Japanese Tailors Apprentice in Naples, Italy

Echoing the issues raised in MEN OF THE CLOTH, Tom Downey writes in the Wall Street Journal magazine that:

… most master cutters and tailors in Naples began learning their trade at or before the age of 10—during an era of post-war Italian poverty when child labor was the norm—which means that the top tailors there are, at the youngest, in their sixties. Many more, though, are in their seventies or eighties and long retired. Most wonder openly whether a tailor who starts learning this craft at the age of 18 or 20 can ever attain the technique necessary to become a true master cutter.

And yet I was incredibly inspired by the dedication of Japanese men who’ve apprenticed and trained in Naples, Italy and then return to Japan to craft suits in the signature Neapolitan style.

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Noriyuki Ueki wearing one of his own suits
(Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal magazine)

That

The Making of the Ultimate Bespoke Coat

I’m really looking forward to reading “The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury, and Obsession on The Trail of a $50,000 Coat” by Meg Lukens Noonan, which was just reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

The $50,000 coat in question was commissioned by a wine company executive from John Cutler, a fourth generation master bespoke tailor in Sydney, Australia. Ms. Noonan thinks that the plain, boxy coat looks like nothing special to her untrained eye, so she sets out “to determine what makes this unassuming article so valuable” — from the vicuna sourced in the Peruvian Andes to the Florentine silk lining to the Buffalo-horn buttons from the English Midlands.

Echoing a theme in MEN OF THE CLOTH, the WSJ observes that “traditional textile artisans have bravely held their ground against the fast-fashion juggernaut.” But Ms. Noonan is apparently “distressed to learn that many of these crafts are destined for the ashbin of history — despite the current appetite for bespoke products — partly due to a lack of willing heirs and apprentices.” Indeed, Mr. Cutler’s own grown sons “have no interest in taking over” the family business.

The conclusion in the WSJ’s review is quite apt: “The Coat Route compels us to remember that behind every garment is a deep history and a pair of human hands….”

Bespoke is Being Mispoken

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the use and misuse of the word bespoke. I was under the impression that bespoke was traditionally a term reserved for clothing. So it really bothers me to hear a commercial on the radio for “bespoke wood flooring.”  My friend Tim Mureau (of Tim’s Tailor Service in The Netherlands) is writing a book about craftsmen in Italy and contributes to The Gentleman’s Gazette. He points out that there are made-to-measure firms that are representing their clothing as bespoke — and this is not right. I have absolutely nothing against made-to-measure clothing per se — or ready-to-wear, for that matter. But one shouldn’t misrepresent one’s product and confuse the customer.

I recently discovered a couple of blog posts from a while back by Hugo Jacomet of Parisian Gentleman, a beautiful site that crystallized my thoughts on the subject and made me feel like he had read my mind. He maintains that bespoke is “based on a simple principle: each suit is constructed from a unique pattern drafted with and for a client after discussions with the tailor.”

In one of his posts, Jacomet employs a truly great title: A semantic tragedy: “Bespoke” used as a catch-all word! Semantic tragedy indeed. He writes:

This major trend of ascribing various meanings to a word is disastrous because it drags down EVERYTHING, induces confusion and is a ploy to sell mass produced products as genuine craft products whereas these are usually manufactured in unseemly conditions.

And then, I saw a news item for “bespoke donuts.” Yes, you read that correctly: “bespoke donuts!” Apparently, Tescos across the UK will be selling Krispy Kreme donuts with fancy glazes as a tie-in with Glamour magazine for London Fashion Week. This has got to be a new low. To say this is silly is an understatement. Where are the bespoke police when you need them?!

 

A Memoir from an English Bespoke Tailor

I’ve been meaning to write a capsule about this book for some time, but the demands of post-production and fundraising for my film have gotten in the way. Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed is a compelling memoir of how a 17-year-old kid from the London suburbs fell into an apprenticeship at Henry Huntsman & Sons, the bespoke tailoring film on London’s famed Savile Row. More importantly, Anderson recounts how this experience 29 years ago transformed his life and gave him a lifelong vocation and a penchant for perfectionism that he never could have dreamed of as a lad.

At the age of 34, Anderson became the youngest head cutter in Huntsman’s 150-year history. Since 2001 he has been at the helm of his own tailoring firm on Savile Row, Richard Anderson Ltd.

Anderson writes that the first three months at Huntsman caused him “relentless mental and emotional chaos.” The environment was like being in the army, “where one must resist being broken down,” and where your superiors never let you forget that you’re at the very bottom of the food chain.

It’s amusing to read that despite all the miles he had run and all the football games he had played as a teenager, this had in no way prepared him for handling the massively heavy cutting shears in the workroom. It’s also fascinating to learn about the firm’s frequent forays abroad to service its vast American clientele.

Bespoke tailor Richard Anderson (photo by Neil Gavin)

Anderson writes movingly about being inducted into the private world of bespoke:

To put a true and properly made bespoke suit on for the first time is a revelation: immediately you take to its positive influence on your posture…you stand up straighter and feel at once more comfortable and confident…that you have it in you to be a better person, a person of unique capacity, sensibility and class. And for me this was like a drug.


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