by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

“There is no such thing as an ill-fitting bespoke suit.” – Edgar Pomeroy

This statement, by an Atlanta-based custom clothier, is like saying there’s no such thing as a fallen soufflé or a failed love affair. Let’s unpack this statement based on my two apparently fanciful analogies. I make the comparison between a bespoke suit and a soufflé because Pomeroy’s declaration presumes that in every case, we end up with perfection in the delicate confection, when in reality there is much that can go wrong in the hands of an inexpert cutter, coatmaker, presser or fitter (to name but a few of the people involved in making a real custom suit). To end up with a successfully fitting suit requires attention in the making and, just as in the kitchen, occasional course-corrections to avoid an embarrassing collapse – which still can happen from time to time. And how is a bespoke suit like a love affair? Both involve the persistence of a dream against long odds, if not reality. A customer comes to a tailor, or (as in the case of stylists like Pomeroy, Alan Flusser or Manolo Costa) a clothier offering some sort of custom, with that dream of idealized perfection. If he idealizes too much, in custom clothes as in love, he inevitably will see his dream dashed into disappointment. If it failed, was it really love? As surely as the reality of ill-fitting bespoke suits, and at least as hard to accept.

It may not always have been the case that custom involved the dream. Many of us ordering bespoke clothes today are trying to order the ineffable, not just pieces of clothing. In contrast, a man who takes custom clothes for granted, as certain sections of Western society did until 50 or 60 years ago, would view ordering a new suit as fulfilling another chore, and consequently derived little joy or exultation from the experience. After all, bespoke clothes are simply clothes made specifically for the wearer, a slippery definition exploited by opportunists. At its best, bespoke, or true custom, clothes are those made to a pattern created individually for a customer based on his own measurements and morphology. All the other bells and whistles associated with it – flashy details, the ability to choose flamboyant linings, patterns or colors, and all the rest – are simply an ostentatious part of the panoply of possibilities custom may offer.  And in the ensuing decades, that panoply of possibilities got built up to include apparently magic powers of perfect fit and the power to transform the wearer. 

The increasing rarity of (and decreasing familiarity with) custom clothing lent itself to that exoticization– since so few people sought it out – and idealization. Those who wrote about or claimed to sell custom clothing made its rarity and expense reasons to  promise the moon, generally to an audience of starry-eyed self-selected enthusiasts, given custom’s niche appeal during its years in the wilderness.Returning to my original analogies, they concocted an elaborate froth of rising hopes about the power of a custom suit to render the wearer a paragon of elegance and male perfection. Some of them over-egged the soufflé. But by that time – which ended about five or ten years ago --  custom was rare enough, unfashionable enough in most places, and unattainably priced enough that writers could celebrate it as some sort of apex - perfection and transformation and tradition that factory-made ready-to-wear had all but killed off.  

Today, the idea of custom anything is quite fashionable. Stores and vendors promising clothing made with various degrees of customization (and skill) have cropped up everywhere, while the idea of custom, with its assumed promises of traditional work, handwork, attention to detail and the realization of the customer’s every whim and fancy, remains rooted in the idea of the old ideal, when custom meant finding, and affording, a real tailor making clothing with integrity. That was a luxury then, and now.  

While today there’s a growing field of pretenders, there have always existed mediocre custom tailors. Part of the mystique of tailors in certain expensive areas, like the tailors of Savile Row, was the implication that the ability to afford an expensive address meant that they had been tested by enough seasoned customers to earned their enduring custom based on the quality of their product. But there have always been charlatans at any price point, relying on prestigious reputations – or the magic word “bespoke” itself  and the willful blindness of customers happy to buy into a name without caring overmuch about how the end product actually fit and flattered them.  (The devil compels me to mutter that this is allegedly the case at one or two of the most expensive French tailors, among others.) In other words, there have always existed custom tailors who delivered finished bespoke suits that did not fit their owners. That makes the suit no less custom – it is possible to make an ill-fitting garment based on a completely individualized personal pattern, especially if that pattern is incompetently drafted.  

Things can go wrong, or they can be done wrong from the start. Either way, either failure of recipe or execution, can lead to depression as all our assumptions about the power of bespoke fall, like the dense, gummy dreck of a fallen soufflé. A good custom suit needs to be properly cut and fitted to the customer, but it also needs to be properly stitched and assembled to make it last. Neither of these is a given. As could be expected with the vogue for custom, cheaper outfits have sprung up offering supposedly custom clothing.  One, now out of business, apparently banked on using its low prices to attract a steady stream of new clients to replace existing clients it had disgruntled with bad product and service. That business model didn’t pan out. Its customers, too, received ill-fitting, apparently bespoke, suits. 

For as I suggest above, there is no binding definition of what it custom or bespoke. Some “bespoke associations” have formed attempting to qualify their product with requirements like hours of work, amount of hand stitching, and the like. But definitions are elastic: the tailors of Savile Row lost a court case a few years ago challenging a new shop, Sartoriani, using the term bespoke to describe factory-made suits created from stock patterns. It falls to the consumer himself to use those unpopular and difficult tools, education and experience, to evaluate a tailor and that tailor’s garment. In any event, there is a continuum of custom clothiers playing on its elastic definition: from the fast and loose of the Sartorianis of this world to the rigors of the few good traditional custom tailors out there, with custom clothiers like Pomeroy somewhere in between, designers selling expensive images of elegance and using contractors like Martin Greenfield to actually make their garments.  

I tool around in the kitchen. My occasional misfires don’t keep me from trying at soufflés again, still trying to capture the lightning in a bottle of my fondly remembered mint soufflé from years ago, across the table from someone I love, so far one of my rare non-failures.