Is “Creative Custom” the Future of Menswear?

May 27th, 2014

As many of you know, I’ve been studying the tailoring business for many years. Formally in the Menswear Design program at the Fashion Institute of NYC, as an apprentice for years heading-up the measuring & fitting at Michael Andrews Bespoke, and as a consultant working with numerous custom clothiers both traditional and online.

I think I have a pretty good understanding of both the current state of the tailoring market, as well as the demand and expectations from the client side due to our open “ask anything” contact with readers and menswear enthusiasts from all over the world.

So where is the industry going? Guys are indulging in custom tailoring more than they have in decades, but some say the “old world craft” of bespoke suit making is dying. And it is. The experience of having one man cut your cloth, chat with you at your fittings, and hand-finish your garment to completion is one that will become increasingly hard to find – and afford. There are very few young tailors with dreams of starting this type of business. It’s not scalable, and even though it’s extremely expensive for the end client, it’s still difficult for a one-man-show craftsman to make a reliable living this way.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been having fruitful in-depth conversations with the CEOs of the major players in the online custom clothing space. This is an area of the apparel industry – custom garments created and delivered online – that I think has huge potential, but has a long way to go.

Right now these “online tailors” focus almost exclusively on fit and delivery time, making it much more of a service-oriented business over a product-oriented business. “We will give you the best fitting suit in the least amount of time, guaranteed”. There is little emphasis placed on the garment itself, especially from a design or “innovative fashion” perspective. Ordering made-to-measure online still comes down to a multiple choice ordering system full of limitations and restrictions. It doesn’t feel very “custom”…yet.

As manufacturing, communication and technology continue to streamline, however, I see these business developing their ability to deliver garments that are truly custom and one-of-a-kind. “If you can dream it up, you can work with our team of designers to create something that is made special just for you”. You could source your own fabric, sketch your own design, and even make casual garments that aren’t limited to “suits, blazers or business shirts”.

In the always cyclical nature of fashion, this will be a kind of modernized return to the old-fashioned ways. Back in the day, for example, if you wanted a suit you had to go chose the cloth (or “speak for” the cloth – hence the word “bespoke”) and have it made by a local artisan. In those times, even within a more conservative environment where personality and clothing weren’t so closely related, men had the freedom to dream-up whole new garments and many of them took liberties with the designs of their personal wardrobes.

We’re already seeing examples of this “one-off wardrobe building” with forward-thinking wholesale manufacturers who are agreeing to much smaller minimums. Some of my colleagues, for example, often have one-off “samples” made by local LA clothing factories exclusively for their personal wardrobes. That alone, in my opinion, represents the very beginning of a “custom menswear revolution” that will eventually become an arms race for infrastructure, scalability, and the art of managing the nightmarish level of logistics needed to manufacture and direct-deliver garments that have never been tested.

The real question is, is that really what the market wants? And if we all become our own personal designers (or “assistant designers”), how important will the influential professionals who currently mass-produce the products that shape our lifestyles be?

Just some food for thought today.


Yours in style,

Articles of Style

  • Katleho Morajane

    I enjoyed coming back to this article after having had a denim tie made.

  • Miguel Fernando

    Just ran into you and J.S. in Toronto. First time checking out the blog and the content looks great. Will definitely be following and catching up on some old posts.

  • Miguel

    I guess the times have even affected men’s wear, we now leave in a microwave culture, people want stuff yesterday, no patience or waiting, I’m hoping personal tailoring never dies.

    • Robert

      I do not think it will ever die. Regardless of price, a certain status of man, will never foresake quality over quantity. I used to frequent DQ when I was younger, but my convenience now is MAB since they opened in DC. I do own “bespoke” online clothing, that is beyond subpar, though I must say some of the shirt fabrics aren’t aweful. I will continue to buy from a brick and mortar with a qualified craftsman either cutting or measuring me beofer it gets put into production. At leastr they have better quality fabric selections from reknowned mills.

