The measure of a man

Custom suits are no longer the domain of the rich, the obsess, or the abnormally shaped. You may never go back to off-the-rack

By Ryan Merkley

On Tuesday June 3rd, 2008

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I wear a lot of suits. I have suits that I bought off the rack at mall stores, at Kensington Market discount shops, and at brand-name outlets. I have a black Hugo Boss that I wore at my wedding. I wear brown shoes with my blue suits, and I never wear pleated pants. None of my ties have cartoon characters on them. If I work until I’m 65, my rough math says I’ll spend over 10,000 days in suits. Still, I have never considered having one made for me.

Surgeon's cuff on a made-to-measure suitMost people think of custom suits as the domain of the rich, the obese, or the abnormally shaped. With made-to-measure in the mainstream — there’s a how-to in every trendy mag from New York Magazine to British Esquire — you can buy a tailor-made suit for less than $1,000, a bargain compared to an off-the-rack Zegna or Hugo Boss. And after experiencing the process for myself, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to off-the-rack.

For my first made-to-measure I called on Joa Cavalcanti. He’s a young tailor at Gotstyle, a self-described “one-stop shopping oasis for men” on King Street West. They offer (nearly) every service a man could want, like hot towel shaves in old-school barbers’ chairs, trendy casual clothes sold alongside modern suits, and amusing tchotchkes “for her” to get errant boyfriends and husbands out of the doghouse. If GQ had a gift shop, it would look like Gotstyle.

Cavalcanti is tall and good-looking, and, at twenty-six, he seems too young to be cutting suits for Bay Street’s up-and-coming. Wearing jeans, a dress shirt (untucked), and a brown tweed jacket, his professional demeanour puts me at ease. He speaks with a strong Italian accent, and an experience that belies his age — his mother is a South American designer, and he spent much of his youth working in the family business. He learned his craft as an apprentice, cutting and sewing suits in Toronto, but worries he’s part of a dying breed: “Kids today don’t have the patience. Can you imagine sewing for five hours straight?” he asks.

After nearly five years making custom suits for Harry Rosen’s top-shelf clients, Cavalcanti became impatient himself. He was making up to 10 suits a week for politicians, CEOs, and partners at Bay St. firms. Before joining Harry’s team, he made suits for Martin Scorsese’s films Gangs of New York and The Aviator. But entrepreneurship runs in the family, and he knew there was a bigger market out there. “At Harry Rosen, the average price point for our suits was $2,500,” says Cavalcanti. “How could I actually sit in a pub and try to sell a suit to a guy who is 25 years old and just starting out?” At Gotstyle, he’s creating a new clientele.

The market is growing for made-to-measure, in part because of young tailors like Cavalcanti, who are targeting young professionals. “I’m getting lawyers and financial guys as customers,” he says. “At Harry’s I was getting their bosses.”

Suits are purchased in one of three ways: off-the-rack, made-to-measure, and bespoke. Buying off the rack involves selecting from what’s available, and trying on jackets to find one that fits your shape and style. A tailor makes minor adjustments — a hem to the pants, an adjustment to the sleeves. You can buy an off-the-rack suit on your lunch break and wear it to dinner that night.

With made-to-measure and bespoke, you design the suit. A tailor helps you select the style, colour, fabric, and other elements. It’s then cut, fit, and sewn to your exact measurements and specifications. What you gain in quality, you give up in instant gratification: the process can take up to three months.

The term bespoke comes from London’s Savile Row master tailors, who would put aside a bolt of cloth selected by a client — the fabric would be spoken for. The suit was made entirely by the hand of the tailor. A bespoke suit is a work of art, and it is priced accordingly.

A made-to-measure suit follows a similar process, but the pattern is cut from the tailor’s standard set of designs, and modified to meet the buyer’s specifications. Much of the process is done by machine. Technology has made customization faster and cheaper, so that some shops offer made-to-measure suits that are as customized as any bespoke suit. Still, nothing will replace the hours of hand-cutting and sewing that old-world tailors still swear by.

Howard Atkinson, a senior manager with Harry Rosen, explains the difference between off-the-rack and tailored suits: “There are very few people that are the size of a mannequin,” he says. He should know: Harry Rosen makes over 5,000 made-to-measure suits every year.

A made-to-measure suit is designed for your shape, which has obvious advantages. “The goal is to create a garment that is perfectly balanced,” Atkinson says. “It creates a feeling of weightlessness.” A well-cut suit not only feels good, but it will also counterbalance your imperfections — hiding a big stomach, adjusting for poor posture, or broadening narrow shoulders.

It’s also about choice. While more traditional tailors have a conservative approach with limited options, today’s young tailors put dozens of options on the table — even a custom cut of your favourite off-the-rack style. “Sometimes you go to a store and like a suit, but you say ‘I wish it was that colour,’” says Calvacanti. “Now you can actually see something on the rack and say ‘I like that cut, but I want it this way.’”

