The Challenging Economics of Bespoke Tailoring

From one of my favorite columnists in the New York Times Magazine comes a story that’s close to my heart. Adam Davidson writes about economics and finance and applies his keen eye to the world of bespoke tailoring (or bespoke tailors, to be more precise). In “What’s a $4,000 Suit Worth?” he profiles a young Savile Row-trained tailor named Peter Frew who works our of his Brooklyn apartment and makes a modest income.

Frew explained “how he customizes every aspect of its design — the width of the lapel, the number and size of the pockets — for each client. What makes a bespoke suit unique, he said, is that it’s the result of skills that only a trained hand can perform. Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.” Indeed.

Davidson writes that “it became glaringly obvious why he is not rich. Like a 17th-century craftsman, he has no economy of scale. It takes Frew about 75 hours to make a suit — he averages about two per month — and he has no employees. A large part of his revenue is used to pay off his material expenses, and because his labor is so demanding, he relies on an outside salesman, who requires commissions. (Frew can’t even afford to make a suit for himself…While he hopes to one day hire full-time assistant tailors and rent a Manhattan showroom, he knows it will be a huge challenge to get there.”

In my film MEN OF THE CLOTH, master tailor Nino Corvato has been able to achieve his exalted status with an atelier in Midtown Manhattan not only because he’s an amazing craftsman but because of his prior business experience working for large firms like Brooks Brothers. And of course, one has to build up one’s reputation and have access to capital.

Peter Frew at his apartment in Brooklyn, where he works (photo by Marvin Orellana for The New York Times)

Davidson concludes that “The only way to make money in the perfectionist craftsperson industry, it seems, is to stop being a perfectionist craftsperson.”He marvels that even Savile Row’s Anderson & Sheppard “with a century-old reputation and a profoundly loyal customer base” is not exactly minting money. He then cites the example of Martin Greenfield Clothiers in Brooklyn, which “has maintained high-quality tailoring standards along with modern efficiencies for decades.”

Greenfield’s factory makes custom suits, which are known in the business as made-to-measure. Customers can go to a third-party boutique, like J. Press, to pick a fabric and be measured. The cloth and measurements are then sent to Brooklyn, where patterns are created, fabric cut and then sent through the production line of cutters and tailors. Just as Adam Smith described in “The Wealth of Nations,” there are huge efficiency gains when one complex process is broken down into constituent parts and each worker specializes in one thing.

Despite this more efficient production process Greenfield is not hugely profitable. Davidson says “As the handcrafted stuff continues to cost more, it just keeps getting easier and cheaper to profit from mass-produced branded products.” He mentions (unsurprisingly) that Frew, Anderson & Sheppard, and the owners of Greenfield Clothiers all talked about “how there is now a large difference between what is monetizable and what is actually valuable.” I communicate this idea very subtly in MEN OF THE CLOTH.

Jon Greene, a reader from Brooklyn, NY, astutely observes that:

This piece, deceptively simple at first glance, turns out to have implications far beyond the struggles of the solitary craftsman it profiles, and begs consideration of a range of meaty topics involving the definition of value itself, as well as a whole bunch of political topics like globalization, exploitation of labor, trickle-down theories, skyrocketing real estate (oh, and some very technical discussion of garment construction and men’s fashion!).

And he rightly points out that “to those who chime in that Frew should ‘just raise his prices,’ it’s not that simple. In any market, there is a logic to the way goods are priced. Do the math and you’ll see A&S suits (with all their prestige), go for 4,500–a mere 500 more than Frew’s. The rich might be able to pay more for Frew’s suits, but why would they? The idea that simply raising prices can generate the cachet to drive sales is naive.”

But here’s the line that resonates the most for me : “I’d like to amplify the few voices who questioned why the goal always has to be exponential growth, endless licensing, branding, etc. What’s wrong with making an honest living on a small scale?”

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