Those interested in mens clothing may already know Bernhard Roetzel from his classic book Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion, which gives an extensive tour of the male wardrobe, from suits to jeans. His latest book Bespoke Menswear: Tailoring for Gentlemenfocuses specifically on bespoke clothing - the how, the who, and especially, the why. He was kind enough to discuss this new book with me, as well as the state of bespoke menswear today.
The above photo was taken by Erill Fritz, who also took the photos for Bespoke Menswear. Mr. Roetzel is wearing a suit made by Kathrin Emmer, a Knize tie, and Maffeis shirt.
David Isle:How did you decide which shops and companies to feature in the book?
Bernhard Roetzel:I started of with a list of shops and companies that I thought represent a variety of different styles. This list was changed several times while I worked on the book for different reasons. Some companies wished not to be portrayed, others had no time to be visited by the photographer and a few were closed. And then I also found new places while the work was in progress.
DI: In the book, you mention that one company maintains a bespoke program mainly to advertise their made-to-measure program and confer more prestige on the company's brand name. Is this the future of bespoke, to be a loss leader for more profitable areas of every business that offers bespoke, like couture for women's clothing?
BR:The future will look like this in the case of bigger companies. I hope that there will always be smaller tailors who exist on bespoke tailoring alone. I have always preferred the small tailor.
DI: What's your view on journalism in menswear, both in the ideal and in practice? Should there be a code of ethics for people writing about clothing as there is for people who write about politics or business?
BR:I would expect every serious journalist to follow the same set of basic rules. We all know that some journalists don't follow these rules no matter what they write about and some do even if they work for very small publications. I know menswear trade journalists who would never ever accept any kind of favours in return for favourable article and I know some who obviously have successfully been wined and dined. Some years ago a big Italian mill wanted to invite me to join a free trip to Australia. I didn't go but in the following months I saw articles about this company and their cloths in all types of magazines. I think it is not wise to accept this type of invitation. Sometimes these press trips are used as a kind of incentive in publishing houses. "Let's send X or Y over, she has earned herself a little treat". So sometimes people will write an article who have no idea of fashion or textile business.
DI: How have you acquired so much knowledge about bespoke clothing?
BR:I have never learned tailoring. I can sew on a button but this is all. I have learned everything from books from watching tailors and countless hours of talk and interviews with craftsmen.
DI: How much clothing knowledge should someone have before ordering a bespoke suit?
BR:That depends on his expectations. A hundred years ago people knew more about tailoring and sewing because in every home clothes were made or at least mended. Even rich people had an idea of what is going on although they never touched a needle. And of course tailoring was part of everyday life. You saw tailors and tailoring everywhere and you could see the difference between good tailoring and bad tailoring on everyone who was wearing clothes. Nowadays sewing has become so exotic to many people in Europe and the US that they have no idea how a garment is made. If you don't know anything about tailoring you can nevertheless order a bespoke suit. But maybe you shouldn't try unknown little tailors but rather trust in reccommendations. A friend of mine wanted a bespoke suit from Naples so I sent him to Solito and he was very happy with the result.
DI: How have online forums and blogs changed the way tailors interact with their clients, if at all? Do tailors worry about their clients talking online amongst themselves and to prospective clients? Or are the most valued clients not likely to be in those sorts of discussions to begin with?
BR:I believe that the big customers are still mainly rich people who would never ever spend any time on these discussions. Nevertheless younger tailors tend to overrate the importance of blogs and forums especially if someone writes that their suit is no good. Many customers do choose their tailor along the recommendations in blogs or forums. It is a modern form of PR to be mentioned there. Some younger tailors even write blogs themselves. I prefer tailors who don't. Good tailors are too busy cutting and sewing to write.
DI: Many customers seem to go into their first bespoke order expecting, or at least hoping, that it will result in a "perfect suit." Is this reasonable? Is there even such a thing as a "perfect suit"? Do most tailors believe that they can get it perfect the first time, or do most think that it takes a few orders to arrive at the best possible suit?
BR:The perfect suit doesn't exist. How do you define perfection and who defines it? Nevertheless both the customer and the tailor should be satisfied with the result. I find that frequently the first suit is the best one and I sometimes tell people to look for a new tailor if the first suit was good. It will not get better and you have no guarantee that the next suit will be as good as the first one. If the first suit is not good you shouldn't give the tailor another chance unless the suit is so bad that he offers to do a free second one. Even then it is probably a waste of time. A good tailor should be able to produce a decent result at the first try. He will need usually perform two fittings, sometimes three. Don't trust a tailor who claims to do the first suit with one fitting.
DI:Why do you think it is that American bespoke tailoring is now all but extinct, even though in its heyday it flourished as much as English or Italian tailoring?
BR: I must admit that I haven't been to the US for some years. Neal Boyarsky of Fabric Czar is a friend of mine and he has introduced me to some very good tailors in NYC a while ago. I suppose that the Americans who look for bespoke tailoring still like to use tailors from London, Paris or Rome. I guess you will still find Americans who enjoy bespoke tailoring but the majority is probably more interested in fashion brands. The convenience of off the rack suits probably works against tailors too.
DI: You feature a number of German and Austrian tailors in your book, for obvious reasons. I found this particularly interesting since these tailors don't make their way into the online discussion of menswear very often. You discuss this extensively in the book, but could you give a little preview of what is distinctive about German and Austrian tailoring?
BR:First of all it is important to point out that German and Austrian tailoring are two different stories. I do not know how familiar your readers are with the history of German and Austria. They may know that Germany and Austria are today rather different countries and nations but they were both part of the Holy Roman Empire from 962 until 1806. German tailoring could be described as relying strongly on an exact cutting system and offering very good workmanship. On the negative side some German bespoke tailors have little sense for elegance. Austrian tailoring has two faces. On the one hand it stand for very traditional handmade folk costume and on the other hand for old world elegance. The cutting is very exact but a bit more elegant than German cutting. The workmanship is excellent and usually better than the workmanship that you find in English clothes. A suit from Viennese tailors like Knize, Netousek, Possanner or Niedersuesz will give their wearer an appearance of old money or an aristocratic background. If you wear a suit from Vienna the well dressed gentleman in London, Paris or Milan will notice the excellent cut. Today I would rather go to Vienna than to London to be honest. I would highly recommend Possanner.