An essay on Bespoke by Bernhard Roetzel

Bernhard ROETZEL

An essay on Bespoke by Bernhard Roetzel

Today we welcome as a contributing editor, Bernhard Roetzel, acclaimed author of several volumes on men’s elegance including the seminal Gentleman, A Timeless Guide to Fashion, first published in German by Koenemann in 1999. The original version of the book has since been translated into 19 languages. Along with Alan Flusser, Mr. Roetzel is considered a pioneer in the discourse of classic men’s style. We are pleased to present An Essay on Bespoke, by Bernhard Roetzel, published for the first time in these columns.

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Everyone who knows me,  knows that I love bespoke tailoring. I’ve been writing about tailors and shirtmakers since 1997, when I first embarked on my book “Gentleman”, and have not since ceased to praise and promote the bespoke craft. Despite my respect for each artisan and the merriment I get out of the entire bespoke process, I prefer to carry the discussion further, and to be transparent with my readers about the potential drawbacks of bespoke tailoring.

So please humor me as I touch on the less savory aspects which may occur when dealing with tailors, no matter how famous or experienced they may be.

The most vexing trait of certain tailors and shirt makers is their love of themselves and their belief to be superior to others in their craft.

Imagine entering a tailoring shop for the first time, wearing a suit that you admire, which happens to be made by another tailor. After taking only a few steps into the atelier, one sort of tailor will comment on your suit without being asked, while another will give a telling glance that he is not impressed. Others will talk about bespoke tailoring as if you’d never tried it, obviously oblivious to the fact that you happen to be wearing a bespoke suit at that very moment (perhaps the tailor thinks you acquired your suit second hand, scouted it on Ebay or Oxfam, or were drugged during previous fittings). No matter,  it is disconcerting to be treated like an ignorant, while wearing a bespoke suit.

Still other tailors will ignore your outfit until the moment you ask their opinion. This scenario happened to me a few weeks ago while I was wearing a blazer that I ranked among my best garments. Even so, the tailor judged my blazer as being among the worst crafted he’d seen in England or Italy. “You can wear it but it is not elegant”, he said.

I prefer tailors who are polite and appreciative of other craftsmens’ work.

Upon first entering Tobias Tailors on Savile Row in 1998, I was wearing an off the peg suit from Chester Barrie. John Coggin (one of the two owners of Tobias Tailors) said, “This is a nice suit you are wearing, sir, but we could make you something that you also like“. I ordered my first suit half an hour later, although I had entered the shop without any such intention.

Just the other day I met an Italian colleague who is big on Instagram. I looked at his three-piece suit and asked if he wore braces under his waistcoat. He answered that he did, but didn’t want to show them because they were clip-on numbers, as his tailor had forgotten the brace buttons when the suit was delivered. I answered, “Well, this is why bespoke tailoring is so great” and we both laughed. Of course one could always add the missing buttons later, but if the suit happens to be sent by mail and you’re not able to use your garments as planned, there remains a sour note.

Thus, I advise everyone to collect his or her suit personally from the tailor whenever possible, even if it means waiting longer to get hold of the garment. It seems as if tailoring errors occur more often to suits which are delivered by faraway tailors. These faults include incorrect sleeve lengths (oddly, even after the sleevelength was correct at the second fitting), incorrect trouser lengths, sleeve buttonholes that aren’t working, zip fly instead button fly or vice versa, the dreaded collar gap, the missing loop for the flower stem and a missing buttonhole on the right lapel of a double breasted suit or a buttonhole on the right lapel that was not desired.

Worse things can occur. A friend received a jacket from his tailor in Naples with wide sleeves resembling those of an overcoat. The jacket was returned and new sleeves cut but no one could explain the mistake (this happened after the first three jackets had been faultless). One tailor from Vienna whom I know takes into account potential mistakes and delivers jackets with unfinished buttonholes on the sleeves. He will not open the buttonholes until the customer is completely happy with the sleeve length…after a couple of weeks of wear. I think his policy is quite clever.

Waiting lists are not unusual at both big and famous tailoring houses, as well as at smaller ateliers. However, if you were to know in advance that you must wait a full six months for a first fitting, then you could better decide whether to place an order or not. Some tailors are not completely honest about the time it takes to prepare the first fitting at the time they take the order. This can be off-putting, as many tailors want advance payments, while others are eager to take payments with no respect or consideration for the customer’s schedule. It gets even worse when the tailor continues to slow down after the first or second fitting.

