What is Bespoke Clothing | What is Custom Clothing

A Treatise on Custom-Made or Bespoke Clothing
by Alexander S. Kabbaz, Master Clothier & Shirtmaker
Copyright © 2003-2020 Alexander S. Kabbaz, All Rights Reserved

Author's Note:
After 50+ years as a custom clothier and haberdasher, I've grown increasingly distressed at the meritless bandying about of the age-old terms "custom-made" and "bespoke". These terms, synonymous really, have specific meanings. As so many of you have sought definition from Joelle or me over the years, I've penned this Caveat Emptor series.

It begins with this, A Treatise on Custom-Made Clothing, written from my point-of-view as a traditionalist bespoke clothier and supposed expert in the field. It's long. It's detailed. But so is well-made clothing. Save it in your file for the next time you interview a fine clothier or dressmaker. More importantly, save pictures! Why?
In the fields of dressmaking and tailoring, worlds collide. Yours, as a busy executive of some sort, and the tradesman's ... a person whose skills lie in his or her hands. Neither one of you really comprehends the other. The picture = 1,000 words applies here in spades. You say inset pocket ... tailor says besom. You say pleats ... dressmaker thinks tucks. Nobody can argue with a picture.

I would love to hear your thoughts and answer your questions. Take me to task: Write back to me with your thoughts, positive or not. I'll answer them (anonymously, of course) in our upcoming Sartorial Excellence News issues.

Take a piece of fabric six feet long and three feet wide. Cut a one foot circle from the center. Place this hole over your head. Take a stapler and staple the sides together below your arms. Voila! You've made a shirt!

Now that you are a qualified shirt maker, realize that anything beyond those simple basics involves more than just a knowledge of pattern making, cutting, and sewing. It requires a philosophy, some modicum of pride in one's work, a widely varying degree of knowledge of the art and the craft, and ... here's the key ... the intangible ability to translate clients' verbal descriptions into visually pleasing realities. See below re: pictures.

As you learned in the first paragraph, making a shirt can be extremely simple. Making a shirt that fits, not only as well as it can but especially the way the client wants it to, can be extremely difficult.

The Two Philosophies of Bespoke Clothing

A bespoke maker can adhere to one of two goals with every new client: Most have a simple goal which I term the First Philosophy:
a] Establish a minimum order which guarantees that you will make a profit.
b] Make a "custom" pattern which does not deviate too far from the norms: stay within 'acceptable' parameters of fit, styling, quality and price.
c] That way, if the client doesn't like the results of your work, you can claim you 'followed the traditional bespoke methods' and, especially, you haven't lost any money.
The First Philosophy is wonderful. It opens you to no accusations, leaves no possibility of grave error, and guarantees your bottom line. Seems ideal, and that is why it is the Majority Philosophy.

Others adhere to a riskier concept, the Second Philosophy:
a] Establish a hefty minimum order to determine whether the client is serious or not. Once that is out of the way, forget about money and begin the fitting process ... and continue it until you, the maker, are satisfied with the fit.
b] Have a serious initial interview with potential clients:

Are they interested in getting their shirts quickly? Bad.
Do they "not really have time for fittings"? Worse.
Is 'the better-half in charge' of the fit and styling? Awful!!!

  1. Why should it be the maker and not the client who determines if the fit is correct? Well, hell!
    • a] Who knows more about clothing? The bespoke clothier ... or the client? Although you may have been satisfied at some point in the fitting process, you may not see it with the same "eye" I do. Thus, even if I receive the thumbs-up, I may insist on yet another fitting. On the other hand, it is up to you to tell me that I didn't follow your instructions. You asked for a chevroned yoke and I made the stripes straight. You wanted a slim fit and I made a tent. These are things I can't know unless you speak up.
    • b] Who is being advertised when other potential clients view a tailor's product?
    • c] A modicum of pride...

  2. Isn't this "best fit possible" idea an anathema to the concept of running a profitable business?
    Yes ... if you are running the New Millennium Corporation whose only measure of success is the quarterly report.
    Yes ... if your reputation isn't good enough to keep a steady stream of potential new clients coming to your door.
    No ... if you are trying to live up to your reputation and realize that somewhere down the line all satisfied clients return for more ... and that when they do the fitting process has already been finished. Not only do they return ... they are forced to return. You own their pattern ... and only you know how you assembled the parts.
  3. Do you take the first shirt or suit apart and alter it for the second fitting?
    You really shouldn't with shirts or blouses. Ripping (as shirt disassembly is called) can alter (stretch, pucker, distort) the fabric in many ways. An adjusted first sample is not nearly the same as making a new second sample ... unless all future shirts are going to be made, ripped, re-sewn, and delivered. And if that's the case, perhaps you should become a Sanitation Engineer so that your title truly relates to your product. Suits are different and are constructed in stages so that disassembly is not part of the process.
So what do you do with the first, second, third, etc. fitting samples? Every January 1, you buy a very large, empty box. Every December 1, you telephone the Salvation Army for a pickup.