  • Gazman

    Can’t see this happening, at least not in a big way. There might develop a very small niche market to cater to the dandies out there, but the slice of the market would be of the tiniest sliver. A business thrives by being razor-sharp in its focus. Trying to be all things to all people is a route to business failure. My guess is that what current MTM operations offer is more than enough to satisfy the individual whims of those seeking something other than RTW. Most men who want to dress well want to dress classically. They aren’t interested in anything too way-out. In addition, designing clothes is a specialized area; a craft that needs to be studied – as you state. Putting design in the hands of amateurs can make one’s business model more complicated than it should be. Online clothier, Luxire, currently offer to make whatever design any Joe wants and some of the results are….let’s just say, unusual. And not in a good way.

  • James Wong

    Unrelated to the article but looking good in the photo Dan!

  • Unseen Flirtations

    Compelling thoughts, well written essay. Thanks for this.

  • Travis Rozich

    I am curious if this is emblematic of a cultural shift larger than just tailored menswear, but pertaining to all markets where there exists a relationship between designers and consumers.

    As an architecture student, I would say that the advent of easily accessible digital fabrication has had a profound influence on our design process and the ways in which we are able to rapidly prototype and think differently about materials, joinery, etc. There is a lot of talk about mass customization of parts, essentially how instead of choosing from a myriad of stock pieces on the market (as has been the norm in the mass-produced age), now designers can, if they have the budget, much more easily create a near infinite number of custom designed and fabricated pieces for their projects. Additionally, many foresee this tech becoming available to consumers in the near future; for example those who are not trained designers can use an online service to create anything from the scale of a chair to a full-size house. Obviously, with those larger scale pieces this is a long way off, but with the exponentially increasing capabilities of 3D printing, it’s not too crazy to be jumping to these conclusions.

    The future of architecture aside, in your sixth paragraph where you talk about customers designing their own clothes, it just really made me think of the parallels. In a market where there are consumers and there are designers, the consumers will always want to have a greater say in what is being produced for them, and the designers will inherently want to produce their work for its own sake. If we as designers provide the consumers with the tools to create their own objects, I know some believe we would be writing ourselves out of job. Personally, I think that’s far too extreme a view, and that the trained and talented designer will always have a place and serve a purpose in the market. I think that as we continue to strive towards greater communication between the consumer and the designer, we’ll grow closer to achieving more perfect final products. I look forward to seeing where these more custom, product-oriented menswear companies will go over the next few years.

    Anyway this is my first comment on the blog, and I would be remiss if I didn’t thank TSBmen and the many individuals who are featured and who comment here for providing inspiration, and now also opportunities for reflection, on menswear.



    • Owen

      I have a degree in industrial design and a big part of my studies was surrounding product safety, basic engineering principles, FEA, structural analysis, load calculation, materials etc. I imagine there are many more considerations to make as an architect. It’s just not feasible for a customer without formal training to be able to design a building, or even something more mundane, like a chair. There will always be a requirement for professionals to realise an other persons’ creativity.

      What I do believe is that good design is actually a solution. It is the result of a process, whereby the creativity is balanced by what is actually possible and feasible at that time. It is down to the skill of all parties to retain the purity of the design and original idea. This is just as applicable to menswear as it is to architecture.

      We don’t want that south Indian silk mohair sports jacket falling apart at the seams now do we, especially with gold thread at $50 a foot these days.

  • Sergio Arteaga

    I’ll chime in. Plenty of good discussion is being had.

    I think there is a line between “creative custom” and simply a “custom clothier” making MTM garments. I’ll expand on this first. As stated in the piece “creative custom” can be something that can be extremely overwhelming to the consumer. To the uneducated consumer specifically aka the guy who has no idea about classic suiting and wants to go “custom” and go as I like to call it balls out. If you are someone like a reader of TSB you likely aren’t someone who is going to go the “creative custom” route.

    I have suits that were RTW/OTR, I have (online) MTM and I have bespoke suits. I definitely have to say that my 3 bespoke suits fit me the best and are made of the best fabric. That is definitely one of the upsides about being able to go the bespoke route or even the MTM route (in-person consultation) as you can feel the fabrics. However, as the conversation seems to have geared itself towards the buying of quality garments, I think it comes down to practicality.

