"Most men know more about their cars than they do about their clothes," fashion writer G. Bruce Boyer once complained. Which will seem not only true to most of you but also the right allocation of brainpower. But clothes and cars aren't as far apart as you might think. Both are utilitarian aspects of our lives that easily elide into artful self-expression. We may be more familiar with (and forgiving of) the gearhead than with the dandy, but both are driven by the same masculine impulse to show off. As for why most men prefer horsepower to thread count, it's probably as much nurture as nature. My high school had a class called Auto Shop that was very popular; did yours have a course in haberdashery?
Now that you've grown up and discovered the power of clothes, you may wish your school had offered Style 101 alongside Typing and Home Economics. If so, you're in luck, because twice a year, school's in session at local department stores. In March and September, Saks, Barneys, Brooks Brothers, and Bergdorf Goodman hold trunk shows where they'll sell you a great-looking suit, made exactly the way you want from the fabric you like, starting at around $800, often without tacking on a "made to measure" up-charge. More to the point, they'll happily teach you a thing or two about your clothes.
Unlike custom tailoring, where a unique garment is made from a pattern created especially for the client, made-to-measure suits adapt the designer's standard patterns to the customer's physique, preferred fabrics, and persnickety tastes in detailing. This reduces the choices involved in buying a distinctive suit to just the crucial and manageable few. "There is an emotional benefit to getting exactly what you want," explains Tom Kalenderian, executive vice-president at Barneys. "Once customers get a taste of it, they love it."
Most of the men invited to these events are regulars. These are the kind of guys who have their own salesmen and can be counted on to order at least three or four garments at a whack from their favorite designer every season. So a trunk sale is essentially the shopping equivalent of a VIP room. But no one will turn you away if you simply turn up out of curiosity. In fact, the sales reps will eagerly answer your questions. "We go over each measurement with a customer and explain exactly what we are doing so they will see the comparison between made-to-measure and a suit off the rack," says Patrick Young, a manager at Paul Stuart.
For each manufacturer the department stores host a special one- or two-day event at which they'll set up a refreshment bar in the designer's section of the floor and allow the tailors and their fabrics hold court. But the made-to-measure sale itself continues throughout the month. So you can go when they lay out the spread -- or wait and book some time for a one-on-one tutorial.
The first choice you'll have to make is one of style. What kind of suit fits your personality, profession, and portfolio? "There's style and there's fashion," says master tailor Martin Greenfield, at Brooks Brothers. "With me, you'll develop a style: peak lapels, double vents, high three buttons, long jackets, whatever. Then we'll adjust it for fashion as times change, or you grow older, or you switch jobs."
Greenfield is referring to a personal style but one within the range of what he does: the loose-fitted, natural-shouldered American look. If that's not you, there are other makers out there who are. For conservative tastes, there's Brooks Brothers; Polo; Hickey-Freeman; Kilgour, French and Stanbury; Paul Stuart; Chester Barrie; and Oxxford. All make some version of a classic suit without too much flash. In the middle, you get Italian names like Zegna, Isaia, Belvest, Corneliani, Cerrutti, Battistoni, and Luciano Barbera, whose suits possess the structured nonchalance Italians are famous for. Finally, there are the unmistakable silhouettes of Ralph Lauren Purple Label (selective takes on Savile Row classics), Giorgio Armani (the master of the slouching power look), Kiton (Neapolitan flash), Huntsman (British military precision), and Brioni (Roman cool).
Once you've got a style, the fun begins. At the center of any trunk show is "the box." It contains swatches of all the various fabrics available for that line. The pickings haven't been this good in years -- luxurious weaves with cool-sounding high thread counts: super 120s, 150s, and even 180s. "What's changed the most with technology is the fabrics," observes Greenfield. "For people who travel a lot, we have high-performance fabrics that don't wrinkle. For active people, we have stretch fabrics." Sadly, today's men don't get the eye-catching overplaids, rustic herringbones, or distinctive pinstripes that made the heyday of men's fashion between the wars so distinctive and dandyish. Muted patterns are the order of the day -- and cashmere sells like mad.
Thanks to the fabrics, the made-to-measure business is growing at a double-digit clip. Because these fabrics are so expensive, no manufacturer dares to waste them on a suit that might not sell. "As the phenomenon of buying exotic fabrics evolves, more business goes to made-to-measure," comments designer Alan Flusser. And as the business expands, so do your educational -- and epicurean -- opportunities, since trunk sales offer the sort of freedom one rarely gets in a department store. "This is the next level," says Richard Bowes, men's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. "We let the men who come to us express themselves. It's the ultimate customer service."
For more information, call the made-to-measure departments at Barneys (212-826-8900); Bergdorf Goodman (212-339-3342); Brooks Brothers (800-274-1816); Paul Stuart (212-682-0320); and Saks Fifth Avenue (212-753-4000).