A well-tailored suit can present you as a cut above the competition. Business Traveller guides you through the process of buying bespoke
Buying a made-to-measure or bespoke suit says a lot about how you see yourself – and how you’re perceived by others
Considering how much a good suit can cost, and the great impression it can make, it’s surprising we spend so little time thinking about the materials and skills involved. Go into the average men’s outfitter and you’ll find a selection of ready-made suits hanging by size in a variety of colours. It might be the quickest option, but for a relatively expensive purchase, “off-the-rack” isn’t the wisest way to spend your money. For starters, this skips over details such as quality, customisation and longevity. There’s also the small matter of whether it really does fit. Ready-made clothes are designed to fit the average man. Is that how you think of yourself? And is it how you want to be thought of by others? If you really care about the materials and the fit, you’ll soon find yourself considering made-tomeasure and bespoke suits. But what do these terms actually mean, and why are they worth the extra cost?
THE RIGHT FIT
Justin Chang, business development manager of renowned Hong Kong tailoring company Ascot Chang, explains: “Made-to-measure is a modification of a company’s existing pre-cut block patterns. The cloth is still cut as per the custom-made order, but the system used is based on alterations on that pattern. There are limitations, for example you can’t let out the shoulder by more than a quarter-inch or three-eighths on each side – there are controls built in that limit what you can do. With bespoke, however – which is what we do – the pattern is drawn up from scratch based on the measurements taken in the store, and this is a longer process.”
Made-to-measure may be the quicker, less expensive option, but it still offers a high degree of tailoring. Hugo Boss, for example, has a made-to-measure service where a suit is cut “according to precise individual measurements from head to toe”, and “expertly constructed from 180 individual pieces”.
The process begins with a selection of fabrics from a library of hundreds, offering patterns from check to pinstripe to micro-herringbone. Button choice ranges as far as mother-of-pearl, vegetable ivory and buffalo horn, while your options with lapels and cuffs are also diverse. The customer is then measured by a tailoring specialist using a slip-on garment pinned to them according to their preferred fit and style. The figures are recorded on a personal measuring sheet, which is then sent to the Hugo Boss headquarters in Metzingen, Germany.
At Isaia, a high-end Italian menswear firm that opened its first Hong Kong store in 2014, the process is “very close to bespoke already because we have our own factory,” says Bernard Chin, the company’s Asia Pacific MTM specialist, explaining that this allows for a high level of control over the finished product.
Ascot Chang offers a made-to-measure programme from famous Italian couture house Brioni, though according to Chang “this is relatively expensive [due to the Brioni name and reputation], so the pricing comes into play. Generally speaking, though, the customers who come into our stores are looking for bespoke. For a bespoke suit we have at least two fittings, so you have the initial measuring phase, a one-third completed basic fitting, after which the suit is taken apart, adjusted and then made up either into a three-quarter finished product or a fully finished suit. At each point there are small adjustments to be made.”
A SEAMLESS PROCESS
When buying a bespoke suit, conversation comes first. The tailor will make an appraisal when you walk in, looking at body type, posture, etc. Then comes a discussion on what you need the suit for – wedding, business travel or simply casual weekend wear.
“Based on that we’ll find the fabric that’s right for them, the weight, colour, and we’ll discuss styling as well,” says Chang.“Nowadays it’s two-button suits mainly, we rarely do three-button, and some of the younger guys are looking at double-breasted again. We’re also seeing more three-pieces now than previously – people like its versatility, it can help in air-conditioned offices when you take off the jacket but the air’s blasting out. It’s a style thing too, with all these TV shows like Mad Men.”
“Suit design relates to the outside, things like lapel type, cuffs, patch or flap pockets, etc,” adds Isaia’s Chin. “The inside is the detailing, including lining type and colour, the number of pockets, and so on.”
Next comes measuring; there are dozens of different measurements to be taken, but a master tailor will usually have this done in 15-20 minutes. The cloth is then ordered, usually from abroad, with the two main sources of fabric being Italy and England due to the high-quality woollen cloth their mills produce. Where the suit is actually made depends on the company. Ascot Chang has a workshop in Hong Kong’s Hung Hom district, and the first fitting comes within a week to ten days of the cloth’s arrival, with the second fitting about 2-3 weeks after that – in total the whole process of making a bespoke suit takes 4-5 weeks.
