Untrueisms: The Convenience of Custom

Has the current age finally dulled this old saw generations of uncreative hacks repeated? Since the 1980s, mainstream men’s clothing magazines would run the very occasional story on custom tailoring, shirtmaking or shoemaking. Its formulaic, dutiful prose would strive to justify the outsize cost of a conservatively cut garment that took months, and thousands of airline miles, to order, fit and deliver by emphasizing its durability and repairability, and that once a first order had been completed, a customer had no more than to pick up a phone to order the next one… or dozen…

That narrative of considerable upfront investment in time and preparation in order for an easy, seamless (sorry) future parallels the same suggestion regarding the financial investment of bespoke: a customer was supposed to be able to wear their custom suit or shoes for decades, and even to leave it to their heirs. Longevity was a convenient legend, with respectable tailors leaving generous allowances in their garments for alterations to suit weight gains, or heirs who were taller than their forebears. Shirtmakers, too, would tell stories of Cary Grant, or some other dapper, beloved gentleman, unexpectedly calling up after decades to have a favorite custom formal shirt recollared. 

When truth tests legends, good custom’s longevity bests its convenience. (With caveats; I’ve written before that the sort of person who ordered a pair of custom shoes, for example, generally had the means to order multiple pairs and rotate them, if not scrupulously maintain them, so that it’s not as if a single pair of good shoes could last decades if it was worn every day. And I’ve warned of the brown explosion.) Convenience is more persuasive today: we are busier than ever, our workplaces more intrusively connected to us than ever: the idea of today’s busy professional (the expected narratee of these articles on custom) being able to simply email their maker for some new clothes and then have the desired product show up, fresh from the maker’s hands, at their dwelling or office is seductive. Seductive because it suggests some rigor or austerity on the part of the customer, which are qualities not associated with today’s bespoke customer. It suggests that a customer doesn’t need to waste time paging through the different offerings of a catalog or website. No, they can simply tell an engaged fellow in New York, Paris, Sicily or Hong Kong they’d like the same as the last order, this time in grey, and be done with it.

Hogwash, for multiple reasons. Anyone today who has made a conscious choice to order custom clothing (as opposed to doing so because it was what one did in a certain position, as I understand is still the case for a few captains of industry and crowned heads) is doing so for the self-indulgence of the ritual: the inefficiency of paging through fabric books, the odd choreography of measurements and fittings, the fetishistic control over details, colors, trimmings and the strangely masochistic wait for the damn thing to be finally finished and then delivered (and the accompanying masochistic price)… Indeed, the inevitable length of time between order and delivery of custom clothing is perhaps the greatest argument against its convenience in a time-constrained world. 

An element of that time period is the need to check fit on most custom clothing. Having had suits, shirts, shoes (along with other items of clothing too precious to admit) custom made for me over the years, I’ve found that the only garments I’d be comfortable repeat-ordering without having a fitting on the new garment are shirts. I’ve been fortunate to order from usually conscientious makers who do their best to make things right even after delivery, but I’ve had fittings on almost all of the shoes I’ve had made, which allowed makers to incrementally their fit over multiple orders and to avoid misunderstandings in what I actually wanted.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary. A few years ago, Marc de Luca of Camps de Luca, one of the best tailors in the world, told me that he has a few customers he makes new garments for without even seeing them. Each season, he said, he’ll call them up and suggest certain cloths that he believes they would like, obtain their go-ahead, and then make and ship their order. Camps de Luca is scrupulously dedicated to fit, having put me through something like five fittings on my first order, so these would be customers for whom Marc has similarly nailed down the pattern. Nonetheless, it’s hard for me to imagine ordering a suit without fittings. No doubt I can’t justify the guilt and the expense without the ritual of visits, of the welcome to hushed, luxurious surroundings, of careful chalk marks and carefully uttered codes. Still, tailoring, shirtmaking and shoemaking are at least partly art rather than science. Different weights or weaves of cloths will hang, stretch or otherwise take shape differently. Fittings allow those differences to be caught and addressed while a garment is in progress. So there are rational as well as self-indulgent aspects to my concern.

And today, of course, the convenience of custom is more dubious than ever. At a time when we need what convenience we can find, many tailors and other custom makers are facing ruin, the way that small businesses anywhere are. Rents continue to require payment; customers aren’t travelling, and remote ordering has not made up for that. Custom clothing tends to be conservative, formal clothing, and today fashion and pandemic seem to be conspiring to make those traits seem more anachronistic than ever. My small orders, such as they are, are in abeyance, unable to move forward until either my tailor or I may travel again, since both of us appear committed to the sunk cost of this indulgence, this illusion: not convenience, but the ritual of preparing for getting dressed up, in a world where I have nowhere to go.


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