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Material gain

Considering how much a good suit can cost, and the great impression it can make, it’s surprising we spend so little time considering the materials and skills that go into one.

Shopping the average men’s outfitter, you’ll find a selection of ready-made suits hanging by size in a variety of colors. You might spend a few minutes finding the right color and weight of cloth, but the next day you will be wearing it. For a relatively expensive purchase, it isn’t the wisest way to spend your money.

There’s also the small matter of whether it really does fit. Ready-made clothes are designed to fit the average man. Is that how you think of yourself? And is it how you want to be thought of by others? If you really care about the materials and the fit, you’ll soon find yourself considering made-to-measure and bespoke suits. But what do these terms mean, and are they worth the extra cost?

Erlend Norby worked for years on London’s Savile Row and now has his own tailoring business, Taliare (from the Latin verb “to cut” and the origin of the word tailor), on Seymour Place in Marylebone, London. “Bespoke means different things to different people. It can simply mean anything that is made for you and carries with it a suggestion of quality, but to tailors it’s a bit more specific,” he says.

“Made-to-measure is more popular due to the price difference,” notes Jeremy Hackett, chief executive of Hackett, the British menswear company. “It is a factory-made garment but it allows the customer to choose their own cloth, linings and buttons.”

Tim Ardron, a private tailoring consultant in the made-to-measure department of Gieves and Hawkes on Savile Row, says: “We have both options. Bespoke is when we make something from scratch. It’s quite a long process – up to 12 weeks, as it’s handcrafted for that individual, but it’s a perfect fit since we are creating a pattern specifically for the customer. There’s the ability to customize it so everything from the style and pocket layout to the cloth can be chosen – we have more or less 10,000 fabrics in-house.”

The Right Fit

The quicker, less expensive option is made-to-measure. “This is when the pattern already exists and we put it on the individual and look at how we can make it fit better,” Ardron explains. “The garment will still be made from scratch and personalized, and you will have the choice of material you get from bespoke, but it’s a quicker process – eight weeks rather than 12.”

For those companies offering both made-to-measure and bespoke, there is a substantial price differential. As Hackett points out: “Made-to-measure is closer to off-the-rack prices. Depending on the choice of cloth, prices start at around £700 (about $1,000). Bespoke is considerably more expensive, starting at about £3,000 ($4,000-plus). It really is couture for men.”

Whichever you go for, and wherever you are in the world, a good tailor will talk to you about the choice of material. Most suits are made from wool, with many of the best varieties coming from Australia and New Zealand.

In general, there are two types: worsted, in which the fibers are untangled and straightened then spun into yarn; and woolen, which is made from “carded“ wool whereby combing allows air into the fibers. Either can be woven into anything from tweed to gabardine. First-time buyers may think that one material is “better” than the other, but at a reputable tailor all of the wools will be of a high quality. The important thing is to explain what you want, and then be guided by the advice you are given.

Talk the Talk

“We start with a consultation,” Norby says. “That’s where we learn about the purpose of the suit – is it for a wedding, for work, for travel? Does it have to be hard-wearing? What climate is it for? Do they want luxurious? From that, we can talk about styles and start fitting the pattern to the customer.” A tailor may have trained for up to ten years, so it is highly skilled work, hence the price premium on bespoke suits.

Be warned however – bespoke can be addictive. “I remember one Saturday a customer wandering in to our Sloane Street shop and wanting to buy a cardigan,” Hackett recalls. “He then requested trousers, but I was unable to fit him from stock so I suggested bespoke. Within a year he had spent a little more than £40,000.”

Of course, the amount you spend is a personal preference, but a good tailor will take into account your budget and hope to keep your custom, understanding the value of repeat business and possible recommendations to others.

By Tom Otley

Singapore Suits

It was the last full day of my Singapore trip.  My meetings were done, and I’d ticked most of the adventures off my itinerary; visited the Merlion, toured Sentosa and had the obligatory Singapore sling at Raffles’ Long Bar. While my driver and guide, Peter Mano, and I were having lunch, I casually mentioned that one thing on my bucket list was someday to indulge in having a suit tailored for me.

“Oh,” said Peter, “We can do that today.”

“But Peter,” I laughed, “I leave tomorrow. Maybe when I come back to Singapore, or maybe Hong Kong.”

“No, no, not Hong Kong. Too expensive,” he exclaimed. And with that, he jumped up. “Come! I’ll show you.”

