Disruption has been the buzzword in tech for the last half a decade or so, and I thought it might be interesting to detail how disruption has personally changed my life as it simultaneously changed the fashion industry.
First, let’s define a few terms:
- Ready to wear (RTW) – These are clothes sold “off the rack” in standardized sizes. You can have these clothes altered to fit you more precisely, but all clothes in one size are made to the same standard from the same pattern. You can go to Dillards and be wearing the suit you purchase within a week (assuming you have it altered). The price range is generally somewhere between $300 and $1,500, excluding outliers.
- Custom/Made to Measure (MTM) – This refers to a process in which you or a tailor take a series of measurements (chest, waist, inseam, arm, shoulders, etc…) and apply those measurements to a standard, extant clothing pattern, creating a suit made specifically for your size. These should not need much, if any, tailoring. (Generally, it takes somewhere between 6 weeks and 3 months to have a MTM suit made. The price is between $400 and $2,000, depending on fabric and tailor/service, again, excluding outliers.
- Bespoke – In concert with a master tailor, you will chose a fabric, and specify garment details (Say you want a notch lapel, two button suit with a collar latch, and triple patch pockets, half-lined with black Bemberg silk). The tailor will then, again using your measurements, create a pattern from scratch specifically suited to the idiosyncrasies of your specific body. He or she will create a muslin (which is a lightweight cloth version of a paper pattern) and fit it to you, making adjustments where necessary, then do this again when the suit is about half constructed, and again when it’s finished. You should have at least 3 fittings of the garment, and when you wear it, it should conform perfectly to your body, creating elegant lines that show off the best of your features, and soften your least flattering features. Most bespoke projects require somewhere between 6 and 18 months for completion and could run anywhere from $2.000 to $30,000+, depending on your tailor and the fabric you chose.
So, from about ~1960 to 2010 or so, most men probably didn’t even know what custom or bespoke tailoring was, other than vague images of standing around in a dimly lit room in your underwear as a little old Italian or English man took your measurements. Some of these guys still bought expensive suits, but they were buying them off the rack, not having them made. And consequently, menswear was floundering. Fewer and fewer companies and industries required formal business dress. Unless you were a corporate lawyer or an investment banker, you probably had a job where you could get by with a sport coat and khakis unless you were attending a wedding or a funeral. People lost interest in formal dress. It felt like an anachronism, something only rich old people still did. The suits men bought generally fit very poorly; indeed, most men had never been taught how a suit should fit in the first place. It was common to see people in suits that were way too large for them or failed to flatter their best characteristics. The sleeves would be too long, the pants would puddle around their ankles, the shoulder pads were out of control. Who could blame them for not wanting to wear a suit? They looked awful. The culture surrounding classic menswear was failing, and the industry was flagging as well.
Custom menswear (Bespoke and MTM tailoring) was a dying art. Sure there were still custom tailors at work, small shops where, usually, an older man with a European accent would service the last of his clientele who still cared about their clothes. But likely his son or daughter had chosen another field, and his craft would not be passed on. There just wasn’t demand for the expensive custom suit. Why spend a couple thousand dollars for that guy to make you a suit when you could get good enough for $300 at JC Penny? You’d probably only wear it once or twice a year anyway.
But right around the early 20-teens, a new phenomenon started to pop up. The online custom suiting business. There are a number of different avenues available to menswear geeks that range in quality from companies like Indochino (one of the first successful adopters of the digital model) up to companies like Knot Standard, who came a few years after Indochino and launched a bespoke/mtm-hybrid service, allowing for more detail customization, and high-touch intake process in a brick and mortar store.
These businesses took advantage of eCommerce platforms and configurator tools to sell people custom suiting directly, cutting out the need for brick and mortar stores (in some cases), and cutting down on labor costs. They hired manufacturers primarily in SE Asia where labor was cheap but the art of tailoring was still strong. Because of all these advantages, they could put out a very high-quality product at very low manufacturing and labor costs.
Visitors to these sites would be led through a series of simple steps that would help them build a suit starting with fabric choice, a range customizable details (2 or 3 buttons, notch or peak lapel, patch or flap pockets), and measurements. They used streaming video to teach men at home how to take their measurements, and as technology progressed, some even allowed users to simply take a picture of themselves. Using advanced algorithms, the software employed could translate that picture into a series of measurements that would closely approximate the user’s measurements. An image of the suit could be configured through Flash or HTML5, so you could see what you were getting before pulling the trigger on the purchase.
The best part was that the final price was not much more than those suits I mentioned before from Dillard’s or JCPenney. Basic super 110 worsted wool suits started at under $400. You could pay more if you wanted. Add another $100 for a full canvas construction, and another hundred on top of that for a vest. A wool blended with cashmere or from a well-known Italian or British mill might drive the price up $200, but the results were worth it. Men started ordering these suits, and seeing themselves in the final product was a game changer. No more baggy jackets hanging off your shoulders. No more pants’ cuffs piled around your ankles. With a few minor adjustments upon receipt, the buyers were seeing themselves in a suit that finally fit properly, emphasizing the elegant lines of the body, every bit as good as designer suiting at a fraction of the cost. The difference was obvious. Two salesmen show up at a potential client’s office, one with an RTW suit, the other in an online MTM suit, one looking like a high schooler wearing his father’s suit to the prom, the other looking like some simpler version of Cary Grant. Who closed that sale?
And the rising tide lifted up some other boats as well. True bespoke master tailors whose business had been tapering off saw new interest. It seems some of these people liked the effect of custom tailoring so much they became aficionados, seeking out the best tailors around the world. New tailors and haberdashers like Kent Wang (MTM) and B&Tailor (bespoke) started to make a name for themselves. Fine shoes and accessories like ties and pocket squares came into vogue to complement the suits. Men started to express themselves through clothing again. Cargo shorts were relegated to the ash heap of history where they belonged.
Indeed, this rebirth democratized custom tailoring in other ways. Genderqueer, nonbinary, and trans individuals now had an outlet to dress the way they wanted. The ill-fitting RTW suits that were not suited to less-traditionally masculine body-types were no longer their only outlet. Affordable custom options appeared, some tailored (pardon the pun) exclusively to these needs, and the barrier of potentially exposing oneself to ridicule by going to a brick and mortar tailor publicly was alleviated. The process of being oneself was made safer and cheaper.
It wasn’t all good. Many of those small brick and mortar tailors couldn’t compete with the prices offered by the online sources. And if they weren’t well-known for their skill and ability, many were lost in the shuffle.
In the last decade, The market has grown and matured. Indochino still offers a very similar and affordable product to the one they started with at their inception, whereas companies like Knot Standard and SuitSupply played to a more refined and modern market at a slightly higher price, with brick and mortar stores where you could go and be measured by an expert, but still benefit from the reduced cost afforded by their relatively low overhead and excellent Asian or Eastern European (as opposed to very expensive Italian, English, or even American) manufacturing. More people are wearing suits, and those suits fit better than their counterparts did two decades ago. Custom tailoring has become an affordable status symbol for people just entering their professional careers. Some of the last bastions of classic American, British, and Italian tailoring have folded from the competition as they’ve bled customers to these new, high-quality, low-cost vendors.
I have managed to build a versatile wardrobe I’m very proud of because of what started as a hobby and grew into something much bigger on the back of this tectonic shift in the fashion industry fueled by technology and innovation.