The Definitive Bespoke Guide
Hand-cut suits with secret pockets, one-off luxury cars that cost millions, and yachts more audacious than your wildest nautical dreams… Ben Winstanley discovers why the time is now to go big on bespoke
- By Ben Winstanley -
"Alexa, does my bum look big in this?” You ask a small camera-equipped smart device… It does, as it happens (sorry), but like a polite little piece of technology Amazon’s new Echo Look dodges the question by offering you AI-powered style tips instead. The device takes a picture of your current outfit and then uses Cloud-based machine learning to consume current fashion trends and provide you with up-to-the-minute style tips. Heck, it’ll buy you a new outfit there and then if you want it to. You’ll be dressing like David Beckham before Becks’ personal shopper has stepped off the flight from Milan.
For US customers, and soon those in the UK, this bizarre future is very much a present-day scenario: artificial intelligence is here to stay, and before long it will have permeated every aspect of life as we know it, from replacing groceries to populating our wardrobes. Cyberdyne Systems is online, and it’s all so… uninspiring. Whatever way you slice it, AI is taking away our ability to think for ourselves – to make good and bad decisions, and most importantly be impulsive. It may be smart tech, but it’s dumbing us down.
It should be no surprise, then, that as technology proliferates into every commercial space, its antagonist trend rises to meet it. If AI is wrestling purchasing control away from the consumer, the wonderful world of bespoke is placing the power firmly back in our hands. At its heart, it relies on a human, interactive and highly personal experience that even the most intuitive AI is yet to understand.
Before you conjure images of made-to-measure suits and initialled luggage tags, let’s be clear that the custom-built world this article inhabits is several gear shifts beyond giving your lifestyle a personalised touch. No, this is about catering to your every whim and fancy, or at the very least creating something unique only to you. The robots are coming, but they’ll never take our identity.
The nerve centre of the bespoke emergence is, unsurprisingly, high-end tailoring. Its predilection with craft and customisation makes it a perfect fit (pun intended) for those brands able to offer a unique customer service, but there’s also a fascinating historical precedent.
The term bespoke was born out of the tailoring world in the 17th century when a customer’s chosen cloth was said to “be spoken for”. Indeed, pop your head into any of Savile Row’s esteemed institutions today and you’ll still find reams of cloth ready for the snip of a head cutter’s scissors at a client’s behest. The storefronts may be more elegant these days, but the age-old tradition of constructing a suit to the customer’s tastes is the earliest example of ‘bespoking’ – and is once again returning to the wishlists of style-conscious dressers.
In the cutting rooms beneath No 1 Savile Row, you’ll find Gieves & Hawkes’ Davide Taub hard at work. As head of bespoke for one of the most respected Savile Row tailors – Gieves & Hawkes were separately founded in 1784 (Gieves) and 1771 (Hawkes) before joining sartorial forces in 1974 – when he says that bespoke is back in business, we listen:
“Bespoke tailoring is on a revival, as a younger group of customers, who may not have had first-hand knowledge of tailoring because their fathers and grandfathers opted for ready-to-wear in the late 1970s and 1980s, have found out the values of bespoke for themselves.”
As the tailor mentions, a new crop of designer labels brought an influx of ready-to-wear and made-to-measure suiting to London’s famed Mayfair row over the last four decades. Their cheaper production methods may keep the price tag down, but they don’t offer the charm or individual appeal of a bespoke suit.
The term bespoke was born out of the tailoring world in the 17th century when a customer’s chosen cloth was said to “be spoken for”
Taub describes a made-to-measure suit as “like buying a ready-to-wear suit, but having alterations made before it’s manufactured” – in short, a suit that fits you better, without much else to shout about. By contrast, a bespoke suit is “much more refined in terms of individuality of style, fit, comfort, and quality of make”.
But it’s more than that. Beyond the clear benefits of multiple fittings (sometimes as many as six) and a higher overall quality, there’s something very profound about putting on a suit bespoke to you alone.
