Conventional wisdom is the path of least resistance. For the most part, I find this to be the case with contemporary discussions of craft. Much of it tends to focus on the shortcomings of craft businesses and how to run them better. This seems natural. But my take is more unconventional and contrarian. It’s about becoming a better bespoke customer.
For example, let’s look at a discussion moderated by Simon Crompton (Permanent Style) featuring Douglas Cordeaux (Fox Bros) and Gianluca Migliarotti (O’Mast). They conclude that craft companies need to improve their marketing and customer service. Fair enough. However, I would submit that the same could be said about virtually any company, craft or otherwise.
As noted, my point of departure is quite the opposite. I’m far more interested in a less asked but equally important question – what do customers do wrong? More constructively, how can we become better customers for artisans?
My reasoning is straightforward. It’s all about sustainability of craft. In my view, the future of craftsmanship depends less on fixing the wrongs of craft companies and more on crafting better customers. The simple reality is that having great customers is one of the few ways to sustain great craftsmanship.
After years of interviewing, chatting and working with bespoke tailors and artisans, I have heard my fair share of customer stories ranging from the heartening to the horror-inducing.
Below are my observations and conclusions gathered over a decade in helping tailors find and connect with new customers. All of the customer anecdotes below are based on actual experiences.
My bottom-line conclusion? Artisans shouldn’t have to work with clients who demand much but order little. Or those who order but are indifferent to the bespoke process. Or those who are simply not the right type of client for bespoke.
Instead, artisans truly need more “hero clients” who appreciate artisanal work and order deeply, madly and truly.
To get from headache to hero client, I’ve put together a few rules:
Rule #1: Take a hard look at your resources and motivation. Are you really a candidate for bespoke?
As I wrote in my piece on the artisan’s dilemma, the lives of craftsmen and women are not easy. They demand a certain type of customer with time, budget and level of care and appreciation for the bespoke process.
Most importantly, they do not insist on finding “bargains” in bespoke.
I can share my own experience in attempting to offer “affordable bespoke tailoring” to a wider audience. Affordable means tailoring comparable to London and Paris but at a fraction of the price. A seemingly attractive concept since it enables more consumers to wear and enjoy bespoke.
Yet one of my greatest regrets is having bought into this flawed idea and then promoted it.
“Affordable bespoke” is an oxymoron because heritage bespoke tailoring requires time, effort and care. A bespoke garment made with traditional methods cannot and should not be produced cheaply.
Think about it this way. Why would any experienced tailor who has trained for years want to make a bespoke jacket priced effectively at a labor wage of $10-15 per hour? There are exceptions to any rule but most tailors are seeking a remunerative, living wage for themselves and their families.
Logically, this means the customer must be willing to pay this wage, which in the West is not a trivial amount. This in turn requires certain amount of discretionary income and equally importantly a sense of appreciation for the world of tailoring. Unfortunately, without the budget and ethos for bespoke craftsmanship, you‘ll likely end up being the worst possible client for tailors.
Rule #2: No, the world does not revolve around you. Exercise patience and respect the long arc of bespoke time.
Let’s delve into a different user and maker community to illustrate this rule – custom pick-up trucks and vans. The world of custom truck camper builds is actually quite similar to bespoke tailoring. Both are 100% custom fabrication businesses. Both are driven by a relatively small number of passionate, opinionated users, makers and customers. Both rely on a handful of suppliers and partners to deliver to customers. For tailors this means relying on fabric mills as well as coat makers, pants makers and finishers inside and outside their workshop to finish orders.
In this example, the camper builder (Vagabond Outdoors) was dealing with a customer who grew increasingly frustrated with delays in his order. This irate customer decided to bulk post his private communications to and from the vendor on the public TacomaWorld forum. He was upset because of a delay in the delivery of his camper truck canopy and decided to “expose” this delay in a very public way.
All things considered, the owner of Vagabond handled this situation very well. However, I found myself shaking my head at the utter folly of this customer who hinged his work and vacation plans and general happiness on the estimated delivery time of his order.
Keep in mind the delivery time was an estimate. In any bespoke order, delivery times are always just that – estimates. At least I’ve never seen or heard of a guaranteed delivery time for custom orders of any type.
