A CUT ABOVE
THEY COME OFF THE RACK, BOXY AND ILL-FITTING, OR BESPOKE, STITCHED FROM SCRATCH AND COSTING A KING’S RANSOM. IN BETWEEN IS THE INCREASINGLY POPULAR MADE-TO-MEASURE SUIT, TO FIT BODY AND BUDGET
Australia is undergoing a Peacock Revolution. Sartorially savvy Australian men today are driven less by cost and more by quality and fit when it comes to purchasing a suit. Despite the higher price, made-to-measure suiting, a semi-bespoke service, is on the rise, driven by a range of factors that includes more personalised service, choice of fabrics and artisan-level hand-finishing. What’s more, Aussie males are refining their fashion palate, preferring to buy less but spend more, ensuring the local formal menswear market is bucking weakening industry trends.
According to a March report by industry research company IBIS World, sales at Australian menswear stores have been shrinking by 1 per cent a year from 2010 to 2015. This is in part due to consumers tightening their belts on non-essential items and the rise of cheaper online alternatives. Over the same period, however, formal menswear — tailored suits, coats, ties, shirts and footwear — has grown by 3.8 per cent annually in Australia, and is expected to maintain this growth rate until 2020, as younger and increasingly dressed-up consumers buy in. This year formal menswear is expected to hit $340 million in turnover, buoyed by the rise of luxury brands. In a separate report in April, IBIS World estimated the Australian luxury retail market — led by Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co. and Prada in order of popularity — is set to rake in $1.6bn by the end of this financial year. Clothes, it seems, not only maketh the man, but also helpeth to prop up a sector of the Australian retail economy.
“It’s quite good growth,” says IBIS World analyst and report author, Lauren Magner, especially in comparison with the rest of the retail industry, “which is showing quite sluggish growth as consumers are reining in their spending.” Magner credits the growth of formal menswear to an increasing range of styles and brands on offer. “More than a decade ago there was hardly any choice or variety for men to choose from,” she says. “These days you go to any shopping centre and there’s such a wide range of stores. You’ve got Brooks Brothers, Rhodes & Beckett and all those places that have such a wide range of men’s shirts in all different patterns and colours. There’s so much more variety to choose from and that’s helped to increase demand over the past five years.”
Magner believes the rise of online retail and increased use of internet and social media have given men greater exposure to international brands and style. “They are seeing how their male counterparts are dressing and that is being reflected here in Australia. Particularly because we’re having a lot more international retailers come along to Australia. Brooks Brothers has come recently and all these designers are starting to make made-to-measure services, which is quite a growing segment in the market. And when purchasing goods, men usually — compared with women that like to buy lots of different clothing — tend to purchase fewer items that are of a higher quality. So they’re willing to splash out a little bit more on highquality long lasting items which are typically produced or sold by these smaller boutique stores.”
Of all the high-end products and services recently made available to the Australian male, the evolution towards made-to-measure tailoring is significant. In what is arguably the most competitive Australian menswear market in history, luxury-positioned brands are turning to the personalised offering to increase the loyalty of their current customer and attract an increasingly savvy consumer. Many a master tailor from Italy, Japan and Germany will rack up the frequent flyers to Australia this year. Giorgio Armani have their Italian master tailor currently in Sydney and Melbourne taking appointments with customers, while German luxury retailer Hugo Boss will launch a new made-to-measure service for Australian customers this August. Australian-owned “gentlemen’s clothier”, M.J. Bale, which dresses the Australian Test cricket team and Socceroos in their game day suits, already create made-to-measure hand-finished suits in their Japanese tailoring workshop in the Iwate Prefecture under the title M.J. Bale Custom (starting from $1500). However, in May the six-year-old brand introduced a new Classics Made-to-Measure suits service aimed at the younger man on his way up, starting from $995.
And it’s not all incoming, either. Australia’s Patrick Johnson of P. Johnson Tailor, recently nominated as Australian International Woolmark Prize finalist, launched in late April a new showroom in Soho, New York to export to uptown America his elegant and paredback Italian-made suits. One of Johnson’s first customers in New York was American chef David Chang, of Momofuku, who brought the Adelaide-born tailor a fresh batch of cookies as a housewarming gift.
By rough definition, made-to-measure suiting is a process where a customer gets fitted in store using a “shell” master garment, usually a sleeveless jacket. The tailor, or trained in-store staff member, will take a series of about 20 measurements, including neck, chest and waist circumference and trouser length. These measurements are sent to the brand’s tailoring workshop with details on the customer’s preferences in fabrics (wool and cotton usually, or, for those that can afford it, cashmere or vicuna), linings, number of buttons, style of pockets, lapels and whether the jacket is to be single or double-breasted. The suit is then created in the workshop using an existing ready-to-wear pattern, but sewn — usually by machine with some hand finishing — according to the user’s measurements. Those measurements and the individual pattern are then retained by the brand’s workshop, making it a breeze to order another suit. Rather than going through the full measuring process again, the customer simply has to visit the store and select new fabrics and details.
Aside from the option to personalise your suit and retain your individual pattern on-site, for the customer the advantages of made-to-measure are obvious. Off-the-rack suits approximate the average male in a range of sizes, but men vary greatly in body shape, particularly around the shoulders, waist and leg, and that’s before taking into account sporting pursuits or long lunches. The trend towards a fitted silhouette — tapered shoulders, a nipped-in waist and slim trousers — makes it even hard to fit into a ready-to-wear suit and be in fashion.
For the retailer the benefits are similarly practical. Made-to-measure suiting requires no stock and few overheads, save for the training of in-store staff. Ermenegildo Zegna operates its own “Zegna schools” around the world, in Europe and Asia, where Australian staff travel to learn how to execute the firm’s Su Misura program (Italian for made-to-measure).
ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA A “signature look” is one of the few tags Italian menswear and textile leviathan Ermenegildo Zegna can’t be accused of these days. Whereas in past decades Ermenegildo Zegna had one design speed — upright and classic — the Milan-headquartered brand embedded itself deep in fashion territory with the hiring of ex-Yves Saint Laurent creative director Stefano Pilati in 2012 as their head designer. Pilati’s finger-on-the-pulse approach to design has introduced colour and atypical forms of suit architecture to Ermenegildo Zegna and his pet label, Ermenegildo Zegna Couture, without ignoring the traditional, classically minded customer. But it’s in the integrity of its supply chain where Ermenegildo Zegna has the global jump on almost every other menswear brand offering made-to-measure.
Unlike in casual, ready-to-wear clothing, where synthetic fibres and cotton blends plus mass machine work permit a lower price point, tailored high-end suiting has to get every smallest detail right. That means Australian Merino wool as the base raw material for suits, usually superfine (16.5 microns), but also upwards to ultrafine (under 13.5 microns), which competes in softness with vicuna and cashmere. The wool becomes worsted suiting cloth in the weaving stage. The best weavers come from the north of Italy, around the Biella