    I love my bespoke suits and they’ve been items that I have splurged on, on myself, and well thought out purchases. Ideally I would like for all of my suits to be bespoke (and all from MAB like the other 3) but for many people it isn’t financially practical to do so. Although I make a comfortable living, spending $2K-$3K a suit is a lot of money. Frankly, I couldn’t justify spending between $15-20K on a suit collection. Therefore, going the online MTM is just more practical financially. For me it’s easier to spend $400-500 a suit.

    I do however agree that the art of true bespoke is dying and overall the art of people giving a damn in how to dress is dying. Don’t get me started in regards to guys who are bigger like me, who are by far some of the worse dressers. Unfortunately in the United States it’s about fast-fashion and at a low cost.

    I will argue that good tailors though still do exist, in both workmanship and love for the art of tailoring. My go to guy does amazing work. I’ve taken stuff to him that I paid $10 and he’s made it looks custom, to taking him (yesterday) one of my bespoke jackets. A visit to him is never a few minutes, from our conversations about tailoring and construction to the actually fitting of my garment until it’s perfect.

  • Alexander

    Interesting that pricing seems so high for suiting, here in New Zealand, Barkers offers horse hair canvassed wool suits for sort of 700NZD which when you convert to US dollars is definitely cheaper than some of the OTR stuff you guys have in Americaland.

  • LC

    I agree that online custom is ideal for (relatively inexpensive) experimentation but I can’t see there being a big enough market for this to become huge: the level of customization you have in mind really only appeals to hardcore menswear enthusiasts. The average consumer wouldn’t want this much choice or know what to do with it. My guess is that you’re making the mistake of thinking the average consumer has your own mindset when it comes to buying men’s clothes.

  • Matthias Van Gremberghe

    The views and opinions in this article differ completely from my perception on the current state of menswear as a European. Although my experience isn’t as extensive as the writer of this article, I’d like to think that working for one of the last family owned Northampton shoemakers in London gives me a good insight on the subject.

    It’s funny that one mentions that bespoke tailoring is a craft on the verge of extinction… While I kind of agree that it’s out of reach for many, bespoke tailoring an sich hasn’t ever had the exposure it’s experiencing right now. You’ve got Patrick Grant appearing in every other tv show, Huntsman making a cameo in the upcoming movie the ‘Kingsmen’, Crockett & Jones’ Tetbury on Mr Craig’s feet, and so on and so forth. Traditional tailoring and shoemaking is big business and the people applying for apprenticeships are countless.

    While I do see a huge resurgence for bespoke tailoring (not in the least due to magnificent blogs and magazines), I don’t see this “custom creative” thing happening. If you go to a bespoke house (or MTM for that matter) to commission a garment, someone will guide you along the way, whether that’s the cutter, tailor or front of house. Generally these people have a good idea about what’s possible with your body type and silhouette, but more important, what will suit and look good on you. 99% of the men that want to look good in a jacket or a suit will need guidance by a professional.

    Most of us can’t even properly put together a complete outfit, let alone design a suit from scratch. The other “problem” with online tailoring is the sheer abundance of possibilities in cloth, styles, collars, cuts, lapels, buttons,… It’s just too much in my opinion (and it’s the reason why I don’t order online unless I’ve tried it on). We’re simply not designers, nor are we tailors. I could see it being a thing for those interested in it, but I doubt that it’ll become mainstream in this current day and age with the technology that’s available right now.

    Besides, the more people educate themselves about cloths, cuts, fits, etc, the less likely it’ll become that they’ll order a suit online. I’ve done the route from RTW, to online MTM, to brick and mortar MTM and am now back to RTW until I can (maybe) afford bespoke garments. It’s been an expensive journey to say the least, but I’ve learned that a jacket with a high quality cloth and a decent fit is worth more to me than a good fitting jacket in a so and so cloth, cut from a standard block and made in the PROC.

    To conclude, back in the day you didn’t have that much freedom in design. Society would dictate how your suit should look and the only individuality one had was choosing the bespoke house that had the house style that appealed the most to him. At least, that’s how I perceive it here on the old continent… And you know what, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

    Thank you for reading,


    • Owen

      Bravo! A well written and considered response.

