Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Too Long For Facebook

A Facebook friend of mine posted this link from NPR to my wall and asked "Comments?"

Careful what you wish for. The information in the link is not entirely accurate; what follows, on the other hand, is accurate. Allow me to geek out.

The resurgence of tailored menswear has brought confusion. Many off-the-rack retailers advertise clothing with “bespoke details” and the word “custom” has been confused with “made-to-measure” to the point where both have nearly been rendered meaningless. To eliminate the confusion on the matter, here's the difference among the terms "ready-to-wear (RTW)," "made-to-measure (MTM)," and "bespoke."

Before we get into these differences, we need to know how canvas works. Nearly every suit jacket has some kind of canvas between the fabric and the lining of the jacket. Higher-end jackets, regardless of whether they're RTW, MTM, or bespoke, will have natural canvas (usually a woven horsehair/linen blend) that's tacked to the fabric and acts as a free-floating third layer. It breaks in over time, lasts longer, and molds to your body shape. Cheaper jackets (most RTW and some MTM's) use a fused canvas, which is a synthetic reproduction of natural canvas that is glued (fused) to the fabric. It's faster and less expensive, thus keeping costs down. To say that the lining and fabric are fused together as the graphic does is inaccurate. It's also worth noting that full-canvased RTW suits with expensive materials exist, which the graphic linked to above ignores.

We also need to know what a "pattern" is. When a suit is made, something called a “pattern” is drawn. This isn't a pattern like pinstripes or checks, but rather the shape of each individual panel of the suit. This is drawn with pencil onto paper and cut out into the aforementioned panels. These paper panels are then placed onto the fabric that will be used for the suit and their outlines traced with tailor's chalk, at which point they are cut and sewn together into a wearable garment called a suit.

In short, any suit (RTW, MTM, or full custom) can theoretically be constructed using whatever method the manufacturer or customer chooses. 

RTW suits are all made from block patterns (tailorspeak for a stock size), assembled en masse in a factory, shipped to stores and sold as finished garments. These are generally cheaper because of their mass-produced nature and generally employ a fused construction but may also be half-canvassed (described correctly in the graphic) or fully canvassed. 

If a suit is classified as MTM, that means that a client's measurements have been taken and his suit will be cut from a pre-existing block pattern that is altered to fit those measurements. The operative term here is pre-existing, which is to emphasize that in a made-to-measure scenario, a pattern is not drawn from scratch for an individual customer. There is generally more machine work involved in made-to-measure garments and a limited amount of hand work; as a result they tend to be less expensive than their bespoke counterparts and therefore serve as a good introductory customized garment for a lot of men. These too may be fused, but are generally half- or fully canvassed.

Bespoke” or “custom” garments, on the other hand, are a different story. In this situation, the client's measurements are taken and then a pattern is drawn for him from scratch. These garments traditionally involve no less than three fittings and involve 60+ hours of work. This is the more traditional way of constructing a custom suit, as made-to-measure is a more modern, technologically driven construction method. Custom garments tend to be made mostly by hand, which increases the turnaround time, quality, and expense. If you ever see a garment advertised as “custom” or “bespoke” and it costs less than $2000 at full retail price, chances are a less-than-scrupulous retailer isn't being totally honest with you. I have never heard of a wool bespoke suit being anything but full canvas.

My tailor summed it up very nicely when he said, “Made-to-measure is like customizing a track house that is being built in a new development with the guidance of a real estate agent or the land developer. Bespoke is having a custom house built on your own land with the help of an architect and contractor.” 

Price is always influenced by two factors: construction and fabric. You can put an expensive fabric on a cheaply made RTW suit or put a cheap fabric on a full-canvas custom suit and spend $2000 either way, more than the graphic indicates. To say price is determined solely by a suit's status as RTW, MTM, or custom is an oversimplification.

NPR doesn't get into this, but it's important to understand that while different construction/fabric combinations command different prices, the more relevant aspect for a suit-wearer is value, which varies from person to person. Do you work in construction and wear a suit 3 times a year? You're better off going with a fused suit, as that rate of wear will allow it to last you an incredibly long time. Do you wear a suit five days a week to your white-collar job? If so, think about it in terms of cost-per-wear. Better-constructed suits will last longer with heavier wear, meaning that the while the up-front investment is higher, it will actually save you money in the long run. 

As always, different strokes for different folks.