Simon Crompton’s Bespoke Style is a shout from another period into the void that has been this past year. For the past decade, Crompton has been an infuriatingly disarming voice of intelligence and reason describing his various orders and experiences with makers of custom (and otherwise spousally unpardonably expensive) clothing and accessories. His latest book hit my quarantine bookshelf like a temporally retconned souvenir of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a link to a time that seems from a remote and recalibrated universe.
In that universe, Bespoke Style offered readers the chance to see Crompton make himself the pleasant, bearded and tattooed guinea pig for 25 of the best. Sadistic boarding school masters would be disappointed to learn that said best were not birch switches but some of the most prominent tailors in the world, whose styles, cuts, finishing, prices and proportions Crompton compares as closely as possible in the pages of Bespoke Style. And that’s it.
It’s a concept so simple it’s rather genius, as well as seemingly pointless: in each chapter the author poses in similar garments (generally a single-breasted two-piece suit or jacket and trousers) from each of the 25 houses, describes their styles and cuts and contrasts those with their neighbors’ or competitors’, and provides the same set of measurements for each tailor’s work so that the reader can get a sense of how each house differs from the others and what makes them stand out.
As the book was sponsored by cloth house Vitale Barberis Canonico, the Anderson & Sheppard haberdashery and shoemaker Edward Green, Crompton accessorizes each pose with A&S accessories and nice Green shoes. A particular splayed-leg shot modeling his Anderson & Sheppard clothes through a turned-around open-back chair is perhaps the book’s raciest. Cromton notes that almost all of the garments he wears were ordered in the house style, something clearly on display in his Huntsman jacket, a tweed whose huge check could even have deafened the jacket Roger Moore wears in The Man With The Golden Gun.
Simplicity presumes various absolute. :Here, such presumptions include that the tailors profiled are indeed the best, most prominent or most likely to be of interest to Crompton’s readers; that each house has a consistent style; and that each house will maintain its level of quality. The nature of a book like this, all about comparing details, invites quibbles attacking such presumptions. Out of the 25 tailors profiled, only two (Camps de Luca and Cifonelli) are French, while the book has two separate sections for Italian tailors. No Smalto or Florian Sirven at Berluti, for example. Some of the cutters (scrupulously listed in each chapter) who made the garments Crompton models have retired or move on, causing real changes to house styles or quality at certain prominent tailors who would prefer we continue presuming their perennity.
But this is a book that is the mirror image of quibbles: exhaustive details for the pulling apart, snapshots already fading of past moments. For this simple book captures a tension: it profiles famous tailors at a particular moment in order to memorialize their details and differences, even as many of those houses, and the custom tailoring tradition itself, are being undermined by skyrocketing rents and retail prices (prices are easily double, or more, the full prices I was paying at some of the same houses a decade or so ago), by the retirement or departure of knowledgeable and experienced staff, and all the pressures that mean that a skill that required years of patient, difficult practice and training is now exercised competently by, as well as only available to, a dwindling few who must still believe that what they are making or getting is more than just the Emperor’s New Clothes… even if more and more companies, even some of the most famous, sometimes try to get clients to accept less than what they ordered…
So whether or not the houses that Bespoke Style compares will remain, in some pocket universe, so even if it outlives its practical goal of providing aspirational punters a way of comparing and deciding on what tailors they would use… in their castles in the sky.. it is and will ever more become an interesting artifact, a time capsule like the books Alan Flusser used to write that told men where to find custom tailors (and British clothes) in cities all over the world. Our time-warped, isolated universe, each of us encased in our own Phantom Zone, can already find this book an interesting curiosity. Should time ever move linearly again, whether or not some Monitor realigns the various incarnations of the multiverse so that we actually travel and wear suits, this book will become a reference for sartorial archaeologists the way that old issues of Apparel Arts did, the closest thing to some sort of record of how names that were once meaningful supposedly looked, draped, fit… once upon another time.