Bespoke tailoring is the latest word in menswearFitted to suit
Craig Sullivan, left, realigns buttons on Geoffrey Nathan's 150s & cashmere herringbone suit jacket at the Custom Fit in Boston.
Most people think of a tailor as the one to see when they need a hem raised, a waistband tightened, or other small alterations. But for a growing number of discerning men, the tailor has become the one they look to for handmade suits, shirts, and coats cut to fit their body's unique peccadillo e s.
Younger men are inspired by hip- hop moguls such as Jay-Z and P. Diddy, whom the paparazzi often capture wearing dapper, high-end suits. It also doesn't hurt that a new NBA rule pushed basketball players out of street gear and into business wear. Older men embrace the look because it wears well and hangs better than off-the-rack suits.
Now it's not unusual to see the members of the punk groups Green Day or AFI sport the occasional suit. ``The House of Boateng ," a documentary currently airing on Thursdays at 9 p.m. on the Sundance cable channel, follows London designer Ozwald Boateng as he struggles to bring his candy-colored, tailored suits to an American market that seems poised to embrace them.
The move toward upscale clothing, say local tailors, is a direct response to the ``casual Fridays" trend that started a few years ago and unleashed such sloppy dressing among workers that some corporations offered sessions to teach their employees how to dress casually. Although no official national statistics exist, Davide Cotugno , a Cleveland tailor and publicity chairman for the Custom Tailors & Designers Association , believes the popularity of custom- made or bespoke suits -- defined as suits handmade from clothing patterns cut specifically for one person -- is rising and now accounts for 15 to 20 percent of all suit sales nationally. The more popular, and less expensive, made- to- measure suits are hand- or machine- sewn from standard suit patterns.
Custom and made- to- measure suits are becoming more palatable to Boston men as well.
``It's more (popular in) New York, but we'll catch up later," says Raymond Buckley , 60 , the London-born owner of Raymond Personal Tailor in the Financial District, who learned his suit-making skills as a teenager in the 1960s when he dropped out of school and took a job on London's Savile Row, a street internationally renown ed for its bespoke suits.
Stores such as Brooks Brothers picked up on the increasing demand by offering made- to- measure suits to their customers. Local private tailors include newcomer Astor & Black , which is based in Columbus, Ohio , and represented locally by Aaron Greenberg in Brookline, and institutions such as Alan Rouleau Couture on Newbury Street.
``I grew up here my whole life," says Craig P. Sullivan , 43, owner of The Custom Fit , a 10-year-old made- to- measure establishment on Newbury Street , explaining why Boston has been slow to embrace the handmade suit trend. ``It's more of a conservative town for spending money."
Sullivan says, ``The old money will not spend money for a custom suit." The clientele for custom and made- to- measure suits will come from a new group of ``sophisticated, successful young guys," he says, who are in their 20s and 30s. ``They're just starting to look at what quality is all about."
Geoffrey Nathan , 47, already knows the importance of quality. As a defense lawyer, he wants to impress in the courtroom; as an on-air commentator for the Court TV and Fox News cable channels, he needs to look presentable. For a while, suits made by Lands' End worked for him. But, according to Nathan, the company changed its manufacturer and the suits no longer fit him. At that point, Nathan began ``snooping around," he says, for a tailor.
Unfortunately, he found it difficult to locate a department store suitmaker who could fulfill his demands. A made- to- measure suit he bought in New York had one pants leg an inch longer than the other. Another made- to- measure suit he bought at a local department store he prefers not to name simply didn't fit.
About a year ago, Nathan sought a referral from Martin Greenfield , a legendary Brooklyn tailor who's made suits for Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. Greenfield steered Nathan to Sullivan, the only Boston tailor who offers suits made by Greenfield and his factory of about 200 tailors.
Nathan coyly says he spends `` a lot" on his made- to- measure suits, which take up to seven weeks to make, but ``less than you would think."
``It's comparable," Nathan continues, ``to the off- the- rack price of (a suit at) a major department store." Those prices ranges from $1,500 to $1,600, says Sullivan , whose stable of 30 to 40 clients includes the Secretary of Energy, Samuel Bodman .
A basic suit at The Custom Fit costs about $2,500, but prices can quickly skyrocket depending on the fabric. One Sullivan client, a fund manager at Fidelity who wished to remain anonymous, buys suits that cost up to $9,500. He spent almost $300,000 on clothing last year; this year he's already run up a $190,000 tab. Sullivan is now working on a vicuna winter coat for him that will cost $24,000.
Then there are customers such as Steven Singer, 59, whose private law practice sits a short distance from Raymond Personal Tailor. He'd racked up several disappointing experiences with tailors who failed to do what he asked. The bottom of his suit jacket kept flapping open and Singer wanted a tailor to resolve the problem. Buckley, whose made- to- measure suits cost between $1,900 to $5,000 and take four weeks to make, was the only one Singer believed could deliver.
Singer calls himself a ``frustrated designer" and he's put his latent skills to work by designing his own suits with Buckley, who has a clientele of several hundred including Christopher Myers , co-owner of Radius and other local restaurants.
Singer stands up to show the navy blue jacket he helped design. ``I wanted this jacket to be very boxy. No definition here," Singer says, pointing to his waist, then turning around to show the back of the suit. ``I wanted it to hang straight."
Singer is now working on designing several suits with Buckley. They recently went shopping for fabrics in New York City.
Clients can finger through hundreds of fabric swatches in a variety of unique fabrics and designs. Nathan now owns two suits from The Custom Fit, one made of a gray herringbone fabric and the other a gray charcoal with red and white pinstripes.
``Both are extremely rare," he says , noting that the amount of fabric manufactured would only make five to 10 suits nationwide. ``It's not like everyone around the world can order that. I might be the only person in New England wearing that fabric."
He's so satisfied he's already ordered six more suits.
SEE MORE IMAGES View a photo gallery of custom and made- to- order clothing at www.boston.com/yourlife/fashion