      I believe that the internet has created a whole generation of ‘armchair professionals’ who think they can make informed decisions based on information and opinions they have absorbed online.

      The jump from having a small amount of knowledge, enough to recognise good fit, fabric, details, even put together a good outfit, is no where near enough to design your own garments. It’s capitalism that is driving this ‘creative custom’ industry. You could call it ‘giving the customer what they want’, or saying that ‘the customer is always right’.

      At least over here in Europe we might be spared from this approach. It is simply naive to go around thinking we are able to turn our hand at being tailors, not to mention builders, designers, doctors or surgeons, where the consequences of our actions can result in far worse than looking like a peacock.

  • Greg P

    I’ve read the articles and also read the comments and this is a very interesting subject. The fact of the matter is that we live in a time of right now. Even your site is an indication of that. We as a market feind for instant gratification(music/fashion/news/etc) and the world operates that way. Gone are the days that you look for your favorite periodical to hit the shelves, or that Tuesday when you cant wait to rush to the music store to get fresh music, or even go to the mall to cop the fresh new pair of J’s. Everything is in the palm of your hand. And this right now attitude has cheapened the perception of the market.
    But there is a deeper issue than that, as the gap widens between the upper and lower class, with hardly any middle class, very few have the disposable income to keep up with the inflation of costs. With 70% of the nation making less than $50k, there are a fortunate few who can afford $2-3k quality bespoke suits and $1000+ custom made shoes. Who can put 10% or more of their income towars one item?
    Even the quality off the rack stuff like Ralph Lauran/Hickey Freeman/Hart, Schaffner, & Marx hovers around the $1000/suit range. Its not like back in the day when my dad could get a good off the rack suit for $200-$300. You almost have to give up your first born.
    So I don’t think its what the market wants, as much as what the market can afford. The mass of the market can save up for a few years and invest into that quality piece(which kills the market) where he can let his creativity flourish, or he can sacrifice creativity and quality for the flavor of the week.

    • Unseen Flirtations

      Good point. I see a similar situation in the UK, where style conscious gentlemen are financially strait-jacketed into crafting high street ensembles rather than opting for MTM. It’s almost a ‘high street thrifting’ ethos… What intrigues me is the extent to which going bespoke is a psychological challenge. For an average earner, a bespoke suit is absolutely attainable, but FEELS ‘too expensive’ in comparison to the myriad of high street options available. Maybe we need a more limited pool of options for suiting and tailoring! (Don’t tell the CEOs)

  • cam

    Time has now become man’s greatest luxury.

  • Lothar

    You ask if that’s really what the market wants. I think probably not because the vast majority of people would be uncomfortable designing one-off items for themselves. People have a hard enough time dressing themselves in clothes that professionals have designed and produced. I think the average person (perhaps myself included) lacks either the imagination to dream up something original and truly forward-thinking or the confidence/resolve to wear it once it’s made. I think most of us would be quite happy with really well-fitting tweaks on styles that we know won’t make us look foolish.

  • Josh Moulder

    Personally, I wouldn’t worry about the time it took from the suit being ordered, to it arriving at my door. Obviously I wouldn’t be happy if I had to wait 5 months for my new tailored suit, but I’d much rather have a Product-Orientated suit, than a Service-Orientated one. I guess that’s the way things are going, but some things just shouldn’t, and this is a prime example

  • Juan

    Dan, I was pleasantly surprised by this article. Over the past three or four years, I have come to cultivate a fervent passion for pre-WWII men’s fashion (although I must admit the 60s and 70s have also charmed me), and I became fascinated by the meticulous tailoring process back in the day. I absolutely love how it wasn’t exhaustive enough to describe a suit by simply stating it was “wool”, and you had to specify its weight and its weave, as people (and by people I mean everyone) knew all about them and wouldn’t dare to wear a tightly-woven twill sport coat in the summer.