In this treatise, I propose various conceptual themes and procedures. At times I'll interject as examples my own parameters which apply to those themes and procedures. Here is the first of such.

As regards Philosophy, the First or the Second: I am partial to the ...
Second Philosophy.
    1. My minimum first shirt or blouse order is a few thousand dollars of which half is deposited at our initial meeting - that equates to roughly six shirts. For suits and leather jackets the minimum is one but at times we'll construct a muslin (cotton sample) first when creating an entirely new design.
    2. Don't cause me to have to do "collections". I want my mental faculties - such as they may be - concentrating upon styling and fit, not worrying about whether I am going to get paid.
    3. Offer me at least half of the respect I'll offer you.
    4. Treat my creations - and me - with the dignity we earn.
That finishes Philosophy.
So where does the Pride enter into it? Same as it does in any other arena. Here are a few telltale signs:
    • Is the tailor trying to make the "process" seem too mysterious and complicated for even the most astute client to understand? Or is he willing to spend as much time as necessary to make sure that you understand as much about what he is doing as you want to? Conversely, are you arriving with the ideas you want incorporated? Pictures? Are you, the busy exectutive, communicating properly with your tradesman?
    • Alternatively, is he being pushy in some areas ... such as insisting that you learn the difference between 100's 2x2 and 170's 2x2; the advantages/disadvantages of Super 100s over Super 150s? The differences among worsteds, flannels, broadcloths, voiles, twills, and oxfords? The whys and wherefores of notch vs. peak lapels; placket vs. plain centers? ...even if you don't want to? If so, that's a good thing! The more education you are offered, the better the final product.
    • What is his definition of "custom" or "bespoke"? If he gives you two definitions, you've been had. Ask to see the "house style". If it is shown to you, then you are not in the hands of a true custom maker. True bespoke artisans do not have a "house style". The only acceptable definition of a custom garment is that "It Is What The Client Wants It To Be". And the only reason there is a difference between the words custom and bespoke is because somebody, somewhere, wanted to cut corners and needed to have a name for his product.
    • Finally, how many fittings should there be? The answer is similar to "how many buttons should there be on the shirt front?" - as many as necessary until the shirt front ends. If you take me as an example, I've done it in two fittings ... with the second being perfect. I've done it in 21 - back when my hair was still black - and I still wasn't totally happy. My average is three now that my hair is what Joelle terms "platinum". If you get one fitting and then an alteration of that first fitting ... move on. You are not in a custom house.

    Manifestation of the Second Philosophy:

    Attire speaks before you utter a single word. Your appearance is the window through which you are first viewed. The most important result of our initial consultation lies not in the extensive series of measures we place in your file, but in what we garner about your personality, your profession, your taste, and your station in life. Herein lies the key to being appropriately dressed. I do not live in your world. It is entirely up to you to convey your parameters. Is your world Casual? Preppy? Formal? White shoe?

    Important is not that particular fabric which offers us the greatest profit. Important is the suitability of your wardrobe. This can be considered only if we gain a comprehensive understanding of who you are.

    Important lies not only in our complimenting your wiser selections and in offering you others from which to choose, but also in having the temerity to suggest that something you might want would be entirely inappropriate for you. This is key. You may really like that orange shirt with the green stripes. Should I not opine that it would be a bit out-of-place in the boardroom I am not serving you well.

    In short, the image you should portray is the responsibility we wish to accept.

    The Process, simplified, as I see it ... and written as if you were a shirt client ...

    The author Fitting a clientOn your first visit, we'll chat for a while in order that I might gain a proper sense of your needs and who you are. Then we'll discuss styling and fit while I take some 35 measures and notes.
    Later, I'll design, strike, and cut your individual basic pattern. This will incorporate the styling details we discussed and is the springboard from which we'll develop your wardrobe during ensuing years. I'll use this pattern to cut, stitch, and launder your first sample which tests my ideas and measures. We use 2x2 120's or 2x2 170's, based on our discussion of your preferences. (Others begin with muslin which is acceptable for the first try-on).

