It’s often quoted that a bespoke two-piece suit absorbs upward of 80 hours of work, a combined time that involves the tailor, a cutter, and possibly another chap who specializes in trousers. A tailor’s apprentice will study for five years before qualifying as a coat maker (the “coat” being what tailors call jackets; “only potatoes have jackets,” they’ll tell you), and the Savile Row Bespoke trade association has very particular stipulations for what passes muster, from hand-stitching the trouser y to hand-easing a jacket’s armholes for comfort. A bespoke suit has always been the product of a very traditional set of skills—the expression of a craftsman’s hand and eye.
The last 18 months have seen a shift in the hallowed halls of European tailoring. More and more thoroughbred tailoring houses, those with the weight of history and reputation behind them, are experimenting with new technology—from laser cutting patterns overseas to taking measurements using scanners—and finding ways to elevate machine-made tailoring into something that many fear gives conventional bespoke a run for its euros. Some argue this is the natural way forward, an institution adapting to the modern world. Others decry it as blasphemy.
To Anda Rowland, doyenne of Savile Row and vice chairman of bespoke tailoring house Anderson & Sheppard, the integrity of a handmade suit is unimpeachable. “Our suits represent a timeless bespoke style: cut with rich drape across the chest and with a fuller sleeve set into a small armhole for comfort. To replicate work like this in a made-to-measure garment is impossible. A made-to-measure suit is a customized version of a ready-to-wear suit. It’s made in a factory, often using the same industrial techniques as in ready-to-wear tailoring.”
But should these services be dismissed so readily? Across London, Chiltern Street tailor English Cut has developed a concept called the MTM Code, which offers different levels of customization, ranging from basic made-to-measure (MTM 1) to MTM 3, where a customer has measurements taken in-house that are then dispatched to a laser-cutting workshop in Japan. There, high-end technology is used to draft and manipulate the pattern—something that’s only recently become possible—and is later padded and finished by hand back in-house. The result has been mixed—some customers report a cutting-edge robot-made suit that’s true to English Cut’s house style; others state that the it has been off, requiring a number of alterations to correct.
The house’s head coat maker, Paul Griffiths, believes the MTM Code fills an obvious gap in the market. “We think the combination of laser cutting and old-world artisanship sets it apart from other ‘scan-and-make’ processes,” he says. Certainly, the process, while not necessarily quicker than conventional bespoke (as with Savile Row, English Cut’s MTM Code suits take between three to eight weeks to make), does come in at around two-thirds of the cost.
What of these other scan-and-make processes? One, Tailor Made London, has “disruptor” written all over it. The brand’s founder, John Buni, set out to create customized suits using a 3-D body scanner, which does the job of a bespoke cutter (who’s responsible for measuring clients at the start of the bespoke process) in a fraction of the time. “The scanner allows us to speed up and streamline our service,” he explains. “We can get thousands of precise measurements in just 10 seconds and a 3-D body render that gives an accurate depiction of the customer’s posture, removing the need for multiple fittings. This then allows us to make the suit in as little as four weeks, as opposed to the eight weeks you can expect to wait if you order on Savile Row.”
On paper, that’s impressive, but does a service like this risk de-skilling the tailoring process and removing any sense of tradition? Master Parisian tailor Lorenzo Cifonelli is one of many sartorialists who view developments like Tailor Made as inferior. “Cifonelli has always tried to foster the artisanal spirit of bespoke,” he says. “Measurements are only the start of what we do. We treat every customer as a model to express our creativity. This approach can only be developed through a close relationship with the client and is the result of long experience.”
Perhaps—but what if robots could acquire the kind of experience that Cifonelli believes sets him apart? Outside of the clothing industry, experiments are underway to link robots with AI systems to help them learn human processes and improve their work over time. Robotics expert Chris Middleton explains, “Artificial intelligence can certainly learn to do things that humans are doing very quickly. Just recently, a robot hand connected to a machine-learning system taught itself to manipulate a wooden block. It was able to cram in about 100 human years of self-teaching in 50 hours. It taught itself virtually before it tried to manipulate the block physically.”
Theoretically, it’s possible then to teach that same robot hand to handle shears or a needle and thread with the same technology. But even so, Middleton thinks that’s a ways o yet. “There are a lot of processes that humans can handle instinctively that would take robots years to learn,” he says. “For example, how different cloths drape on the body. It would take a huge amount of human time and effort to create a program that taught robots how different fabrics behave.”
This rings true elsewhere in the luxury manufacturing sector, too. Ken Stewart, chief strategy officer at Karma Automotive, says, “Robotics are best applied when they’re ergonomically helpful for a human worker—if a part is too heavy or the process involves a repeat motion, and so on. But there are many operations where we’d never use a robot because the human touch
or eye can’t be replicated. We use a lot of luxury leathers in our interiors, for example, and lining interiors is more of an art than a science.”
Back in the tailoring world, even the most successful machine-made bespoke services are evolving slowly. Dominic Sebag-Monteore, cutter and creative director at Edward Sexton, has spent years developing an O shore Bespoke service, which offers clients their own Sexton pattern cut in-house. It’s then made up in a specialist workshop overseas, yielding a bespoke suit that is largely constructed by machine. The service has been a hit with customers, but the director’s under no illusion as to its limits.
“In-house, we create clothes with a team of tailors who work side by side. We’re constantly assessing the best way to achieve what the customer wants; different tailors change their methods depending on a customer’s requirements,” Sebag-Monteore says. “Our O shore Bespoke service allows clients to access a bespoke product for almost half the cost of our handmade suits, but you don’t get the same degree of control with a robot.”
That’s not to say things won’t change in a few years’ time. Karma’s Stewart says, “Right now, we find that AI is best used to process data that isn’t learning-related. It’s not like robots are teaching themselves to install parts better over time—there’s not much of that yet. Could there be in the future? Certainly. Learning methodologies are developing to allow robots to do this, but it’s not widely done at this point.”
That’s one barrier to robot bespoke, but more to the point, robotics expert Middleton thinks increased automation in menswear manufacturing will only strengthen the demand for handmade bespoke tailoring in the long term. “It’s like the vinyl market,” he says. “The more things are auto- mated or digitized, the more a certain consumer will value something that’s analog. This isn’t an either/or scenario. There will always be both machine-made clothes and clothes made by hand— and I think that’s a good thing.”
We’re approaching a watershed in traditional tailoring. New technology is democratizing the market, and today a “bespoke” suit can be many things. In the next decade, it’ll be down to each individual craftsman and client to decide the future of bespoke tailoring. Make no mistake—the robots are coming. But for those who take pleasure in the skill and craft of handmade garments, thankfully they’re not quite here yet.
In this article, we’ll be discussing what a bespoke suit is, the bespoke process, average prices, whether going bespoke is right for you, and the difference between custom and bespoke suits.
Having named this blog “Bespoke Unit,” it should come as no surprise that bespoke clothing has a heritage that’s near and dear to us.
When a suit enthusiast hears the word “bespoke,” his ears perk up. This is because the term is a loaded one.
It represents over a century and a half of the finest tailoring that money can buy. A bespoke suit is synonymous with the highest possible quality, fit, and style.
It also happens to be one of the most overused and least understood terms in all of menswear. Our goal is to clear up any confusion around the word so that you can be a better-equipped purchaser of suits.
Etymology Of The Word “Bespoke”
The dictionary definition of bespoke is as follows:
bespoke (adj.): custom or custom-made, made to order of goods (as distinguished from ready made)
The word is an adjective version of the word “bespeak” and refers to a client’s custom suit order that couldn’t be ordered by anyone else as it had “been spoken for.” This was at a time when most tailors carried very limited quantities of cloth and it would be unlikely that they’d have enough to make more than one suit out of any one in particular.
Savile Row’s Take
Bespoke tailoring was born on Savile Row, and it’s arguable that it continues to be the pinnacle of the practice.
The Savile Row Bespoke Association has a much narrower definition for the word “bespoke”:
“A suit made on or around Savile Row, bespoken to the customer’s specifications. A bespoke suit is cut by an individual and made by highly skilled individual craftsmen. The pattern is made specifically for the customer and the finished suit will take a minimum of 50 hours of hand work and require a series of fittings.”
Our Definition Of Bespoke
We feel that the dictionary definition of the word is too general. And while we have the utmost respect for Savile Row’s place in the canon of bespoke clothing, SRBA’s definition simply doesn’t allow for the (dare we say) reality that a bespoke suit can be made outside of London.
As such, our definition of bespoke is as follows:
A bespoke garment is one that has been crafted almost entirely by hand based on a pattern made exclusively for the customer by a skilled cutter. It requires a series of fittings and is always fully canvassed. Its aesthetic details (and, to an extent, overall fit) are subject to the customer’s preferences, and the only machine-work is done on long seams (such as trouser outseams) and facings.
While it’s likely that a bespoke suit will take over 50 hours of hand work to complete, we don’t think that this is necessary to defining bespoke.
If you’re unsure of what a pattern is, we have a full discussion of it on our page on made-to-measure suits.
The Bespoke Process & Turnaround Time
How long does it take to get a bespoke suit? What’s the process like?
Turnaround time-wise, bespoke suiting is not for anyone looking for instant gratification. It’s entirely normal for the process to take up to three months, especially if you’re a first-time customer at the firm you’re patronizing. Repeat customers whose patterns are already on file generally wait less.
Going through the bespoke process is truly special. Yes, it takes a long time, but you become a part of a centuries-old tradition in menswear. You join the ranks of the men of the Golden Age of Hollywood, literal royalty (Prince Charles has long been an Anderson & Sheppard client), business tycoons, and other notable men.
Furthermore, if you have a body type that’s difficult to fit, going bespoke may be your only chance at getting something that truly fits properly.
Fittings: Why So Many?
Different bespoke houses will have different numbers of fittings, there isn’t necessarily a set number. Bespoke suits are known for a perfect fit, and it’s impossible to achieve that without a series of fittings. With that said, these three are the most common:
- Scrap Fitting (second fitting): This fitting serves as a first test for the paper pattern that the cutter created. A beta version of your suit (sometimes just the coat) is made out of “scrap” fabric, cheap stuff used so that the cloth you selected (which is likely pricey) doesn’t get cut until the fit is more accurate.
At this stage, anything and everything is adjustable.
- Basted Fitting: A mid-stage fitting that takes place a few weeks after the scrap fitting, your fabric has been assembled by hand at this point, using white basting thread. Everything is still adjustable at this stage.
- Forward Fitting: This is the last fitting before the final try-on/garment delivery. The garment is mostly finished and may require a few minor tweaks, but it’s very close to perfect.
How Much Does A Bespoke Suit Cost?
Bespoke suits are not cheap. The sky is the limit, but the price of entry isn’t exactly low. It’s typical for an entry-level bespoke garment to start at over $2000, whereas you can theoretically spend over $10,000 if you get a handmade three-piece suit made from a high-end, specialty fabric.
On average, bespoke suits cost between $3000-$5000.
Custom Versus Bespoke: What’s The Difference?
If you find yourself Googling “bespoke” you may also come across the word custom. While there are many similarities between bespoke and custom suits, there are also key differences.
Both construction methods utilize an exclusive pattern for the client, and both methods allow for maximum personalization with regard to aesthetic details. Custom suits, however, don’t require as many fittings and don’t have the same rules around handwork. Whereas bespoke suits require hand-padded lapels and hand-sewn buttonholes, custom suits can do this work by machine.
As you might imagine, custom suits are therefore a bit less expensive than their bespoke counterparts. That said, they’re still high-quality garments made to last a lifetime, and as such they still command a high price.
In Conclusion: Is Bespoke Right For You?
Assuming that budgetary constraints aren’t an issue, you may want to get a bespoke suit, though you may not.
The first thing to consider is the frequency with which you plan to wear the garment. Bespoke suits should last upwards of 20-30 years with proper care. If you plan to wear the suit 45-50 times a year (about once a week), the initial cost of a bespoke suit may actually be worth it when you consider the superior fit and the time saved by not having to buy a new suit every few years.
If, on the other hand, you wear a suit twice a year to a wedding or something of that nature, the cost of bespoke may not make sense, even given its superior quality. You may want to consider made-to-measure, or even an off-the-rack suit.
The second thing to consider is whatever bodily idiosyncrasies you may have. Some men have proportions that simply cannot be accommodated by OTR or MTM suits, and a bespoke suit is the only way they can get a garment that fits.
No matter what your reasoning, getting a bespoke suit will be one of the most special experiences you can have.