Over the past several years, the concept of custom has exploded across the clothing world, and even beyond: I recently saw a sign for “Custom Pizza.” On reflection, it fits: the customer’s pizza is made to his or her order, with the toppings and size specified. And on further reflection, the fact that some pizzeria thought “custom” is a marketing point, instead of the normal way most of us have been ordering pizza for decades, shows the extent to which the concept of custom has become a marketing novelty at both low end and high. We have custom window blinds and “custom-ordered shoes” and bespoke software solutions, for as we creep towards the higher end custom gets associated with other pretty words like bespoke (British English for custom), handmade, artisanal and heritage. This phenomenon appeared interesting enough that I devote the verbal incontinence of this post and its following to the recent spread of custom, both high and low, and what it appears to mean. I begin here with high, and will end low, as is the case in most of my moods, especially those around clothing.
I suggest that, fundamentally, custom be understood with its lay definition, something made to the customer's order. The same should be true for the word bespoke as well, noting that culturally we’ve come to understand custom (clothing) to mean a whole lot more – because the concept had become so abstract (good custom clothing being generally hard to find and expensive). Until the last several decades, however, the terms custom, made to order, bespoke, tailored and made to measure were often used interchangeably to describe clothing made specifically to fit an individual customer. In recent decades, the spread of various alternative or shortcut forms of customization has meant that true custom or bespoke tailors, shirtmakers and shoemakers have, in defending their unique crafts, asserted that custom/bespoke involves various other steps, in particular the creation of an individual pattern (or last, in the case of a shoe) for a customer. That is the appropriate definition of custom/bespoke in current #menswear usage, although there’s no binding standard definition or legal definition, so that a recent arrival on Savile Row that sold suits made from altered stock patterns successfully defended its use of the term “bespoke” from challenges from real Savile Row tailors. (For completeness, I note that “made to measure” today is often used to mean customized clothing made by altering a stock pattern to a customer’s measurements, while “made to order” typically denotes clothing made to a particular stock size at the customer’s order, although many still use the terms “custom” or “bespoke” interchangeably with them, whether in bad faith or not.)
What makes a Savile Row tailor “real”? Glad you asked. After centuries of internecine sniping, the traditional tailors of Savile Row finally founded a couple of associations several years ago dedicated to increasing their profile and public awareness of what sets them apart. Qualifying as “Savile Row bespoke” requires not only the use of individual paper patterns, but a minimum number of 50 hours of handwork, a minimum offer of 2,000 fabrics to the customer and the employment of at least one apprentice. All of these are nice attributes, and should feature at a good luxury tailor’s. However, what distinguishes good bespoke tailoring from off-the-rack, made to measure, or indeed bad bespoke is a good cutter and patternmaker cutting and customizing an individual pattern (as well as good assemblers and pieceworkers supporting him or, occasionally, her). It’s worth noting that not all of the traditional tailors on Savile Row are members of this association, while certain members principally sell branded ready-to-wear, with bespoke a relatively small portion of their turnover.
Custom is now cool. Some of the so-called “new Savile Row tailors,” ready-to-wear designers who opened shops in Savile Row in the 1990s, were ahead of this trend, and used their address and the small amount of bespoke they also sold to give their other wares cachet. Other Savile Row custom tailors of long standing are finding they need to expand into ready-to-wear and accessories to get their names out in international markets and survive. For real bespoke, which is what should be providing when you offer high end custom clothing, is expensive to make, impossible to scale and often unprofitable, assuming you even are able to find the experienced and talented cutters and tailors you need. Decades ago the tailors and bootmakers of London opened foreign outposts not to sell brand-building ready-to-wear, but to expand their offer of custom clothing using transplants from the home office who would build up local talent. World War II and the decline of the British Empire caused most of those outposts to disappear, but a few local outposts still remain, offering homegrown bespoke that sometimes surpasses that of their London antecedents.
Why are luxury ready-to-wear brands expanding into custom? It is not for the profitability of custom clothing itself. Years ago Xavier Aubercy of Aubercy Shoes memorably explained to me that Aubercy had decided to offer true bespoke shoes for the pleasure and love of the craft, because it was not a very profitable venture: few customers can afford it and margins, even at the top end of prices, are too low. In the ensuing period (including the financial crisis), Aubercy stopped and recently again started offering bespoke. I would have been inclined to dismiss the congenial and passionate Xavier’s romantic explanation as marketing worthy of Olga Berluti, except that I have seen no evidence whatsoever that Aubercy is run with any regard to commercial or marketing reality, for better or for worse. Berluti itself, or course, is another story.
