In the darkest days of the pandemic, when we were all walking around our houses and apartments in tracksuit pants or pyjamas, I would occasionally go to my wardrobe and retrieve a black, unmarked suit bag.
I would lay it across my bed, carefully pull on the zip and ease out the walnut hanger with the same gentle touch as a midwife delivering a baby. The jacket is precious: grey wool, Prince of Wales check, with padded shoulders and lapels so wide you could almost land an airplane on them. During the lockdowns this was a ritual that kept me sane. I would pull on the jacket (over my pyjamas) and water the plants, vacuum the rugs or feed the sourdough starter. Like a child with his blanket, my bespoke coat made me feel better.
“Bespoke” is one of those words that has been so overused — and misappropriated — as to almost lose its meaning. It often acts as a fancy synonym for “custom”, as in “bespoke software”, but it is not the same thing. It is a tailoring term; it comes from the days when a client would pick out the bolt of cloth they wanted made into a garment. That cloth was then “spoken for” — bespoken.
In both men’s and women’s fashion today, bespoke refers to a small but revered niche, one I wish more people understood, because bespoke tailoring is a craft undertaken by artisans every bit as extraordinary as jewellers or sculptors.
When you walk off the street into a boutique or department store and buy something off the rack, that is ready-to-wear. The suit can be exquisite quality, but it has been made to fit a series of standard sizes, which is why you’ll often need to have it altered. Made-to-measure, by contrast, alters the pattern before the suit is even made. The tailor or fashion house has an existing pattern and they will tweak it to fit you, adding a few centimetres here or shortening the length as needed. The cloth is then cut according to the tweaked pattern, so the suit comes out ready to flatter your body.
Bespoke is slightly different from made-to-measure. There is no existing pattern. There is nothing, in the beginning, except a conversation. I recall when I first went to see the tailor in London who would craft my jacket. We sat in his atelier drinking tea. He showed me dozens of swatches until I found that Prince of Wales check. Then I stood in the middle of the room, arms extended before a mirror while he took what seemed like several thousand measurements, the numbers recorded in a notebook by his assistant. There were probably some acronyms, too, though I have blocked these from my memory. In the old days, tailors would bark out things like “FS”, meaning “flat seat” or no backside, and “SLABC”, meaning “stands like a broken-down cab horse”.
The process was weirdly intimate: a person scrutinising every inch of my body, something I generally avoid doing myself. And it took forever! The tailor had to make me a pattern from scratch. He had to have me back for a basted fitting, where my jacket was held together with temporary white thread — it’s the first and only time somebody has torn clothes off me, literally, the thread snapping with a pop. There was another fitting in New York, when the tailor slashed my jacket with chalk lines. And some three months more elapsed before the finished product was ready. So why did I bother with bespoke? And why do I think more people should try it?
There is a magic trick involved in bespoke. It is the magic of making people see something that isn’t really there. As a 19th-century dictionary put it, a tailor “must be able not only to cut for the handsome and well-shaped, but bestow a good shape where nature has not granted it”. Bespoke tailoring is all about creating the illusion of a “good shape”, concealing the fact, for example, that a man has no backside. This is something Archie Leach understood well. He had a bulbous head, a thick neck and sloping shoulders, but his tailors could hide these physical defects to turn him into Cary Grant.
Yet the real magic trick of bespoke is how invisibly this transformation is achieved. There is an Italian word I often think about: sprezzatura, meaning “studied carelessness”. A person who embodies sprezzatura is one who appears to be effortlessly perfect. They likely go to great lengths getting dressed in the morning, but as soon as they’re done it’s as though they always looked that excellent, without a thought. So it is with a bespoke jacket, which corrects defects in a way that never draws attention to the process: the wearer becomes casually flawless.
Put a slightly different way, everyone has a vision in their head of a better version of themselves, be it taller or thinner or more elegantly proportioned. Bespoke helps you move a little closer to that Platonic ideal, and it does it so subtly that other people will just assume the illusion is reality. As Beyoncé said: “I woke up like this.” Beyoncé, you can be sure, often wears bespoke.
The most famous destination in the world for bespoke tailoring is, of course, London’s Savile Row, a nondescript street tucked away in Mayfair. It is here that the dinner jacket was invented, at Henry Poole & Co, which at one time employed a man to go through the obituary pages and throw away the patterns of clients who had died. Huntsman & Sons, a few doors down, is iconic for its single-button jackets that are as finely balanced as the mobiles of Alexander Calder. Meanwhile, Edward Sexton, who recently returned to the Row with a sleek new atelier, once worked with the iconoclastic Tommy Nutter, dressing three of the four Beatles on the “Abbey Road” album cover. More recently, Sexton has elevated everyone from Harry Styles to Naomi Campbell.
But Australia has its own purveyors of bespoke as well: LaMilago in Adelaide; Zimma Tailors in Sydney; Germanicos in six capital cities. You don’t need to fly across the world to get a waistcoat in the finest Holland & Sherry cloth.
I remember a speaking event in London, in 2018, a few days after I collected my bespoke jacket. It was at a bookstore on Piccadilly, and my tailor happened to be in attendance. During the event, I caught his eye roaming across his handiwork, a pained expression on his face. Afterwards, he came up to me and asked for the jacket back. Something was imperfect, which meant the jacket was not doing its job. He wouldn’t be able to let it go until he made some more alterations. Stunned, I shrugged it off and handed it over, feeling like a knight who had just been stripped of his armour while still on the battlefield.
The jacket was returned to me several weeks later, the most astonishing thing I have ever bought in my life. During the lockdowns, at particularly low moments, it was a source of joy and hope, even when the waist started to get a little tight. I would put it on to catch a glimpse of my best self, lying in wait for a happier tomorrow.