On Respoke

A reaction to the response of a friend.  That friend, the prolific #menswear blogger Dirnelli, frequently models his secondhand bespoke suits.  What he calls “respoke” is suits made by a custom tailor for someone else, altered to fit a new wearer.

As Dirnelli points out, today the process of getting something made has been unnecessarily romanticized, largely because it has become so rare and rarefied.  Customization has been nearly unattainably priced as well as difficult to even find, even if recently a number of cheaper custom clothiers have cropped up.  

It generally isn’t those that Dirnelli has in mind.  

Instead, it’s the sort of custom clothing that clothing writers prefer to dress up with the term “bespoke”: luxury custom clothing made by a quality tailor, with all of the careful detail work and invisible painstaking construction that implies.  In other words, even while denying the romanticism of the process, he subscribes to the romantic idea that a suit with someone else’s name inside the coat pocket would tell a tale, that a tailor would have labored in the grand tradition of the art to create an enduring work that lived up to that stranger’s hopes and expectations, and through the use of generous inlays and tucks of cloth, even up to the hopes and expectations of that stranger’s heirs.  

It’s a secondhand romance, and as such a way to get into that tale on the cheap, my friend suggests, since today quality tailoring can be very dear indeed.   Secondhand bespoke clothing – like any other personal indulgence that consumerist shills term an “investment” – can be purchased on the secondary market for a tiny fraction of its initial price. 

Despite my comparatively limited wardrobe (I’ve hardly ever gotten rid of a suit or sportcoat, and have kept everything I’ve had personally made for me), I do want to volunteer my own perspective.  I, too, have used good tailors to have things made for me, and have had recourse to use competent tailors to alter vintage clothes to fit me.  Importantly, Dirnelli’s respoke approach presumes certain important things: finding a secondhand custom suit that fits you tolerably well before alteration and has enough inlays and other allowances of cloth and other components to be expanded or otherwise, and an extremely good alterations tailor. 

Finding a quality used suit that fits relatively well isn’t particularly easy.  You need to rule out anything that might have been fashionable when it was made but that would look like costume today.  One cutter recently told a hapless writer that today the only people ordering his extremely expensive custom clothing were “crooks, cranks and cripples,” which should remind us that custom clothing is made for a specific person’s features… and irregularities.  A  good custom tailor will have shaped the chest, back and shoulders of a suit, pitched its sleeves and balanced the fronts and backs all based on a particular person’s body.  Finding a custom suit whose particular irregularities tolerate your own is, again, almost as romantic an idea as finding a soulmate whose irregularities complement your own.  Things like sleeves that are too long or too short, or a jacket that is too long, often require very difficult, very difficult alterations, without any guarantee they’d be carried out properly.   

For all secondhand custom is going to require some alteration, and the romance of respoke is that that suit is still in some way a partially uncarved block of marble – a presumption that there are enough resources and materials left in the suit by a good tailor to lengthen, widen, recut or otherwise adjust.  Good custom suits traditionally have extra cloth even in the trouser cuffs, presumably so that your heirs of different height can have the legs let out – after all, our leg length is unlikely to change unless we’ve spent time in zero gravity or on the rack.  For the same reason, many good custom suits traditionally only have two (out of four) working buttons at the jacket cuff: working buttonholes mean that it’s difficult to alter sleeve length (since working buttonholes can’t easily be invisibly stitched up), so having two remaining sham buttonholes provides a little leeway for moving the sleeve length. 

More improbably, Dirnelli assumes the availability of a genius alterations tailor. From everything I’ve seen of his fit pics, he has one, and that fellow’s work is worth its weight in gold – and probably charged accordingly. My first Paris alterations tailor, although also a trained custom tailor, turned out to be an awful huckster I wouldn’t recommend to hem pants, despite coming to me with the highest praise of one of the prime movers of the early Internet fora.  And indeed, anyone who can undertake the significant work needed to alter shoulder padding, close up or open vents, re-set the collar, or any of the other sensitive operations Dirnelli’s had carried out needs to be a highly trained tailor, generally not the person behind the counter at the local dry cleaner, even if most of those do have some sort of stylized suit baste in their windows (do they buy those things out of prop catalogs?).  Changes to one aspect of a suit can affect the rest of it in visible ways, from the pitch of the sleeves to the front or side balance (that is, whether the fronts and backs or the left and right sides of a suit jacket hang in alignment and at the same distance from the ground).  As such, it’s a complicated form of surgery to make someone else’s custom clothing fit, even if their basic measurements or proportions seem similar.

Given the complicated work needed to make someone else’s suit fit, it’s important to bear in mind that that alterations tailor, like a bespoke tailor, had to start somewhere in fitting his customer.  Dirnelli points out that a first fitting with a new custom tailor is usually far from perfect. It must also be the case for an alterations tailor.  The stakes may be somewhat lower, perhaps by an order of magnitude. Competent custom tailoring, made anywhere, is very expensive.  Competent alterations are cheap only in comparison.  In my experience, a really good alterations tailor can work wonders, provided that the starting point – the piece of vintage clothing as is – more or less already fits to begin with.  But that really good alterations tailor is incredibly hard to find.  Good custom tailors may have one on staff, but they generally only work on their own clothing, unless you’re an existing customer.  Really good independents seem to literally be one in a million.  And I limit this discussion to tailored clothing – I wouldn’t suggest anyone try to have someone else’s custom shoes altered to fit unless you’re willing to have a custom shoemaker rebuild them on your own last at a shocking price.

As Dirnelli himself has recognized, the pursuit of bespoke, even dead people’s bespoke, is an expensive habit.  Competent alterations are reasonable only in comparison to what it would take to have a custom tailor actually make the garment for you.  However, that pursuit of secondhand bespoke for bespoke’s sake (having a suit that fits) is only part of what makes bespoke clothing interesting for many of us.  The other part of it is being able to have something made in the cloth, style and colors that we want. I like, and thus have ordered in most of my suits, two-button jackets with double vents, moderately slanted pockets, and trousers with no cuffs, with side adjusters instead of belt loops.  While none of these are particularly rare or baroque details, it’s not likely that someone’s cast-off clothing is going to have those. To say nothing of the fabric I want or any other details (linings, etc.) that I might specify in my more inspired or foolhardy moments.  Even if they’re usually greys and blues in simple English wools. Or, if it comes down to it, the cut one prefers – I tend to like, even if it is self-delusion, the softer draped cut of a couple of British tailors… it is not usual to find those and dangerous to push an alterations tailor to try to change an existing suit’s cut dramatically. The more he or she has to change, the closer it comes to having a suit recut or remade out of an existing one, at resultant expense and revelation of any limits in the skill of the alterations tailor.  

Nonetheless, I’ve dabbled in having custom items altered, recently – thanks to Dirnelli’s introduction to a consignor, a custom Francesco Smalto suit made for Francis Veber, who directed one of my favorite movies.  It featured all the exquisitely difficult and flamboyant details of the best French tailoring, from unnecessary hand-picked seams down the length of the trousers to lapels with very affected notches and a raised milanaise buttonhole.   I knew I couldn’t confide it to any old alterations tailor, taking it instead back to the firm where Smalto himself used to cut before striking out on his own (as they’re making something for me, they accepted this on the side).  They did a wonderful job, but I can’t deny that making this respoke a reality required all the romance Dirnelli appeared to deny – the luck of finding something that initially made its potential felt, the opportunity to use an alterations tailor who carried out his work with care and love, and the investment of resources and time.

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