For tailors, this type of customer is one of the worst to deal with. Artisans make a living based on their reputation. Customers know this and some of them take unscrupulous advantage of this fact. Life would be much better for everyone involved if such customers stay out of the bespoke or custom world. If you want guaranteed delivery by a certain time, please visit a store and buy something off the shelf.
Rule #3: Respect the artisan’s space and her daily schedule.
Don’t set up an appointment with a tailor, bring several friends for their advice and company, spend a few hours of the tailor’s time looking at different fabrics for your wedding suit, ask for advice, finally pick a cloth, then return the following week saying you changed your mind about the fabric and need more time.
This is unfortunately not at all uncommon. Of course, there is a time and place for socializing, and many artisans enjoy spending time with their customers.
Some retailers view social shopping as an essential part of the customer experience. Luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman recognized that sneaker browsing and buying is often a social activity for men and created a separate floor dedicated to athletic shoes to accommodate groups.
But an independent artisan is quite different. Don’t assume that their time, workspace and resources is entirely at your disposal. You’re not going to a department store or retailer with staff and resources to pamper you.
In short, if you are the type of person who constantly changes your mind or believes the customer is always king, do yourself and the artisans a favor and shop RTW. Otherwise you are imposing a real cost on artisans.
Note this runs somewhat counter to what is stated in the video above – that tailors need to communicate more frequently and be more responsive to customers in the international market.
My point is that there should be reasonable limits placed upon an artisan’s time. This respect for the craftperson’s time should start with the customer.
Rule #4: Bespoke does not mean a blank check (or slate) to do as you please.
This is a corollary to rule #3.
When you spend $3,000 or more on a jacket you certainly feel things should be done your way. Seems to make sense, doesn’t it? But this is a slippery slope. Soon you may think you have absolute decision rights in deciding how a tailored garment should be constructed from the time you order up until delivery.
But this is not a one way street as my fellow menswear writer Bruce Boyer sagely notes. At its heart, working with a tailor or artisan means getting to know a human being. As with any healthy relationship, trust and communication are key and should be two way.
“The way to GET ON with a tailor is to find one who understands what you want, a man you can talk to. A man who, not to put too fine a point on it, agrees with your view of the world. Because, finally, they are just men, like the rest of us. They’re locked into their ideas, they have their ideals and their visions and their biases. They’ve been trained a certain way, and are habitually inclined. Some are timid, but more are stubborn and enormously proud of their work. More than a few will tell you they can do anything, but they can’t. Few would admit to being aesthetically ignorant. In other words, they’re just like the rest of us. And so, just as with a friend or even a spouse, pick one you can communicate with and who understands you. It’s cheaper in the long run.”Bruce Boyer, “The Tailor”
In the TacomaWorld example, the customer hovered over the final build stage of his camper shell to monitor the progress of the work in Vagabond’s actual workshop. Can you imagine doing that to a tailor, shoemaker or other artisan? Let’s not.
Customers can also ”hover” excessively over orders or future orders via email or messaging, which can quickly become a lesson in time management for the artisan.
In short, the bespoke process must be respected if you want a bespoke product. If you have difficulties grasping this concept, perhaps bespoke is not right for you.
Rule #5: Don’t be a crybaby if something goes awry with bespoke.
By definition, bespoke is inherently a human process – one or more persons making something out of raw materials into a finished form. Experience and training are essential to its success but humans can still make mistakes.
Bespoke mistakes can happen and you should be relaxed about it. But we seem to behave differently when we find ourselves the customer in question.
Rule #1 is the best way I know to ensure this relaxed mindset. It’s an unfortunate truth but having sufficient disposable income is necessary to enjoy bespoke properly. But beyond income it’s also about the right ethos and attitude.
Tim Mureau, a very good friend of mine, loves neckties and also enjoys supporting smaller artisans and brands. He has a forthcoming blog which should launch in May and will cover his diverse interests including menswear and watches.
In his travels, he came across a small European tiemaker and placed an order for a bespoke tie. The tie turned out well and he was initially quite happy with it. Then a friend pointed out the silk was cut such that the design motif on the tie silk (a tree) was upside down. Regrettable mistake but understandable since the motif was fairly small.
I can easily imagine a disgruntled customer shooting off an email demanding a refund. Even worse (and this happens all the time) is the angry customer who preemptively threatens to post a negative review on Yelp or Google Reviews.
Instead, Tim simply sent an email informing the maker of the error as an informational FYI, and left it at that. A few days later the maker offered to remake the tie at no additional cost.
