With made-to-measure suits becoming a popular choice in menswear, are bespoke tailors across UK feeling threatened by their growth?
While looking at the catalog of fabrics, John Hapkins asked the tailor how much would it cost for a two-piece bespoke suit. The tailor told him it starts at £4,000 and the suit would be ready between eight to ten weeks.”
“Why?”asked Hapkins surprisingly.
“Because of the details, Sir,” said the tailor. “You will get to choose a fabric and style of your choice. Then our tailor would get the measurements of each part of your body, draw a set of patterns on a bespoke paper and then cuts it to the measurements provided. The suit would then be cut using these patterns, to fit your body and posture, and refined over several fittings.”
Hapkins thanked him and walked out of the store.
He looked around a few meters until he found a made-to-measure outlet. He asked the same question but this time the reply was different. “Around £1,000 sir, and it would be ready within a week and a half,” said the salesman. Hapkins immediately placed an order for two suits.
“Let’s face it, bespoke is expensive,” says Hapkins, the London based PR manager. “Why would I buy a suit worth £4,000 when I can buy four other made-to-measure suits of the same price when people don’t even notice the difference?”
Like Hapkins, many individuals have switched to made-to-measure suits instead of bespoke, resulting in the decline of the ancient art, which was once a British tailor’s mark of pride.
The word ‘bespoke’ literally means ‘to-speak’ derived from the fact that customers would tell their tailors what to produce. Made-to-measure, on the other hand, is when you visit a store, try on a suit and the salesman takes a few measurements and sends it to the factory to be re-done to your fit.
Obviously, it does not provide the best fit because you can’t fit an altered suit to the exact S-shape of your body. Moreover, a salesman is a salesman, not a tailor. They can’t identify peculiar fabric or posture needs the way a tailor does. But because the process is quicker and cheaper, it is being preferred to bespoke tailoring.
“Obviously, clients invest in a bespoke suit for a better fit but it is more about the overall experience that draws them towards it,” says Palmer, a bespoke and made-to-measure tailor from Cardiff, UK. “There is a different feel to a suit that has been completely tailored to your fit and designed to your preference. The journey starting with coming to place an order, selecting a fabric, choosing a style, coming for trials and finally collecting the suit is incomparably satisfying.”
The culture of ‘Bespoke’, can be traced back to the thirteenth century where men’s tunics became shorter and closer, fitting to the body. During the shaping of these tunics, tailoring techniques evolved which are being used today in ‘bespoke’ clothing. The thirteenth century tunics transformed into seventeenth century frock coats, which changed to three-piece suits in the mid-nineteenth century. Through padding, canvassing, steaming, seaming and darting, a piece of fabric would be manipulated and structured into shapes that would enhance or alter the human figure and its proportions. It was then where the art of bespoke began to be known as one of Europe’s classic offerings to the world.
“One advantage, of course, was that we had an empire, and we were a very powerful influence across the world,” says Eric Musgrave, former editor of Drapers. “From the early 1800s and certainly by the time of the mid-1800s, Britain was being viewed as, for most people, one of the major tastemakers in the world.”
Edward VII, the first Prince of Wales, flaunted his custom-tailored suits during an era when newspapers and photographs were becoming popular. Because he was powerful and influential, people followed his style statement. His son Edward VIII was an influential British menswear icon too whose style began to be emulated by American actors, who in-turn spread the culture of tailor-made suits far and wide. The limelight, however, lasted only until made-to-measure was introduced where because of increasing demand, tailors began producing stitched or semi-stitched suits which would then be altered to the customer’s size and specifications.
“Ever since made-to-measure came into the market, bespoke tailoring started facing a decline,” says Douglas Raynes, sales representative of suit supplier- Tom James, London. “Along with price convenience, lack of appreciation for genuinely fitting clothes is also a reason behind the decline.”
He adds that bespoke tailoring is a very hard skill to acquire today. It takes seven years to become a full-fledged bespoke tailor, and people don’t have that much time these days. Moreover today, suits are considered a fashion more than a necessity. In Musgrave’s opinion, menswear has undergone a relaxation period where most people are more inclined towards dressing casually. He says: “I remember my father in the 50s and 60s would go out on a Sunday to the local working man’s club, and he would put on a suit, shirt and tie. And there has been a slight reversal, where now – for some people – the suit is merely a working uniform, and then you don’t where it in your own time.”
The renowned bespoke tailors – Davies and Sons’ based in London have been in the bespoke business for decades. Unlike others, they do not feel threatened by the popularity of made-to-measure. “People who can afford bespoke will afford bespoke. The workmanship, the choices and the fitting is something they wouldn’t get in made-to-measure. They know they are paying for quality and so they don’t shift,” says Graham Lawless, Sales Director.
Palmer, however, is one of those tailors who offer both bespoke and made-to-measure suits to their clients. Strategically, it is a well-thought move especially in an era of competition. Also, since bespoke tailoring requires more skill, one who has developed an expertise in the same, can offer made-to-measure suits too. For instance, a regular made-to-measure tailor would take around six measurements whereas he, carrying his bespoke tailoring skills forward, takes between 15 – 20 measurements to offer his client a well-fitting suit that would be better than a regular made-to-measure but slightly lower than a bespoke one.
This move proves to be beneficial for both parties since Palmer can now cater to people from a mid-income range to a high-income range and during slower periods, he can make some profits on made-to-measure rather than making no profits if he were to solely depend on bespoke tailoring.