People ask for all sorts of crazy things. Cavalcanti says he’s made suits with extra pockets for coins and BlackBerrys, narrow lapels, bright-coloured linings, and short pants. One client ordered a double-crotch lining to prevent his pants from wearing out. A member of the Israeli Prime Minister’s security detail once asked him to tailor the jacket to conceal a gun.

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I step up to the three-way mirror as Cavalcanti starts at my neck and works downwards with his tape measure, stopping frequently. From head to toe, he takes at least three times as many measurements as I’d expect from an off-the-rack fitting. He pauses. “You’re slouching,” he says. It becomes clear that I’m going to have to answer for my imperfections and bad habits. I can hear the disapproval in his voice as he explains that bad posture is ruining the cut of my favourite Brooks Brothers suit (the tail of the jacket fans out). I stand up straight and suck in my stomach, hoping he doesn’t notice (he does). Later he adds that my right arm is slightly longer than my left.

Cavalcanti’s attention to detail is what makes made-to-measure worthwhile. All the attention to my flaws and precise measurements makes me a little uncomfortable, but what man wouldn’t feel a little anxious with a tape measure in his inseam? Cavalcanti will make dozens of adjustments to accommodate my bad habits and flaws — including an accommodation for my mismatched arms.

As I look through dozens of 4” x 6” swatches, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a suit from anything so small. Cavalcanti asks me to describe my current wardrobe, and then guides me towards a navy blue pin-stripe swatch. He recommends a two-button English cut — narrower, and more form fitting for a thin guy like me — with flat-front pants. I add an unusual gold lining, and ask him to position the top button a little higher than usual to show less tie than a standard two-button.

I insist on working buttonholes on the sleeves — known as a surgeon’s cuff — to make it obvious that my suit was tailor-made. Today’s off-the-rack suits rarely have working buttonholes on the sleeves, opting for faux buttons that are easily moved if the sleeves need to be shortened. It’s a small conceit — a feature that will only be noticed by the in-the-know. (As I look down at the sleeves of Cavalcanti’s tweed jacket, I notice the first of four working buttons undone. He designed it himself.)

My second fitting is a few weeks later, where I try on a roughly sewn version of the jacket. The lining has yet to be added, leaving the canvas that supports the structure exposed. A high-quality garment has a full piece of heavy horse-hair canvas running the length of the jacket. Cheaper suits have a half-canvas, and are glued (or “fused”) to keep the canvas in place. That makes the jacket more rigid, preventing the fabric from sitting properly.

Cavalcanti carefully inspects the fit, and examines the way my arms rest at my sides. He makes a few marks with a piece of tailor’s chalk, and then pulls out the stitches, tearing off both the arms. He’ll later make adjustments to turn the arms of the jacket to suit my stance. He then marks the placement of the pockets and lapels. He looks at what remains of the jacket and asks, “Have you lost weight?” Before I answer, he measures my mid-section, and decides the buttons have to be moved. I apologize profusely, doubting that my half-hearted attempts at exercise could actually be responsible.

I meet with Cavalcanti one last time to pick up my finished suit. He grins as he pulls the jacket over my shoulders, and invites me to admire his work. The fit is perfect. I feel a bit sad knowing it will be some time before I can spend over $1,000 on a suit again. Cavalcanti gives me a knowing look.

The product is more than a little addictive — from the extra wait to the final reveal. As Atkinson describes it, “It takes time to make [a tailored suit]. The fun is the process. If you’re not prepared to do that, it’s no fun.” But it’s more than that: in the weeks that followed, I became frustrated with the rest of my clothes — suits, dress shirts, even jeans. Nothing fit quite right. Nothing except that suit, resting weightlessly on my shoulders, hiding (nearly) all of my imperfections, and earning me more than a few compliments. It’s hard to imagine ever going back to off-the-rack.

The upsides of off-the-rack are lower price, fast delivery, or the opportunity to respond to compliments with a flash of a label, saying “It’s from Canali’s spring line.” But a made-to-measure suit is a unique garment, created specially for the wearer. “When a client walks into a tailor shop to have a suit made, he doesn’t care for labels anymore,” Cavalcanti says. “He wants quality.” But just in case labels still matter, he made sure to embroider my name on the inside pocket.

Details, details

Buttonholes:
Working buttonholes on the sleeves — known as a surgeon’s cuff — make it obvious that a suit is tailor-made. Today’s off-the-rack suits rarely have working buttonholes — it’s a feature that will only be noticed by the in-the-know.

The final reveal:

Tailored suits are more than a little addictive — from the extra wait to the final reveal. As Harry Rosen’s Howard Atkinson describes it, “The fun is the process. If you’re not prepared to do that, it’s no fun.”


Photography by Hamin Lee