In my article “7 rules on becoming a better bespoke customer” I included a quote from menswear author Bruce Boyer on what you should look for in a tailor. If you have any passing familiarity with his writing, it should be abundantly clear that he has far more to share on the topic.
I am grateful for his willingness to expand further on this topic during the COVID-19 lockdown. His experience and perspective is a must-read for anyone interested in getting into bespoke.
If this is your first exposure to Bruce or if you are new to bespoke tailoring, make sure to get his most recent book, True Style: The History & Principles of Classic Menswear.
1. In your experience, what have you found to be the most common misconceptions about tailoring?
The most common and pervasive misconception about tailors is that they will immediately and completely understand what we want in a suit and will give it to us. The second common misconception is that a tailor can make any sort of suit we want. Many tailors, perhaps most of them, will be happy to tell us they can make anything we want. This is not strictly speaking a lie. It is merely a matter of miscommunication on both sides.
But it is mainly a problem for the customer and the customer’s responsibility. First, the customer should understand that the tailor has been trained in a certain way and will cling to his training. And second, that the various descriptions customers usually give, such as “I like a shorter coat”, or “I want a high shoulder”, or “I like the way Prince Charles dresses” are virtually meaningless to the tailor.
2. When I speak with experienced bespoke customers, more often than not they will say the initial suit from a tailor will be a good first effort. But it takes a second or third suit to dial things in. What is your take?
This is absolutely correct. My experience is that the tailor, any tailor, will never get it completely right the first time. Hopefully, if the customer has done his homework and knows what the “house style” is, the tailor will get close. And hopefully he will get closer on the second garment ordered. By the third garment, if both the customer and the tailor are willing to frankly communicate, the customer will have the suit he wants.
If not, there’s something wrong on one side of the bargain or the other. Tailoring is not like packaged cookies. The product isn’t stamped out uniformly by the thousands. It’s part science and part art with a great deal of psychology thrown into the mix.
3. Have you found that tailors work better with a certain type of customer with a specific mindset, profession, background, experience level or other distinguishing characteristic?
The most important thing for the customer to understand is that most tailoring shops have a “house style”, whether they tell you this or not. The tailor has been trained a certain way and has his own ideas of what constitutes those elusive words “elegance” and “style”. His eye sees silhouettes in a certain way.
He’s used to making his shoulders, lapels, trouser rise, and a hundred other details a certain way. For him, “a bit looser” or “a little closer” have a meaning which may be completely different from the customers and of course other tailors.
It’s the house style that will attract a particular sort of man. Does the man see himself as an English M’Lord or a French boulevardier? A titan of industry, a corporate CEO, a dandy, an international playboy? Does he want to look pristine or easy, minimalistic or with a bit of sprezzatura? Is he a diplomat or an entertainer? The best advice is to find the house style that best reflects the image of what you are or want to be.
4. In my article, I mentioned “affordable bespoke tailoring” as something I regretted buying into and promoting. Where do you stand on this idea of bespoke for the masses?
The idea of sustainability is now becoming uppermost in our minds, as it should be. I’ve always believed and gone on record to say that a man should buy the best he can afford and keep it forever. Take care of your clothes, maintain them, have them altered when necessary. Two good suits are better than six cheap ones because the good suits look good even when old, while the cheap ones look cheap ever when new. The best bargain is to buy quality – that’s the definition of quality.
I agree with you that “affordable bespoke” is a bad phrase. Quality should never go on sale. A craftsman’s work must be respected. The customer shouldn’t, in my opinion, buy suits the way he buys eggs.
5. What is your advice for someone who thinks he might be interested in bespoke tailoring but doesn’t quite know which tailor to work with? Is there any specific preparation or homework he should do?
He should talk with men he admires, who dress the way he wants to dress. Where do they buy their clothes? Additionally there are books of dress advice, but there’s a caution here: who is giving this advice? Does he have the experience and credentials? Or is this just someone who has more money than taste, insight, and real knowledge?
