The Merits of Made to Measure

ANY MAN WHO’S BOUGHT AN OFF-THE-RACK SUIT IN THE PAST HALF-CENTURY PROBABLY THINKS THAT WHAT YOU SEE ON THE SALES FLOOR IS WHAT YOU GET. IF THE FIT, FABRIC OR COLOR YOU WANT ISN’T IN STOCK, YOU’RE OUT OF LUCK. NOT SO FAST.

BY WILLIAM KISSEL

Thanks to the rapidly growing concept of made to measure, top fashion brands like Zegna, Isaia, Samuelsohn, Canali, Kiton and Brioni have slowly transformed the once-bland process of buying a business suit (or sportcoat) into a very personal expression of a man’s good taste and sense of style. Want a broken pinstripe on a medium-blue super 150s wool, or a windowpane check in a soft brown cashmere/silk blend? Consider it done. Looking for that hard-to-find trim-cut, double-breasted jacket and want to customize it with a lining in your wife’s favorite shade of lavender? It’s yours simply for the asking.

Just a few decades ago, the only way to have a suit made your way was to visit a custom tailor, a process that required you to dig deep into your wallet, be patient enough to sit through multiple fittings, and then wait the required six month production time. But after Ermenegildo Zegna became inspired by a concept the Japanese had developed in the early 1970s, he and other luxury suit makers found a way to speed up the process and drastically lower the cost.

Made to measure also allows stores to offer much more product than what fits on the sales floor. “When my father first started selling Zegna in Japan, he was quite surprised to see the small amount of real estate they had for retail,” explains Gildo Zegna, group chief executive at the family-owned Ermenegildo Zegna brand. “Back then our collection was very big, and he thought to himself, ‘How can I show it all?’ He found the Japanese had a clever system where they would show all the fabric swatches, like in a showroom, and let the customer pick the pattern and style. Within a few weeks the jacket was made to order for him. My father thought, ‘If the Japanese can make this work, why can’t we?’”

A hybrid form of custom suit making, made to measure cuts out the more costly practice of creating a separate pattern for every customer from scratch (as a bespoke tailor would do). Made-to-measure suits are produced from a pre-existing pattern that is later altered at the factory to meet your own physical requirements. “The difference in quality between custom and made to measure is maybe none,” offers one luxury suit maker. “The only difference is how you get through the process.” In the case of made to measure, you simply try on a jacket at the store that’s close to your size and style preference, and the suit maker adjusts the pattern for a more precise fit. 

Along the way you choose the fabric (from literally thousands of choices beyond those offered ready-made at the store) as well as the details—from working or non-working button holes, center or side vents, and the number of pleats (or no pleats) on your trousers, to the number, size and shape of the pockets and even the color of the interior lining. Need an extra interior pocket to house your cigarettes or cell phone? You’ve got it. Want mother of pearl or titanium buttons? They’re yours. Then, a mere four to six weeks later, you have a suit that fits both your budget (only about 20 percent more than off-the-rack pricing, depending on the fabric) and your personal sense of style.

In the past, only hard-to-fit men—those with sloping shoulders, curved backs, protruding abdomens or extremely large or small bodies took advantage of these suit making services. Today it’s all about choice. “Superior fit is certainly a big factor. But I’d say the larger factor is men wanting to be different and own something unique,” explains Arnold Silverstone, creative director at Samuelsohn. “It’s a particularly great service for guys who are super fit and require more than the standard 6-inch drop found on off-the-rack clothing,” he says. “A guy might be a 42 Regular on top but waist-wise he’s a 32, which is a 10-inch drop. You won’t find that combination off the rack.”

There’s one more reason for choosing made to measure: “Clothes are very expensive and most men who spend $1,000 or more on a suit want it to last from five to seven years,” explains one suit maker. “If a guy is going to live with it that long, it better have all the details he loves. And the best way to ensure that is to create it himself.”

 

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