Isaia’s production happens in Naples, Italy, so the suit will arrive within four weeks.“The first fitting should be a minimum of 80 per cent right,” says Chin, and corrections are made in-house within a few days before the second fitting. For Isaia, a made-to-measure suit takes 4-5 weeks and bespoke 8-10 weeks.
CLOTH TO SUIT THE CLIMATE
Wherever you are in the world, a good tailor will talk to you about the choice of material. Most suits are made from wool, and in general there are two types: worsted, in which the fibres are untangled and straightened then spun into yarn; and “carded” wool, whereby combing allows air into the fibres. They will be given a number, such as Super 100s or Super 180s, relating to the fineness of the cloth. Higher numbers are more expensive but this also means the fabric is less durable as it is more delicate. The important thing is to explain what you want, and then be guided by the advice you are given.
“We source cloths from Italy and England,” says Chang. “England produces very good cloth but it’s a bit on the heavy side – we as tailors like to work with it, since you can shape it better, but it’s often too heavy for the Hong Kong climate. So we also have a lot of Italian cloth.”
Cloth is measured in grams per square metre, with the usual suit range being from 210-310 grams (over 310 grams takes you into overcoat territory). For the colder climates of northern China, Korea and Japan, Chang recommends 290-300 grams. “For hot climates like Singapore, you want much lighter, but you don’t want to go under 210 grams,” he says.
Chin says that Isaia follows a general rule of 190-230 grams for summer suits, with the 230-270 gram range a good year-round choice, and 270-310 grams perfect for winter.
Another important consideration is fabric mixes. “In Asia people prefer combination fabrics like cotton, silk, linen, usually mixed with wool,” says Chin. Chang agrees: “Now you’re seeing a lot of wool/linen or wool/linen/silk blends which are more comfortable. However, some of the designs are a bit casual and might not work for a business workplace.”
Colour is another obvious consideration .“Navy blue is still the most popular colour,” says Chang. “Black had its moment in the 90s but went out of style 5-10 years ago, though it’s coming back a bit now – for the Asian traveller black works because of our skin tone and hair colour.” Isaia’s Chin says that “blue and grey are evergreen, but we currently have lavender, green, light blues… the general rule is darker colours in winter and lighter colours in summer.”
“Checks are in rather than pinstripes,” adds Chang. “We’re selling a lot more checks now than before, and if there are stripes they are very simple. ”This is good news for Isaia, a self-confessed “fun, lifestyle” brand with its roots in 1920s Naples, whose signature pattern is check and which describes its clothing as “Neapolitan sartorial tradition, reinterpreted in a contemporary way”.
Of course frequent business travel can be particularly hard on suits, and this requires thought. “If you’re travelling a lot, thinner fabric wears out more easily,” says Chang. “I would suggest high-twist fabrics although the hand feel isn’t as good – it’s a type of worsted, and the twist gives it a bit of scratchiness, but it’ll hold up well and it has a bit of natural stretch which returns to its shape better.
“There are English-style fabrics that might be a bit heavier but they are woven so that air passes through – you can have those unlined and they travel really well. There’s a weave called Fresco – we carry one from Holland and Sherry – that is quite good for travel. We’re also starting to see cloths with 2 per cent Lycra come in, which is definitely a trend. People who have to travel a lot want to be comfortable.”
THE RIGHT PRICE
When it comes to price, there’s a substantial difference between made-to-measure and be spoke. “Made-to-measure suits start from HK$32,000 (US$4,120) and bespoke from around HK$67,000 (US$8,630), but it depends on the fabric and customisation and can go much higher,” says Isaia’s Chin.
“A Brioni made-to-measure suit starts at HK$50,000 (US$6,440) – if you’re working with the Italian brands prices can go very high, since they have meticulous control over every aspect of production in their factories in Italy,” says Chang. “But there are made-to-measure places here that might cost HK$6,000-7,000 (US$770900) a suit. A bespoke suit from Ascot Chang will start at approximately HK$14,000 (US$1,800) and up.”
Of course what you spend is a personal preference, but a good tailor will take into account your budget and hope to keep your custom, understanding the value of repeat business and recommendations to others.
above: Design and detail from Gieves and Hawkes’ tailoring service; and suit patterns at Ascot Chang
Clockwise from above: A double-breasted Isaia suit from its spring-summer 2017 collection; meticulous tailoring work at Ascot Chang; and YC Ng, a master tailor at Ascot Chang