Compared to all this, custom suits seem nothing short of practical. Lord Willy’s is just one of the several newish boîtes that have sprung up downtown in response to New Yorkers’ growing thirst for them. Within three blocks of Wilcox’s shop is Duncan Quinn, its closest competitor and a similarly recent convert to the cause (Quinn is a practicing lawyer), and Freemans Sporting Club, which offers made-to-measure suits from discontinued “deadstock” wool. Together, these stores threaten to shift Manhattan’s epicenter of top-level tailoring from the Upper East Side to Nolita. Unlike the old Italian lions of luxury suiting—Wolfe’s tailor, Vincent Nicolosi; “power suit” architect Fioravanti—the newbies are aggressively British-identified, and their essential style icon is not mid-career Michael Douglas but young Michael Caine. In another marked contrast to the old-school spots, which don’t bother with décor (Nicolosi occupies a featureless suite fit for a discount travel agency), the new places lay on the full boutique experience—antique furnishings, model-pretty clerks, urbane chatter, and, in Lord Willy’s case, free Veuve Clicquot by the case. Of course, having alcohol handy is generally a splendid idea when you’re readying someone to drop thousands on a pair of pants and a jacket: Ask Tom Ford, whose Madison Avenue store pours dozens of gin-and-tonics a day. The actual tailoring aspect is de-emphasized if not outright hidden. This is partly because, more often than not, little cutting or sewing takes place on the premises. Duncan Quinn has his shirts made in rural Massachusetts; the suits are sewn off-site in Brooklyn. Lord Willy’s suit orders go to an anonymous tailor on the Lower East Side, and the shirts all the way to Hong Kong. Freemans has “a guy” in Bushwick.
Which, in the eyes of their uptown competitors, renders them bogus. “Those people? They’re not bespoke tailors,” scoffs Olga Fioravanti, the wife and partner of William Fioravanti. The Fioravantis’ signature is the traditional power suit fit for a Wall Street shark or K Street fixer; the average customer is over 50 years old. “Bespoke is made on the premises, by the same person who took your measurements. Brioni”—a competitor—“sends their work out to a contractor,” she tattles.
Intrigued, I take a quick survey of top tailors with one dumb-sounding question: What is bespoke? Considering the marketing power of the word, it is perhaps inevitable that its meaning should depend on who’s talking. Olga Fioravanti offers the most cut-and-dried, if slightly reductive, definition: “A real bespoke tailor belongs to the Custom Tailors and Designers Association of America”—of which her husband is, incidentally, the president.
Next up is Daniel Lewis, a somewhat diminutive dandy who works with Duncan Quinn. For Lewis, bespoke is more about the original vision than hands-on execution. “Our off-the-rack suits are made the same way as our bespoke suits,” he says blithely. “The only difference is the kind of service and the time that goes into sitting down with a customer and figuring out what he wants to do. It’s just more involved.” So how, then, is bespoke different from made-to-measure? Quinn himself proposes the Zen-sounding explanation that they are one and the same. “The term be’spoke possesses no real magic in and of itself. It simply comes from a time when you visited a tailor and chose the cloth for your suit from the bolts of cloth he or she had available on-site … Once the cloth had been chosen, it had been spoken for, i.e., was no longer available for another client.” At the same time, in Italy, top tailors made suits su misura, which literally translates as—you guessed it—“to measure.” So the term bespoke historically represents the top of the English tailoring ladder, with “made-to-measure” as its Italian synonym.
This only confuses me further. Luckily, I have the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary handy. “Bespoke means that you have an individual pattern that is made to your measurements,” Sheidlower tells me. “Typically, yes, this will also be cut by the person who measured you, but I don’t think this is crucial. Made-to-measure means that you’re starting with a stock pattern and altering it to the customer’s measurements. Calling made-to-measure suits ‘bespoke’ is wrong, wrong, wrong, and it’s particularly offensive when used (as I understand is now the case) by fancy fashion houses that hawk expensive suits to gullible people by saying that they’re bespoke.” Before I well up with indignation at that swindler Duncan Quinn, Sheidlower adds, “It’s also worth pointing out that in England, ‘made-to-measure’ is effectively synonymous with ‘bespoke’; the sense ‘made by altering a stock pattern’ is American.”
Oh, I see.
Just to be sure, I decide to take the question to the near-ultimate authority: Vincent Nicolosi, whose suits made it to the cover of Time (on Tom Wolfe’s back). Nicolosi, who’s been in the States since 1959, still doesn’t speak much English; he doesn’t need to.