An e-friend of many years’ standing whom I’ll call Pierre (because that’s his name) once pointed out that luxury houses that decide to offer bespoke need to address the expectations set by their pricing. I submit that because so few customers actually know what to expect or what matters in quality bespoke, most customers’ expectations are easily set by a brand’s marketers and met with product of varying integrity. Hermès is one of the last luxury brands to have tried to maintain some integrity in expanding into men’s custom clothing. Still, luxury brands like Hermès may as well be using the exceptionally high prices of their bespoke as its main marketing point: the shockingly high price of Hermès’ John Lobb Paris bespoke shoes are what stands out in a recent New York Times article, as is the case in a Wall Street Journal piece on Hermès’ bespoke suits, which notes that they start at $10,000 but that the customer gets three fittings (as if that makes all the difference). As is increasingly the case in the WSJ, the writer clearly had no actual knowledge of his subject. For $10,000 I’d want as many fittings as I damn well pleased, accompanied by a few magnums of pink champagne and God knows what else (Eva Green?) at each visit. Up until about a decade ago Hermès offered bespoke services through Cifonelli and more recently (and no longer) Camps de Luca, two of the best tailors in Paris. Of course, their own prices (while steep) are less than those Hermès charges, although Hermès supposedly offered some exclusive cloths and the eminently forgettable designs of its menswear designer Véronique Nichanian. While Hermès’ bespoke tailoring and shirtmaking no longer uses marquee makers like Camps, several years ago Hermès held a travelling “Festival des métiers” to showcase its various artisans, including those making its bespoke shirts. For even if its bespoke prices are deterrent, that showcase added tone to the ties and scarves that are Hermès’ main sellers.
Berluti, a shoe brand recently turned into a luxury clothing label by Antoine Arnault of the LVMH Arnaults, illustrates a more modern approach to luxury custom clothing, ersatz appropriation: buy a name and invent heritage. To be fair, Berluti has long featured good bespoke shoemakers like Patrice Rock and Anthony Delos, although they enjoy a very low profile against that of the very expensive ready-to-wear shoes that until recently made Berluti’s reputation. However, in order to establish Berluti’s luxury clothing bona fides, the Arnaults acquired another expensive clothing brand, Arnys, and sent out press releases decreeing that Arnys was a bespoke tailor and shirtmaker whose services would henceforth be part of Berluti’s. While Arnys did offer extremely expensive bespoke tailoring and shirtmaking, it was far better known for its interesting ready-to-wear designs, courtesy of a stylist whom Berluti replaced with a more commercially mainstream designer from a Zegna diffusion line. And by the time Berluti bought it, Arnys’ senior bespoke tailor had left for Lanvin. He is now retired, as is the fellow who had passed for a shirtmaker (he wasn’t) at Arnys. Even infamous old Olga Berluti, responsible for Berluti’s more interesting and poetic shoe designs, is no longer with the company. However, through the magic of PR and a credulous, LVMH-beholden media, the myth has been created that Berluti is now a French tailoring powerhouse. Almost no one can afford to test Berluti’s bespoke clothing offer to verify or be disappointed by it. Instead, what Berluti has created with its supposed custom offer is instant ethos: Antoine Arnault has said he wants Berluti to be “the most haute couture menswear brand in the world,” with the possibility of everything from jeans to suits being made custom. That infinitesimal possibility is the touchstone for marketers and uninspired reporters to state that everything being sold in the rapidly multiplying number of Berluti boutiques is inspired by its custom work. Every hackneyed black suit and banal brown sweater and overpriced pair of jeans, every cloddishly heavy pair of boots and plasticky leather accessory will benefit from the halo effect of the supposed bespoke artisans laboring on a minuscule percentage of the brand’s output.
This is the most shameless example of a phenomenon that is not new: before Berluti bought another brand and claimed it was a bespoke tailor, other luxury clothing brands advertised new custom lines in order to follow the fashion for custom. Armani launched something called “Hand Made to Measure” some years ago, while Dior Homme now has a made-to-measure line. (A few decades ago Dior actually had its own men’s bespoke tailors at its men’s flagship on avenue Montaigne – tested by the late Marlene Dietrich! - but those days are long over now.) Burberry even advertised a custom “Art of Trench” with 12 million possible configurations, it boasted – none of which involved the trench actually being made to anything other than standard even sizes and a single length. Today, even at the top of the market, what matters is not the actual possibilities of a custom offer. Brands know that too few customers will ever try it out, or in the case of Arnys’ hapless bespoke customers, ever actually care how well their clothing fits. Arnault had it right in trying to create a haute couture menswear brand, for today most haute couture, the elaborate custom designs shown on the runway collections of a few women’s designers, exists mainly to sell status accessories like purses and licensed items like perfume, and may never actually be made for a customer. Some years ago one Savile Row tailor tried to justify the rising prices of his quality bespoke by suggesting that a bespoke suit was like haute couture for men. He may have been right, but not in the way he intended. Canny marketers have appropriated the idea of luxury custom clothing to sell expensive ready-to-wear. Whatever high-end custom is actually available may as well be a chimera like haute couture, since these brands are now using it as a loss leader, like their flagships on luxury shopping streets, possibly unprofitable endeavors mainly intended to add prestige to other, more pedestrian lines.
Moral: if you are shopping for luxury custom clothing, know what to expect from custom clothing (well-made clothing that fits), how to assess it, and seek out dependable makers who can live up to their own mythos, for at the high end you are necessarily buying into the myths a maker has created and betting on the fulfillment of your own personal dreams.