And for that, we have to thank George Bryan Brummell (better known as Beau Brummel) an iconic fashion guru, who in essence, invented the suit. He brought about a radical change in the way men dressed in 19th century England. Sometimes referred to as the Regency dandy, he replaced the fussy and decorative Victorian court dress with menswear that was understated, preferring subtle hues over the gaudy colors that the era was known for. A polished dresser himself, he established a style that was elegant; fitted tailored suits that were stylish and yet comfortable. He was legendary for wearing intricate folds of cloths around his neck or cravat as we know it today and paved the way for the modern men’s suit worn with a necktie.
Beau was known for using different tailors so that none would say that they made him famous. After all, the cut of the suit depended solely on the craftsmanship of a good tailor. Savile Row, a street in Mayfair London, became famous for providing handcrafted British “bespoke” – a word which arose when a customer had chosen or “be spoken for” a cloth. The word is not common today as with the birth of ready-to-wear in the 1940s, custom tailoring took a back seat. Mass produced suits flooded the markets and became a natural choice as they were affordable and accessible. Custom made suits became pricey in turn and suddenly, the big manufacturers dictated the fashion trends. Intent on making profits, they created trends for every season, making arbitrary changes such as single breasted, double breasted, size and shape of lapels or baggy or tight fits. The fickle changes confused consumers and pushed them further away from the classic suit that fit and flatter the body.
Today, the trend for bespoke suits appears to be coming back. Not surprisingly, one of the oldest names on Saville Row, Gieves & Hawkes, is leading this charge. Founded in 1771, its long and illustrious history includes over 200 years of unbroken service to the British monarchy. Its list of clients range from Admiral Lord Nelson to David Beckham.
In an interview with GQ Magazine shortly after joining the company from Brioni in 2013, creative director Jason Basmajian said: “Younger clients are discovering the Row (Saville Row) and, while I’d push men towards Gieves, I’d really encourage more guys to explore bespoke. It’s getting the message out there that you don’t need to buy three department store suits, maybe you just need one bespoke and then you have it for 20 years.”
In contrast, luxury Italian menswear brand Kiton, was only founded as recently as 1968 but has such a strong belief in its handmade tailoring tradition that one easily assumes it to be much older in age. For example, for some suits, each tailor just deals with one phase of the tailoring production ensuring the highest level of quality and consistency even though Kiton only has master tailors.
It proudly states that a machine can product 400 pockets a day, but in Kiton its master tailor takes one hour to construct just one which is sewn and attached by hand. The Naples-based company has even established its own ‘High Level Tailoring School’ to ensure a steady stream of young tailors for its business. Owned and run by family members of its founder, Kiton has also made a name for itself for the quality its fabrics. It has its own woolmill from which Kiton launched the first 12.8 micron wool – the world’s lightest.
Will the power and tradition of the bespoke suit yield to the increasing preference to dress down? Casual Friday as a dress code seems to be getting more popular, even for conservative companies. Yet, even a longing for a less formal work wear need not necessarily mean the demise of the suit. Jason Basmajian puts it most succinctly: “Why not wear your bespoke jacket with a T-shirt of fine gauge knit? That’s how people live today…and what man doesn’t look amazing in a flannel suit?”