Are you going to do something about that?” inquires Mr. Wilcox, pointing at my gut. I warily lower my eyes and notice the subtle but unmistakable beginnings of the proverbial tire. Wilcox, whose name is Alex but who prefers “Mr.,” delivers the line with the most British inflection imaginable: clipped, trilling, and just a tad derisive.
Well, I never! Minutes earlier, I had walked into Wilcox’s shop, Lord Willy’s, with the intention of chatting up the proprietor about a heretofore understudied demographic: men who, fed up with designers and labels, become fanatical followers of bespoke tailoring. Somehow, this simple task led to a brutally honest appraisal of my figure. I’m also shorter than I thought: “You, sir, are 38,” says Wilcox the moment we meet. “Maybe even 37.” I meekly note that my entire adult life I’ve thought of myself as 40 long. “Good lord!” gasps Wilcox, scrunching up his nose à la Hugh Laurie. “You’ll drown in a 40!” To illustrate, he strips a nearby mannequin of a cheeky eggplant blazer and offers me a try. It looks great and makes me immediately feel suave, until I commit an apparently unforgivable blunder: buttoning the bottom button. Mr. Wilcox is aghast. “Never,” he says gravely, and hands me another jacket to try on. In five minutes, every single item in my wardrobe has been exposed as a piece of ill-fitting, amateur-hour crap. My “good” Zegna jacket might as well be a hair shirt. I walked into this shop as a reasonably fashion-aware man; I walk out a fat slob.
Back in the U.K., Wilcox used to be a creative director at an advertising firm. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s daring the walk-in to one-up his sass in the only manner left open: by becoming a customer. I’m in no danger of that, I tell myself. For one thing, I can see right through his tactics. For another, Wilcox’s suits cost $3,000 and up. And who could possibly need a $3,000 suit, anyway? Right?
Having clothes made from scratch has long been the province of the privileged few. Where ready-to-wear suits tend to top out at around $3,000, the magic word “bespoke” blasts that ceiling wide open: At William Fioravanti’s midtown shop, for instance, suits start at $6,000 and, should you pick a top 200-count fabric, easily go up to $18,000. Fioravanti churns out 500 suits a year. The astronomical price point and the preindustrial toil that justifies it—a typical custom suit takes 50 hours of highly skilled labor—appeal to three sorts of customers: the extremely wealthy, the status-crazed, and those so minutely particular in their needs that no preexisting suit will do. The latter trait doesn’t necessarily come with wealth and is, in fact, frequently described by its bearers as a kind of sickness. It’s no wonder that a lot of modern bespoke addicts are men whose jobs require a degree of obsessive-compulsiveness. Jesse Sheidlower, an Oxford English Dictionary editor among whose works is a 272-page history of the word fuck, is a prime example: “I have particular pocket needs, but nothing too esoteric,” he muses. “I did once have a suit made with a particularly short pocket to hold a fountain pen.” Sheidlower also lists “very flashy linings” and button flies as must-haves. “I have my share of crazy shirt details, too.”
The remaining two categories—the rich and the wannabes—often simply replace label worship with tailor worship: in the Lehman Brothers hallways, Henry Poole must get name-dropped more often than Ben Bernanke. For this type of buyer, there are some easy signifiers of bespokeness, what Tom Wolfe calls “status details.” The most famous one is working cuff holes. On most off-the-rack suits, that row of buttons on your cuff is simply sewn on, because this way you can move them up or down during alterations; once you’ve cut the buttonholes, you can’t make the sleeve shorter or longer without screwing up the look. Another area of obsession is the stitching. On the front buttonholes and the flower loop, it shouldn’t be too even; on the lapels, staggered “pick stitching” is a big plus. When laymen claim they can smell bespoke from a mile away, most tend to mean these little signatures. But focusing on flourishes betrays the big idea. That idea is that you can ask for anything—40 pockets, a sewn-in gun holster, a third leg—and, to a certain type of person, anything else is tyranny of the designer.
Lately, this dogged particularity has been spreading far beyond the tight circle of demented dandies. In fact, if there’s one major idea uniting every trend in the world right now, it’s that everything you wear, own, and do should be an expression of your true self. When the only difference between a “real” and a “fake” Louis Vuitton handbag is often the price, uniqueness becomes the only veritable form of luxury. This year, for instance, saw the opening of a Tribeca restaurant called Rosanjin, the first local ambassador of kaiseki—a Japanese dining concept where menus don’t exist and every course is saved in your private file, lest it be accidentally repeated on your next visit. In the perfume world, Mathilde Laurent, a famous nose who designed fragrances for Cartier, now does “custom scents” for no more than twelve clients a year, at $81,500 a pop; the process starts with a psychotherapy-style couch session wherein the client is invited to relax and recall the smells of her childhood. There’s a waiting list.