“Well-dressed men know that nothing worth-while is ever outmoded, that a superb tailor’s work is ageless.” ‑ Finis Farr
“REASONS WHY BESPOKE STILL RULES: […] goods made by hand, and to your specifications, will last longer (and look better longer) than anything mass produced.”— Esquire’s Big Black Book
Two frustratingly misguided quotes reflect the problem with defining what is bespoke, and why to go bespoke. Bespoke, even that of a superb tailor, is not necessarily timeless, as the above image from Francesco Smalto’s 30-year retrospective (Francesco Smalto: La passion d’un métier: 30 ans) illustrates. Nor does the word bespoke necessarily imply handwork, a word which itself is usually misused.
During Will’s visit to Smalto last year (at which time he tried on the astrakhan coat Smalto had made for Sheik Yerbouti), he received a copy of the 30-year Smalto retrospective, and asked me to say more about it. I’d mentioned it in passing in my review of Smalto’s more recent, more pompous 50-year retrospective. Smalto was, by reliable account, one of the best tailors of the 20th century (while he is still working, today he personally only cuts for his most important customers). Most of the designs featured in his 30-year retrospective were fully bespoke, but I’d be hard put to term the A-line tunic with shorts and white leather thigh boots “timeless.” His ghillie-collared fancy-print jersey sportcoat would also not be contemporary today, outside of the completely wrong prognostications of the late Sir Hardy Amies. Yet here they are, examples of the excellently crafted, excellently fitted bespoke of one of the leading tailors of his time.
In truth, bespoke is simply another word for custom. That is, there’s no fixed or legal definition of bespoke, as the true bespoke tailors of Savile Row found out recently when they lost a legal battle to prevent a new shop on the Row from calling its stock special clothing bespoke. (A stock special is essentially a garment made to order using ready to wear patterns, such as, say, having a shirtmaker put a 15.5” collar on the body it usually uses for a size 16 shirt.) Makers with integrity and informed customers usually use bespoke to mean an item of clothing made specially to the measurements and specifications of the customer, using a pattern individually created specifically for that customer and his or her dimensions. Ergo, bespoke should not mean existing clothing that is altered to fit the customer, or clothing made from a block size pattern that is tweaked to reflect a few details of the customer’s fit. Because of the difficulty of doing this right, many companies selling clothing want to appropriate the term “bespoke” to describe what they do. There’s no law against it, but it’s misleading to anyone who thinks of bespoke in the terms that clothing enthusiasts do.
What this means is that timelessness has nothing to do with the work of a superb tailor. I’d certainly hope that the tailor’s work would last a long time, because good bespoke is usually very expensive nowadays, but superb tailors like Smalto, or Edward Sexton during his time at Nutters, have made many items whose style was of their particular moments. They may still be wearable now, but with a great deal of front, irony or splendid sense of costume.
Timelessness has entered the mythos around the term bespoke precisely because bespoke has for some time been usually expensive and hard to find. However, quite recently I’ve noticed a lot of social media discount sites offering coupons for new local bespoke clothiers. I suspect they’ve sprung up because the idea of bespoke clothing is fashionable and the meaning of bespoke so misunderstood. In other words, my uninformed guess is that these new companies are taking advantage of those of us who actually believe the naïveté of magazine writers to think that bespoke means timeless quality and impeccable handmade construction.
Because good bespoke is usually expensive, various groups fighting to define bespoke have attempted to inject the idea of handwork into that definition. I believe the Savile Row Bespoke Association, for instance, requires that its members’ bespoke involve a certain amount of handwork. Hand stitching is much slower than machine stitching and much, much more expensive. But bespoke doesn’t have to involve any handwork. The Esquire author appears to think bespoke is synonymous with handmade, referring to the supposedly handmade shirts of Charvet and Turnbull & Asser. But whatever its merits, I believe there’s no handwork at all on a Turnbull & Asser shirt, bespoke or not, while as the owner of more Charvet bespoke shirts than I’ve ever counted, I feel entitled to say based on my discussions with my cutters that the only handwork on their bespoke is the bar tacks at the edges of the buttonholes (not the buttonholes themselves) and the attachment of the buttons. Yet the construction is better and more durable than just about any other shirt I own. (I understand that recently they’ve introduced an option for extra handwork for an extra price, almost certainly in response to internet-(mis)educated punters.) This is at least partly due to the fact that good quality machine sewing is, in most cases and particularly on long straight seams, tighter and cleaner than good hand stitching, even if you can find it. We leave aside the possible use of the term “handmade” to mean “hand-guided through machine,” which is what it means most of the time you read it in articles about clothing.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, Smalto continued to offer bespoke with a great deal of real handwork, but he de-emphasized his bespoke offering in favor of licensed ready-to-wear and accessories, becoming far better known as a designer . His 30-year retrospective came out in 1992, shortly before Smalto began outfitting Adrian Paul as Duncan Macleod in the gloriously cheesy Highlander: The Series. It’s safe to say that the two retrospectives preserving Smalto’s legacy are due largely to the commercial success of this superb tailor’s ready-to-wear lines and costuming work, thanks to which he became well known, rather than to his merits as a tailor in making wonderful bespoke clothing. Bespoke is not timeless. Bespoke, if you’re lucky, is what you ordered.
Words and photo by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans