Bespoke, made to measure or ready to wear?

THE difference between bespoke, made to measure and ready to wear is neither incidental nor arbitrary. It is very important in the consideration that goes into buying a new suit and is tightly defined.

The term “bespoke” tends to be bandied around pretty liberally today, but inthe context of tailoring it represents a wonderful tradition that exhibits the best of British craft. It means a suit that is cut by hand, creating a unique paper pattern, and made by hand, usually in the vicinity of the cutting. It creates a suit that fits better than any other.

Made to measure (MTM) is best thought of in the context of ready to wear (RTW). The latter was pioneered by the Italians in the 1950s, who segmented the male form into different sizes for mass production. The vast majority of the world’s suits are now made this way.

MTM is usually made in the same factory, just individually. Instead of making a batch, a few specific measurements are punched in to the master computer and one suit pops out, cut to your personal dimensions. The chest, waist, sleeve length, trouser length and trouser waist are yours. Which means it fits perfectly, right?

INFINITE MEASUREMENTS
Well, not quite. Even MTM suits that take into account more than a dozen measurements rarely fit as well as bespoke. Imagine the long, S-shaped curve of your back, seen in profile. How many measurements does it take to recreate that? I think the mathematicians would tell us the number is infinite. The fact is, bespoke patterns are often drawn and cut by eye, with the cutter using his measurements and notes as a guide. MTM will never take into account the amount you stoop or which shoulder is lower than the other.

So bespoke is always better? Again, it’s not that simple. First, it costs a lot more. MTM usually costs between £500 and £1,000; a bespoke Savile Row suit will set you back £2,500 to £4,000. Whether it’s worth spending five times as much depends on how much you value the make of the suit and how hard it is to find a suit that fits you. The latter point can be misleading: a lot of men think they are an average size, but they’ve never looked at their suit from the back and seen how it collapses into wrinkles as soon as they put it on.

PRACTICAL AND AESTHETIC
The way a bespoke suit is made has advantages that are both practical and aesthetic. The work that goes into everything from the lining of the waistband to the stitching of the pockets means the suit will last a lot longer. And even the hand sewing of the buttonholes creates a sharp, raised stitch that it’s easy to become obsessive about. As John Hitchcock, head cutter at bespoke tailor Anderson & Sheppard puts it: “A bespoke suit is a great work, and one which will last you for exactly as long as you look after it.”

But quality and fit are semi-independent. Chester Barrie’s range is a good example. It stocks RTW and MTM suits in its Savile Row store that are 70 per cent handmade and have all the bespoke accoutrements – like those lovely buttonholes. “It’s not as simple as just trading up from ready to wear to made to measure to bespoke,” says Chris Scott-Gray at Chester Barrie. “They overlap and intertwine, depending on your priorities.”

There’s also the question of style. The tailor Timothy Everest offers handmade RTW, aimed at customers who love the detail and trappings of, say, a Donegal-tweed button-up jacket but can’t afford to have one made. As with those willing to pay £2,800 for a Ralph Lauren Purple Label suit, they buy the design and aspire to the fit.

GOOD VALUE
Bespoke is a wonderful process but it can be frustrating – few customers are capable suit designers, at least when they start out. But such is the fashion for better-cut suits now that luxury brands like Daks and Alfred Dunhill have started offering MTM services, while even high street brands like Reiss and Moss Bros are getting onboard with good-value MTM. Pick the design off the rail and just wait a few weeks to have a suit that made that fits you better, even if it has none of the handmade quality of a true bespoke number.

In the end the choice between bespoke, MTM and RTW means deciding how much you care about fit, quality and style as well as cost, and you need to understand what a particular retailer is offering you in those categories. Getting it out of them, however, may be just as hard as deciding what you want.

Simon Crompton is the author of the men’s style website www.permanentstyle.co.uk

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