. Most designers now offer a made-to-measure service. This is not the same as bespoke (and is considerably cheaper) because all that the designers do is to cut a suit to an existing pattern and then make minor adjustments. For instance, if the customer is a size 44 R, a made-to-measure suit will be cut according to the standard 44 R pattern and then put together by machine. Only after that will adjustments be made to try and customise the suit to fit the body of the man who ordered it. The increasing demand for made-to-measure (even Savile Row now offers it though the suits in this line are never made in Savile Row’s own workshops and are often made abroad) suggests that men are tired of wearing suits that don’t fit so well and long for some element of customisation.

But here’s the thing. When you wear a suit by, say, Giorgio Armani, most fashion-conscious people will recognise it immediately. So it is with Dior Homme and other trendy labels. But a Savile Row suit does not announce itself. Only an expert will recognise that you’re wearing a suit that is hand-made especially for you. The point of Savile Row tailoring is that people should not focus too much on the garment. It is always you that wears the suit. The suit never wears you.

In this age of visible branding and mass-market fashion, I find it strangely reassuring that people are still willing to pay a premium for craftsmanship and timelessness.

As the cliché goes, fashion fades. But style is forever.

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow  Vir’s other writings, visit  www.virsanghvi.com)

 

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