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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