    One week later, faster if circumstances dictate, you return to try on this laundered sample. You criticize, we criticize and pin-fit. We alter your pattern, cut and launder a new shirt, and you return for a second fitting.
    Then we again revise your pattern and, a short while later, send you a third sample. This you wear for a day or two thusly insuring that you are completely aware of your likes and dislikes.
    These steps are repeated as often as necessary. Once your pattern has been finalized in this manner - to my satisfaction - we cut your first order which is both a minimum and maximum of six shirts. The styles need not all be the same; every fabric may be different. After this initial order, you may order in any quantity desired from one and up. This entire process can be collapsed into two intensive days. This is accomplished by your staying locally near our East Hampton studios for two days and one or two nights. Each day begins and ends with a fitting with beach or shopping in-between. At the end of the two day stint, your pattern is finalized ... and your tan is improved!

    In Summation:

    Again as if you were my client ... What will a good custom shirt maker do ... and how?
    As far as shirts, blouses, or furnishings, virtually anything. We will design originals (our preference), copy styling details of your old favorites, or work from photos or sketches of styling preferences you might like. We can, if necessary, work initially from your measurements and conference video of you. Delivery varies seasonally and depends (the first time only) on your availability for fittings. Quality should not be rushed. Monograms, if desired, are additional. They are done by hand and require extra time. All of our work is done here on the premises.
    Each shirt is slightly different. In a process where everything is hand-done and every shirt considered as a unique entity, this is as it must be. Our promise, therefore, is quite simple. If it is not perfect, we shall make it so ... without question.
    Our charges are set from a viewpoint which allows us to concentrate our efforts solely on the caliber of our work. Truthfully, pricing is the easy part. Difficult is when we sit down and carefully consider each one of the thousands of individual stitches we make in some 12 miles of Egyptian-grown, European-woven long staple cotton yarn, to which we hand-sew 14-20 New Zealand-grown Mother-of-Pearl buttons. Add eight to 12 hours of tailoring, a hefty dose of creativity, a lifetime of pride and you get...one shirt!

    Shirt Fact:

    This is an oyster shell, about 50 years of age when harvested in New Zealand. From this comes Mother-of-Pearl buttons. Its actual size is about 10" across. Feel a button. If it feels "cold" it's likely Pearl. If "warm", probably plastic. On the right is a single breasted suit pattern. Ask your maker to show you one of his. If there aren't any ... where is the work really done?

    I could go on for pages about the complete individual pattern, an entirely hand-cut garment, the magnifying loupe through which we inspect the fabric we shrink as necessary before cutting, and the many hundreds of other techniques we use to ensure the perfection of our craft. However, we consider this not only proprietary but also firmly believe that this is our responsibility. Suffice it to say, thanks to our many loyal clients, we are happy to have the ability to direct our skill and attention solely toward the quality of our work.
    Before you place a subsequent order, I must see you in the clothing you've found most pleasing and that which didn't work as well. Fine cottons, woolens, and leather will, over time, shape and adapt itself to the wearer. It is only after that has been accomplished that I can make the final little nips and tucks to your permanent pattern. This, by the way, remains an ongoing process. Additionally, should more than four or five years pass between your actual visits to our shop, I'll most probably refuse to make any more clothing until I see you in a recent creation. After all, our only advertising is the answer you give to the question, "Where did you get that shirt/suit/jacket?"

    Fitting new clients is our responsibility - solely our responsibility. Should your measurements change or should you desire any alteration in fit at a later date, it is solely your responsibility to so inform us! Otherwise, lack of this knowledge will obviously cause us to cut your order without alteration of your permanent pattern ... and cause you to pay for ill-fitting work! Should we for any reason make changes to your pattern, we shall normally cut one item from your order and send it for your approval. Once you approve the change, we'll then proceed with the remainder. Should you decide later on that you want further changes, such alterations will be charged at our prevailing rates.

    That is The Process as I see it.
    Like to try it for yourself?

    Bespoke Shirts and Blouses by Alexander Kabbaz-Joelle Kelly & Sons

    Thank you for reading.
    If you are interested in having custom clothing made,
    please contact Alexander Kabbaz for information and process details.
    Unlike Shirts & Jackets, Bespoke (woolen) Suits are not available online.