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.
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.
“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.
The next several days are a haze of soul-searching and window-shopping. I visit several other suit emporia. Tom Ford’s space-age bachelor pad looks amazing, but the suits are humorless and the clerk refuses to see a potential customer in me: financial profiling, if you will. Duncan Quinn strikes me as too rock star, with its crests and narrow lapels and ultrawide pinstripes. Freemans comes across as too self-admiring: Their suits have transparent gauze lining, the better to gawk at the stitching. I find, to my horror, that my heart is set on one Glen Plaid gray-brown wonder.
I run down my own list of the kinds of people who wear bespoke. Am I rich? Emphatically not. Am I a status whore? Not likely: I’m not sure anyone other than my wife would fully appreciate this suit. Plus, what status are we talking about? Customization, like all haute trends, is trickling down-market as we speak. The treasured signifiers of bespoke are reproducible, and ready-to-wear purveyors are already catching on: Some off-the-rack H&M suits, for instance—yes, H&M—have working cuff buttons. One shouldn’t be shocked if, within the next few years, the likes of Sears come up with a “made-to-measure” program that somehow manages to customize your $100 suit within a set of narrowly defined parameters; while this article was being written, Men’s Wearhouse introduced a custom-shirt service.
Whatever it is, my wants have been recalibrated by the devious Wilcox. I don’t care about pick stitching or mother-of-pearl buttons or cuff holes: I care about a suit whose every inch is made specifically for my frame, whose entire architecture is in tune with the weird requirements of my body, the suit that will make me whole. Brainwashed, I march back to Lord Willy’s; a bottle and a half of Champagne later, Alex swipes the deposit of $1,950 off my groaning credit card.
Two months pass before I’m called in for the first fitting. All doubts vanish at the first sight of the suit: It feels, not to be sappy about it, like a reunion. The jacket still lacks lapels and lining, and its rough inner workings are exposed, but even now, putting it on magically improves my posture. “You can’t gain any more weight,” warns Betty. Ha, but now I don’t need to lose any, either: The trousers’ high flat front makes my gut disappear. I get it now. It’s not about feeling exceptional; it’s about feeling utterly normal. I’ve cracked the secret of the bespoke addict. Too bad I’ve cracked it by becoming one myself.
I exit the shop walking on air—or I would, if the pants I’m wearing didn’t feel like two burlap sacks compared to the ones I just tried on. My suit won’t be ready for another month. It’s going to be a long one. When I get home, there’s a new e-mail from Jesse Sheidlower: “Just make sure you don’t get obsessed with shoes,” he writes. “That’s a killer.”