    It’s unthinkable nowadays, but nearly all of my grandfather’s clothes were custom-made, including casual wear such as polo shirts and swim trunks.
    And I myself remember having a white shirt and tie custom-made for my First Communion as a kid and being completely overwhelmed (in the best of ways) by the huge piles of fabrics laying around, the tailor’s instruments, etc. I’ve always been very curious, and thus seeing how clothes were actually made was a very eye-opening experience, one of the most enriching ones of my entire life.

    Unfortunately, tailoring and custom-made clothing (in its most traditional form, at least), as you stated, is quickly fading away and dying. And even in a city like Milan, it is hard to find a good bang-for-buck bespoke tailor. I had a sport coat custom-made for 250 euros at a place just outside the city a couple years back (I was told prices were much higher before, but they had lowered them to attract customers). S120s Delfino wool, full-canvas, best deal of my life. So much so, that I decided to go back a couple of months later to have a suit made for a wedding I had to attend to, but only to be informed they were forced to cut costs and all of their jackets were now half-canvassed (not to mention they didn’t offer some higher-end suiting and jacketing fabrics anymore).

    This has quickly become the norm: quality has dropped significantly at lower-end clothiers, and prices have skyrocketed at higher-end ones, and not everyone can afford the 5,000-10,000 euro price tag at, say, Caraceni (best bespoke tailor in Milan). And I don’t think online tailoring is the answer, as, like Harrison said, people are more excited about playing designer than about the quality of their garments. Not to mention the fact that you lose the experience.

    I guess some people just don’t have time or don’t care enough to actually go talk to some other person and have him/her take measurements, etc, and of course, technology has taken over and the world moves on, but I think the death of traditional tailoring is something to mourn about. Not only our clothes won’t last us a lifetime (as they did my/our grandfather/s), but more importantly, we will become more and more ignorant as we won’t know where the clothes we are wearing came from, how they were made, and who made them. Not to mention we will also lose a chance to learn and to have a conversation with another human being.

  • Neil Fortin

    There is one place that the training and the artistry still exists and that is Costume production MFA’s in universities across the country! Most movies and big budget theatrical endeavors include some bespoke tailoring according to the designers ideas. We are trained (I just graduated with this degree) to be tailors for the stage and screen and make 100 percent bespoke suits and clothing for characters. It’s amazing that most actors exclaim that they have never had a suit as well fit because we are making something one-of-a-kind

    • Neil Fortin

      To the fellow below I learned everything I know and am still learning from a book called classic tailoring techniques a construction guide for menswear writes by Roberto Cabrera

  • Steve O

    I have been really getting into vintage/retro clothes. I get a new suit every once in a while, but mostly I get items from thrift stores or vintage shops and have them trimmed and chopped to fit my 6’2 slender shape. I would much rather get a suit that is exactly to the measurements of my body; but the cost effectiveness isnt there .So I end up buying an inexpensive suit; trimming and fitting it to my body type. If I had all the money in the world, that would be a different story.

  • Nick

    Dan any good books you suggest for a guy that wants to learn more about menswear and bespoke clothing?

    • Juan

      I haven’t found many books about bespoke clothing that don’t go into too much detail, but if you really want to learn about it, just pick up a book about pattern-making. Deeply fascinating practice.
      As for menswear in general, I have found Alan Flusser’s work to be supreme, but, if I may, I suggest you get your hands on some vintage Esquire or Apparel Arts magazines, you won’t regret it.
      I recently found a copy of “Men in Style” (a collection of illustrations from the 30s and 40s) at a reasonable price and am the happiest guy on Earth.

      • Nick

        Thank you!

  • Harrison G

    Dan really interesting article. I worry that such a “custom arms race” will highlight newness over quality. If the game shifts towards short runs of “new garments” it will increase the gap between the average consumer and the elite who can afford these novelties more easily. This price gap already exists of course but today you can easily still be a well dressed gentleman on a budget. I worry if the rules of the game changes this will no longer be the case. Here’s hoping I am being too pessimistic.

  • TO

    Mind= blown

    • Herbert Morrison

      Ditto. I guess the 3 of us will discuss tonight.