Is Your Tailor Full of Sh*t?
August 28th, 2014
As I mentioned in our recent Guide to Buying a Bespoke Suit, the custom tailoring business can be a very shady one. I’ve seen clients pay $5K+ for “handmade in NYC” and receive suits that are worth more like $500 “machine made in Hong Kong”.
With hundreds of “bespoke” shops popping up all over, I thought I could help keep these tailors honest. Here are some easy questions you should ask to narrow down the custom clothiers you are considering.
1. What fabrics do you offer?
The world of quality menswear fabrics is a small one with few major players. A decent bespoke shop should have relationships with vendors who supply a range of fabrics from established English and Italian mills such as Dormeuil, Holland & Sherry, Scabal, Zegna, etc.
The seasonal books used to display swatches to clients are costly to manufacture and limited in number. For this reason, vendors carefully distribute them only to the shops that do the most business (and thus have the best reputation and highest number of returning clients). If you can find a shop that offers ARISTON fabrics, I highly recommend them. A small family owned mill outside of Naples, they create luxury fabrics with the most style-forward and tasteful designs in the game. I use them almost exclusively for my personal orders.
2. What about trims?
A shop with good attention to detail (which is crucial in this business) should use top quality trims to go along with their luxury fabric offering. I’m talking about genuine horn buttons (avoid plastic!), durable bemberg linings (beware of anything with a raised surface, like a jacquard, that can rub and pill over time), RiRi or YKK zippers, real metal side-adjusters and waistcoat cinches, etc.
Other internal inputs like chest and collar canvases, shoulder pads, sleeve heads, collar felts, etc. are difficult to differentiate in a finished garment, until you’ve worn it for a few months and dry cleaned it several times. You’ll have to trust the salesperson on these things, and use your judgement based on the other trims they are using to finish their garments.
Of course, it’s always a good idea to do your research and read customer reviews online.
3. Where are your suits made?
This is where custom clothiers fib the most. If they say it’s made “in house” (meaning, the suits are made in the same building where they do sales) ask to see the workshop and meet the tailors. If they get cagey at this point, they’re lying to you.
Also, check our Guide to Bespoke to see a little retail math. Ultimately the price of the suit should reflect the cost of the raw ingredients, skilled labor, and a healthy mark-up.
4. Is the jacket fully canvassed?
A tailored jacket is either:
A. Fused: the easiest and cheapest method to construct a jacket where the front panel and lapel facing are backed using iron-on glue called interfacing then sewn together.
B. Partially Canvassed: a better method of construction that takes more time and hand work. A canvas “breast plate” is strategically sewn between the front panel and facing, giving the jacket some internal structure over the chest which makes it more durable and body forming over time.
C. Fully Canvassed: the best, and most time consuming, way to tailor a jacket. A full-sized layer of canvas (and horse hair in a high-end version) is cut to proportion and carefully hand-sewn between the front panel and facing, giving the jacket the highest level of structure. This canvas makes the jacket more flexible, dimensional, durable and allows it to fit better over time as the warmth of your body molds the canvas to your shape.
5. How much handwork is done on the garment?
Hand sewing vs. machine sewing is kind of like a home cooking vs. microwaving. The end product is similar, but the quality isn’t the same.
There are major advantages to handwork in certain areas of the garment such as a hand-set chest canvas, hand-rolled lapels, hand-felled collar, hand-set sleeves, etc. Manipulating the fabric by hand allows for small nuances that ultimately give the garment greater flexibility and dimension.
If a salesperson tells you the entire suit is sewn by hand, however, I would be skeptical. Very few tailors will spend time hand-sewing straight lines like the outseam of a pant – where the cost would outweigh the benefit and the only real advantage is “prestige”. There are very few tailors left in the world making a suit without a sewing machine.
6. What is your alterations policy? What if I gain or lose weight?
With regular body fluctuations of 5-10 pounds, the weight is typically spread around the body and doesn’t affect the fit of the overall garment much (unless you prefer a super-slim painted-on fit).
If you lose weight, taking-in (making smaller) is easy, within reason. If you gain weight, a good custom suit should be made with excess seam allowance beneath the sewing lines to allow the garment to be let-out (made bigger) – again, within reason.
A good bespoke shop will usually alter their own garments for free (or at a discounted rate), at least for some period of time after your purchase.
7. What if I’m not happy with the finished product?
In any business where you pay before you play, make sure there is some kind of satisfaction guarantee.
Thanks for reading.
Yours in style,