An ideal outcome obviously. But even if the artisan hadn’t offered to remake the tie, I still would be fine with that. Contrarian I know, so why? Because there are no guarantees in bespoke. Read on to see why you need to be relaxed and comfortable with this.
Rule #6: Exercise sartorial humility and you may find your view on bespoke will change over time.
One of the most common misconceptions is the notion that bespoke means 100 percent perfection. As one tailor drily told me, “The problem is that my idea of perfection may not be your idea of perfection.”
In the end, perfection is the wrong concept to apply in bespoke as I argue in my post on craftsmanship. Absolutism simply has no place in bespoke tailoring.
As a young working professional, I ordered my first set of custom shirts from a chain of MTM shirt shops called The Custom Shop. When I received them, I was dissatisfied with the extra fullness of the body and sleeves of my shirts. So I put the dozen or so shirts into storage and did not touch them for more than fifteen years.
By then I had moved on to other custom shirtmakers such as Freddy Vandecasteele (now retired), Camiceria Flavia and my current mystery Sicilian shirtmaker.
During a recent move, I took those Custom Shop shirts out of storage and was contemplating whether to donate or keep them. I tried on a few and decided to keep them in the end. I’m glad I did. Having grown out my frame here and there, they’re entirely serviceable and wearable.
I know many of us obsess about clothing but one certain truth I’ve learned is that our bodies are not timeless or eternal. Hence, it makes little sense to make the same demands when it comes to anything you wear on your body including “style” and “fit”.
On the contrary, having a robust sense of style means you can wear any decently fitting shirt or jacket comfortably whether it was made for you 15 years ago or a vintage find in a thrift store.
Rule #7: Know when you are ready for bespoke.
Readiness becomes an issue in a couple of ways. The first is financial. Most bespoke tailoring is quite expensive because of the amount of skilled labor involved. If you are pushing your financial limits to buy bespoke, this can be a recipe for mutual failure. This means typically you are more prone to demanding a “perfect” garment because every additional dollar on the margin is so highly valued by you.
But in the end bespoke is never about perfection or solely about achieving customer happiness. This is a serious misconception. The closest analogy I have is that bespoke takes a “Kickstarter backer” ethos. Kickstarter is a consumer funding platform to launch new products and services. It connects creators with individual funders (or ”backers”).
The ideal backer is well-informed and comfortable with the risks associated with funding a potentially unproven product and/or team. This means you are a cheerful beta tester cognizant of the risks. You are unaffected by the bandwagon effect and FOMO. In other words, you do not back a project simply because you see it is popular and that time is running out to back the 60 percent off early bird special.
You back something because you know it has value if its goals are achieved. The conditional is key. You understand that you are backing an outcome that is not guaranteed.
Bespoke is quite similar. It is about embracing a handmade (and more generally human) process, which entails both risks and rewards. Of course, bespoke should be less risky than introducing an entirely new product. But it is still a process for creating something new out of nothing. Even if the techniques are well-known, there is always a risk.
A healthy approach to bespoke also means embracing a “kintsugi” ethos. If something doesn’t quite meet your expectations with a jacket or suit, reflect whether your expectations were in fact realistic or reasonable. And see if you can still salvage what was made just for you. After all, it was presumably made in a good faith effort by the artisan.
I know of tailors who have left the bespoke business in part because of dealing with customers who are not only unreasonable but frankly awful. As one tailor shared to me, there are far more ways to lose money in bespoke tailoring than there are to make money precisely because of this issue.
The term “hero” is overused in our time. Hero products, hero images, hero this and that. True heroes do not self-promote or advertise themselves. Yet curiously enough, with regard to bespoke, the opportunity is quite real to be a hero client for artisans. The seeds of it are written above.
In short, I urge you to become the kind of customer that artisans would want to work with. In turn, this will attract and retain artisans to the craft rather than drive them away.
And it matters. In my view, the world is a far better, far more interesting and enjoyable place when we have more artisans working in it.
If more of us become heroic in a modest way, more artisans will want to join the lucky few who remain today. Why do I say lucky?
Because they show that it is still possible to live and work honestly and meaningfully. They work with integrity, fully engaged with their eyes, hands, hearts and minds. In an increasingly grey, impersonal and corporatized world, this has abiding value.