“What is bespoke?” I ask.
“Bespoke. A bespoke suit.”
“Ah,” says Nicolosi, and points to a photo of Chuck Schumer.
“No, no, bespoke.”
“Best what?” Nicolosi shrugs. He has never heard the word.
Back at Lord Willy’s, out come the swatches. “I think we should stay in the blue world,” says Alex thoughtfully, flipping through the books. “Yes. Yes. Let’s stay in that area.” I am not familiar with the terminology—is “worsted” the opposite of “bested”?—but I quickly find a favorite: a light grayish-brown fabric by Holland & Sherry, shot through with subtle blue checks, in a pattern Alex calls “Glen Plaid.” Playful mother-of-pearl buttons are checked against the fabric. The fabric is checked against other fabrics. All are checked against my skin tone: “You have just the right touch of olive,” I am told. “It’s a very forgiving shade.”
I notice that Alex, after destroying me, has begun building me back up. Suddenly, I understand what it’s like to be a woman leafing through Cosmo: to be told that you’re simultaneously fabulous and hideous, and that buying something is the only way to reconcile the paradox. The gender politics of the bespoke suit are a little loopy. It should be a feminizing experience, thinking and chatting about clothes so much; yet the obsession is, in a way, an ultramasculine one. “I wear high-waisted pants and braces because I have strong core muscles,” lawyer Edward Hayes told me earlier, when asked to account for his style. (“This seam accentuates the shoulder muscle,” he showed-and-told three years ago to a Times reporter.) Hayes is in the advanced stages of the affliction: He gets all his suits, shirts, shoes, and hats made. “I wear bright colors because animals and certain kinds of men seek to draw attention to themselves in word and deed.” The suit, then, is the puffed-up plumage, the silver back of an alpha gorilla.
“You’re a freak!” yells Wilcox, the suitmaker. “That’s fine. That’s what we’re here for.”
I must admit that I am not entirely immune to the bug myself. I caught it last year, on a trip to China, where a Beijing tailor made two cashmere-wool blazers for me for roughly $80 each. I found him in a five-story supermarket that was like a shadow-world Bergdorf Goodman: floor upon floor crammed with knockoffs of luxury brands. My blazers were copied from an oily GQ page. They fit better than any other item of clothing I own.
China is the dark secret of the bespoke world, its mad wife in the attic. “When I was in grad school,” recalls Sheidlower, “I had an English friend who was always incredibly well dressed. I finally asked him about it, and he said that, as a broke Oxford student, he bought a bespoke shirt from Turnbull & Asser, brought it with him to Shanghai, had 30 copies made in different fabrics for next to no cost, and had been living off it ever since.” Stories like this abound. One way-off-the-record dandy confessed to having suits made in Hong Kong but pleaded with me not to mention it, “as I have an image to uphold.”
Wilcox, meanwhile, wants to know if I’m ready to have my measurements taken. Fine, I’ll play along: As long as no money changes hands, I might as well see what the process feels like. His wife, Betty, produces a tape measure and a vicelike apparatus that looks like something out of Dr. Mengele’s traveling kit. The widening-waist issue quickly becomes the least of my worries: Everything I thought I knew about myself is wrong. My waist is 36, not 34. My arms are short. I am also “head-forward.”
And then, some real revelations. We find that my left hipbone is a half-inch higher than the right. Then my left arm turns out to be a half-inch longer. Then my left shoulder is discovered to dwarf the right one by the same half-inch. In general, my left half is bulkier than the right. I am lopsided. Deformed.
“You’re a freak!” yells Wilcox. “That’s fine. That’s what we’re here for.”
“We can add some padding here,” muses Betty, making a small circle under my right clavicle, “to even it out.” As she continues her measurements and Alex continues to snicker, I’m struck by their level of involvement. I am sane enough to understand that the imperfections they’re talking about are microscopic: You really have to care to notice, not to mention to try and do something about them.
But come to think of it, the right lapel on both of my Beijing-made blazers always did seem to bend outward. Same thing with the Zegna. Now I know why—and not a single tailor or shop clerk ever said anything about it. Goddamn it, I want this suit! Not even the suit per se—I want the undivided attention that comes with it. When Alex innocently inquires if he should put in the order for the fabric, I have to restrain myself from handing over the credit card. I cut short the measurement process, hightail it out of Willy’s, then call the shop and make an appointment for later.