As with any field these days, there’s a plethora of misinformation out there, so it’s best to always go to the experts. And then he must have a long conversation with the tailor, and look at his work. It’s important to like what the tailor does because tailors are stubborn men. They won’t change the way they do things for you.
6. What should the customer focus on once he has started working with a bespoke tailor?
The details can usually be worked out. It’s the general silhouette that’s most important because it’s mainly what people actually see, and it can’t be changed much. Does the tailor create a very structured architectural look or does he prefer an easier, softer approach? Is he more interested in “fashion” and trends or a more classic silhouette? Is the flawless line his true metier or does he keep the infrastructure to a bare minimum?
It’s this general understanding, the overall vision that’s most important, not the width or length of a particular detail. It seems to me there is either a great deal of miscommunication, or no real communication between customer and tailor. But I’ve always thought the burden was on the customer.
7. What are some behaviors you have observed that are counterproductive to the bespoke process but you see fairly regularly?
The imprecision of the customers’ remarks when talking with the tailor is incredibly more dangerous than they realize. The customer will use words like “shorter” or “tighter” or “narrower”, or say something like “I like that Italian look” or “I like that suit Cary Grant wore in North by Northwest”, that’s what I want.” The customer is trying to be helpful, sometimes he may even bring a photo along.
But the only real question the customer should ask himself is what kind of suit does this tailor usually make? If the customer doesn’t know the answer to that question, everything else is foolhardy.
We might also say something about all those men who buy ONE suit from every tailor in the world. They’re never satisfied because they don’t invest the time to get it right. You should have an ongoing and frank relationship with your tailor. The tailor has to get to know you, your body, and more importantly your mind.
8. What advice would you give to a tailor who wishes to work with the kind of customers that we are talking about here?
The tailor must listen, listen, listen. And then ask questions to try and understand what’s inside the customer’s mind. The tailor must interpret what the customer says to understand his vision of himself.
If the tailor can do that, then the only other question is, can I give the customer what he wants?
I would rather have a tailor not waste my time or money and honestly say to me, “I’m sorry sir, I don’t think we can make you happy. We really don’t do that type of garment.” Otherwise the result may well be wasted time, money, and a great deal of frustration on both sides. Even recriminations.
Overall, my work has always been about educating the customer. I keep telling retailers and craftsmen they must educate; if you’re selling rubbish, you want the customer to be as ignorant as possible. But when you sell quality you must explain the product to the customer so he understands what he’s spending his money for.
9. When we last met, you said that you in reality you work for the tailors, perhaps in half-jest. But there is an element of truth in it and I actually feel the same way. Could you elaborate further?
I try to get men (and women) interested in buying individually made garments, garments made by an individual for an individual because I think it’s better value in the long run. I have some suits, jackets, even shoes and ties for decades and decades. Initially they cost more than off-the-rack, but they’ve lasted longer, and make me look better and feel better.
We’re used to thinking in terms of the initial prices of something, and that’s wrong I believe. We have to think about what something costs in the long run. If you buy something of quality, in the long run it will be less expensive. “I can’t afford to buy cheap” is a cliche that is actually true.
That’s the case I’m making, and so I try to direct my readers to craftsmen, to artisans who make things of quality, because I believe it’s a better way. And I think that all this new-born emphasis on sustainability bears this philosophy out. Buy good clothes, keep them, maintain them.
10. Any parting thoughts?
I think I’m now the oldest fashion writer who’s maintained this philosophy. I was never really into writing about fashion trends since I started writing about clothes in 1973 I’ve always championed sustainability in dress and craftsmanship.
And now mercifully I see the days of “fast fashion” as being over because it’s simply not sustainable. But hopefully people will be re-educated to see that anything worthwhile takes time and effort. I’ve always encouraged my readers to buy less, buy the best you can afford, and keep your clothes in good condition.