A friend of mine ordered a new dinner suit well in advance of the occasion. A few weeks before the event, he was told by his tailor that the jacket was indeed on schedule, while his trousers were locked away inside the workshop of the trouser maker–who happened to be away at a wedding in South Africa. Imagine the distress my friend encountered, as he was left wondering whether he would have his dinner suit on time, or not.

Personally, I have suffered delays in the delivery of a particular blazer due to an illnesses that first befell the tailor, and then his housekeeper. While the housekeeper remained in hospital for several weeks for gall bladder treatment, the parcel containing my blazer lay in her apartment.  When the blazer did at last turn up, it was heavily creased. I ended up asking another tailor to press it, which happened to pluck my last nerve, since he was the nagging type who found the garment to be of inferior standard, and of course, overpriced.

Some tailors dress badly while making the most extraordinary bespoke clothing for their clients. Conversely, other smartly dressed tailors and shirt makers may miss the tailoring mark.

I remember one young and handsome Italian tailor who wore some of the most impressive suits I’d ever seen. In fact, I was so enamored  by his clothing, that the possibility of his failure as a craftsman never occurred to me. He was articulate, a great salesman and sent very promising photographs from his workshop including a photo of one of my jackets, just prior to the first fitting. The photo appeared superb, but when I saw the jacket in real-time, I was shocked because it looked very small. In fact, the jacket was two sizes too small–if bespoke clothes had sizes. The first fitting was a complete failure, although my weight and figure hadn’t changed at all. The tailor made great efforts to take new measurements and produced a new fitting, but somehow the momentum was gone. In the end, the  waistcoat was awful and the trousers were 15 cm too short–with no inlay left for reasons unknown. The failure was inexplicable, as the tailor informed me that all his other customers were perfectly happy. This was likely true. Yet once in a while, a customer is not happy, and I became the definition of an unhappy customer.

Still, most tailors will admit that once in a while, failures do occur. And it is the older and more experienced craftsmen who will readily recall mistakes they’ve made and stories of garments that didn’t fit, for one reason, or another. But some failures are not the tailor’s fault at all. So let’s change hats, and look at a few other problems from the tailor’s point of view.

In bespoke tailoring, the key to success is often good communication, and the best tailors are great listeners. But what if tailor and customer don’t speak the same language? When commissioning a suit, it is vital that the client is able to describe his ideas as precisely as possible–unless he is commissioning something from a tailor with a definitive house style, who crafts the same sort of garment for all his clients.

It is a misconception that bespoke tailoring is always about creating a unique garment. Many-a-customer wants a garment that meets his expectations for a specific “house style” that a tailor offers. For example, Cifonelli in Paris crafts a specific cut and silhouette. If you don’t like it, then don’t go there. The same applies to H. Huntsman, Anderson & Sheppard or A. Caraceni. Only a few tailors are willing and able to adapt completely to a customer’s unique idea. In this case, it is imperative that the customer and tailor understand each other. If such a customer doesn’t communicate precisely what he wants, then he must not be surprised if the result doesn’t comply with his dreams.

Another root of failure is unforeseen fluctuations in a customer’s weight. Tailors with long waiting lists periodically meet a customer at the fitting who is different from the man he measured. Changes in the customer’s figure are not only caused by gaining or losing weight, some customers start exercising after being measured and turn up with loads of additional muscle. The famous chair with a built-in scale at Henry Poole’s wasn’t installed without reason. Yet customer complaints can be delicately silenced with a discreet hint to their weight at the day when measurements were taken.

The more you are aware of potential problems, the more realistic you will be about the outcome. Of course, tailors are not mind readers, plastic surgeons nor magicians. They are specialists in making a man look as good as possible. Even the best tailor cannot transform a modest statured gentleman into a towering caricature or a rotund chap into a fellow with a svelte figure.

It’s best to calculate all of these variables into the equation of bespoke tailoring and expect what you can expect, and nothing more. A bespoke suit will not fit like a glove (only a glove fits like a glove), and there is no such thing as a “perfect” fit. Instead, you should count on a very good fit with top quality materials and expert stitching. You will be wearing a suit made just for you and nobody else–a garment which will give you a knowing smile each time you slip into it and glance your image from your favorite dressing mirror.

Bernhard Roetzel