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?”

The Tailor Versus the Menswear Designer

Recently, custom clothier Jon Green mentioned me and my film in the Off The Cuff blog. Here’s what he said:

There are those who believe that to be a credible custom clothier one must actually be a tailor and make the clothing …. To me it is impossible to be a great craftsman responsible for making the clothes and a ‘front’ man responsible for sales, marketing, and administration. Artisan craftsmen have very special skills, but they are not all encompassing. However, there persists a tradition in New York of custom tailors who “do it all.”

That got me thinking — so I asked menswear writer Bruce Boyer, my friend and adviser on all things sartorial, to contribute this guest post with some background on the topic:

Ever since the early 1960s, when the Designer Movement in menswear began with Pierre Cardin, John Weitz, and Bill Blass, there has been something of an ongoing discussion about the true custom tailor versus the haute couture menswear designer. As the price of high-end designer gear escalated over the years to approach — and in some instances eclipse — the price of a bespoke suit, that discussion has only intensified. I’ve had this discussion often over the ensuing years with both real tailors and designers (who can be thought of as haute couture “front men”). Each usually feels the other is unnecessary. The designer feels the tailor is merely a technician and has a minimal taste level and therefore can offer no style guidance to the customer. The tailor, on his side of it, feels the designer has no training or technical ability and therefore is more like a hemorrhoid: a needless, painful addition.

Writer Bruce Boyer (care of The Sartorialist)

The old tradition in tailoring was that the tailor simply did what the customer wanted. This was an acceptable modus operandi because most men who frequented tailors knew exactly what they wanted. But as the tailoring firms grew in size and reputation — particularly on Savile Row (at the end of the 19th century, Poole’s alone was employing 300 tailors) — and as those in the middle classes got a bit more money, the “front man” came into his own. Usually these were young, sophisticated men just down from Oxford or Cambridge where they had a wide range of friends whom they were expected to steer to their tailors). The firms employed these young fellows because they were well connected, charming, chic, and spoke well. They worked the front of the shop, and the technicians were called in after the cloth and styling had been chosen.

I don’t mean to obfuscate, but I tend to agree with both sides of this issue, not because I’ve got the world’s greatest diplomatic skills, but because both sides are right. Tailors are highly trained technicians with great skill and craftsmanship. It takes more years of training, apprenticeship, and practice to become a credible journeyman tailor than it does to become a physician. But many (either tailors or physicians) have no sense of taste or style because they simply don’t travel in the same circles as their illustrious clients or understand their lifestyles, interests, or point of view. On the other kid-gloved hand, most haute couture men’s designers couldn’t even sew on a button if you stuck a Berreta up their nose. But they may well have a high level of taste, go golfing with their clients, or be invited to dinner, and have their own exquisitely developed sense of style.

A suit by Anderson & Sheppard

So, what to do? The solution taken by many men interested in the more rarefied heights of accoutrement is to rely on those tried-and-true tailoring firms (Anderson & Sheppard, Caraceni, Poole’s, Nino Corvato, Leonard Logsdail, etc) because the styling is a known commodity, is already “set” (i.e., there’s a house style, and both the customer and the tailor know what this is, which avoids misunderstandings all around). There is a carefree certainty: neither the customer nor the tailor has to make any but the smaller decisions of detailing. When a man thinks about going to a new tailor, what he must know is merely what the preferred house style is.

But, again, should a man need real guidance, he must understand that most tailors will not deviate from their accustomed house style, regardless of what they may tell a prospective customer. They’re accustomed to cutting their cloth a certain way, fitting their customers a certain way, seeing their customers in a certain silhouette. The customer must find a tailor who agrees with him, because the tailor will undoubtedly not be persuaded to change the habits of a lifetime.

Designers are more given to experiment and often more concerned with styling. They also may be more sensitive to aesthetic concerns: does the shade of that blue worsted fabric you’re eying really suit your complexion? Might not a slightly longer or shorter jacket give you a better line and thinner appearance? Should you, at 5′ 4″ and 260 lbs, really be wearing that large a plaid pattern?

Master tailor Nino Corvato

I wouldn’t want to make a case for one or the other. It may simply come down to this: if you know exactly what you want, find the tailor who can do it for you. If you need guidance, you may want someone with a highly developed sense of style. I’m sure this will not endear me to either camp, but there you are. It’s like going to church, isn’t it? Many people attend and there’s a lot going on — but that doesn’t mean everybody understands it all.

Postscript: In my humble opinion, Nino Corvato (a character in MEN OF THE CLOTH) is an exceptional tailor who doesn’t need a “front man” because he’s in the enviable position of not having to “market” his services. And while he has his own “house style” or expression, he’s always willing to try new things to please his clients (within boundaries of good taste and reason).

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