We walked a couple of blocks through Singapore’s bustling Chinatown to 232 South Bridge Road, where we found Tony’s Fashions. This open storefront on the corner of Pagoda St. was a riot of colorful bolts of silk and cottons, chock-a-block with racks of men’s shirts and ties, women’s blouses and scarves, and a jumble of robes and pajamas. Savile Row this was not.

At the back of the store, Peter introduced me to his friend Tony and the shop’s manager, Raj. To say I was skeptical is an understatement, but after a bit of haggling, I decided to go ahead; after all, it’s only money. The total tab came to S$1,072 – about $785 US – and that included two fitted silk shirts, two more in cotton, and a tie.

Immediately tape measures were unfurled and I was sized up from every possible angle – even some angles I didn’t know I had. Numbers and disagreements flew amongst the tailors, notes were jotted on random pieces of paper. When I was commanded to choose a fabric, about 40 bolts of cloth were fanned out in front of me – not little swatches, mind you, like in the department stores back home, but entire bolts. I made my choice, an elegant gray with a really nice hand, and before I knew it, we were shooed out of the shop and told to return at four.

After seeing a bit more of Singapore, we returned to Tony’s at the appointed time, and voilà – Raj produced a hideous avacado-colored suit jacket in a scratchy muslin which he slipped on me. More numbers and notes, pin here, tuck there, as Tony supervised the proceedings. Eyeing the rough green carcass I was wearing, once again I expressed misgivings about the schedule. “I fly out tomorrow afternoon, you know.”

“No problem, no problem,” Tony replied jovially. “Raj will have it to you by 11 tomorrow morning, guaranteed.” Mm-hmm.

The next day as I was packing for my return home, sure enough at precisely 11 o’clock Raj rapped at my hotel room door with an overstuffed garment bag slung over his shoulder. I examined the suit carefully and was pleased with the results – the stitching was about perfect, the lapels laid right. And to my surprise, everything fit like a glove. Maybe not like a Savile Row glove, but certainly better than the last off-the-rack suit I bought at the mall back home, and for about the same price (shirts not included).

By Dan Booth

Seoul Beneficiaries

Seoul is a city of business and that business is done in suits. From the city’s office workers, known as the necktie army, to corporate executives, a suit is the essential daily uniform. Custom suit shopping for visitors used to be limited to expensive tailors with locations inside some of the city’s big luxury hotels. Now, as men’s style is a more important part of Korean culture, there are a wide range of tailors and menswear shops that can make a proper bespoke suit for visitors.

At one end of the scale are the multitude of shops in the city’s Itaewon district where, thanks to their foreign and expat customers, English and other languages are widely spoken. These shops will make a custom suit for as low as $300 but both the fabrication and the fabric quality will be quite basic. Expect to pay at least $700 for a well-made suit of quality materials, with prices climbing into the thousands.

Less expensive suits are made mainly of wool and polyester blend fabrics, most parts of the suit are pre-made, and the skill of the tailors can be questionable. A proper bespoke suit will take at least three fitting sessions. The first is to take measurements, the second is to try on the partially finished suit and the last is on delivery. Normal delivery time for Seoul tailors is about a week.

The Itaewon area does have a few exceptions to the mediocrity and one is Savile Row tailors (34-18 Itaewon-dong), a Seoul institution since 1971. A few blocks from Itaewon’s main drag, this custom suit specialist offers a combination of expert tailoring with a wide selection of quality wool fabrics. A custom suit here will cost $600 to $1,000 depending on the fabric choice.

Salon Dhomme (729-18 Hannam-dong) is a beautiful European-style tailor shop that transforms into a champagne bar (complete with crudites and crostini) at night. The staff is young and the styles contemporary with fine fabrics from Italy and Britain. In addition to bespoke tailoring, Salon Dhomme has a ready-to-wear collection sold in the adjacent space.

Korean celebrities and politicians favor family-run B&Tailor. (6-13 Itaewon 2-dong). The atmosphere feels right out of Savile Row, as befits a shop that specializes in bespoke suits with a wide range of the world’s finest fabrics.

For Seoul’s best overall luxury shopping experience, head over to the Shinsegae flagship store in Myeong-dong. This luxury department store has men’s collections from every top designer and provides custom tailoring and fitting services. The store also offers convenient duty-free shopping; purchases are forwarded to the airport for pickup and the VAT (around 8 percent) is automatically deducted upon departure.

By Freddy Sherman