“The attention to detail, because you see the person who is making your garments, rather than a salesman, means as a customer you are far more invested in the final suit. Almost as an extension of yourself,” Taub explains.View on Instagram
“A lot more time is taken in cutting, fitting and sewing the suit by hand, and so the customer’s extra investment is rewarded with a suit that has more character and longevity.”
The character element is where master cutters get to have their fun. There are some 220 components that make up the average bespoke suit – and, whether it's requesting the Gieves & Hawkes house style of a high arm hole and a roped shoulder, synonymous with its military roots, or subtly weaving “FUCK YOU” into the pinstripe of a three-piece suit a la Conor McGregor (by way of American tailor David August), the possibilities are veritably limitless. Suffice to say, speak to anyone along Savile Row and you’ll discover a host of requests from the practical to the bizarre.
Patrick Grant, creative director at Norton & Sons, mentioned the art of the secret pocket in an interview with square mile last year: “Anything can be concealed with good tailoring. We’re asked to conceal all sorts of things – large billfold wallets, flasks, and other things that I won’t talk about… But the truth is you can work around anything. It’s a tailor’s calling card.”
For his part, Davide Taub has worked cigar cutters and penknife pockets into his elegant designs, but the most memorable request came from a customer who asked for every single pocket in his suit to be the exact size of an unfolded £50 note. We don’t get it either, but that’s exactly the point: it’s not about us, it’s about the individual the suit is for.
Now your suit is up to scratch, it’s time to ensure the rest of your outfit is sufficiently bespoke – and that starts by finding a shirt to match that fine tailoring. As any besuited gent is aware, finding the perfect-fitting shirt is no small miracle: starting from the collar, you should be able to slide two fingers in when buttoned to the top without difficulty; the shoulder seam should meet at the corner of your shoulder bone; arm holes must be high enough without causing restricted motion; the sleeve should neither be too tight or open (enough for natural motion); at the torso, there needs to be no more than four inches of fabric when pulled lightly away from the body; and, finally, the sleeve should end where your palm meets your wrist (approximately one inch beyond your wrist bone).View on Instagram
If this all sounds needlessly complicated, just imagine how difficult it is to find an off-the-rack shirt that conforms to your body type. Indeed, one Savile Row tailor (who we won’t name, for obvious reasons) told us they wouldn’t touch bespoke shirtmaking because the process is so much harder than suitmaking. That’s why the master shirtmakers at Turnbull & Asser are seeing so many turn to its bespoke service.
At your consultation, a tailor will take 18 separate measurements, including taking into account your posture and any other special requirements, before the next step of choosing from more than 1,000 fabrics, 25 collar and cuff options, 20 monogram styles and various collar linings. While choice is down to personal taste, each shirt cloth is guaranteed to be hand-cut and brought together by hand on a sewing machine by Turnbull & Asser’s seamstresses in its Gloucester workshop. The process is finalised with a trialling period where you have to wear and launder a sample shirt (also made to your spec) three times to allow for inevitable fabric shrinkage, and to ensure the best fit possible on the finished product.
Elsewhere in the world of fashion, the old adage, “you can judge a man by his shoes” goes a long way to explaining why bespoke services offered by the likes of Tim Little (founder and creative director of Grenson Shoes) and historic shoemaker John Lobb have ballooned in popularity over the last few years.
One Savile Row tailor told us they wouldn’t touch bespoke shirtmaking because the process is so much harder than making a suit
Each offer a similar fully handmade bespoke service, which starts by measuring various dimensions of your feet. But this is not the like the machine you used to step on at Clarkes when it was time to buy your new school shoes – no, this service carefully measures the dimensions of each foot, as well as recording the individual characteristics for optimal fit. Craftsmen will then make unique wooden lasts for both your feet before creating shoes to your exact specification.View on Instagram
This is, of course, before you take into account the various materials, styles and flourishes that make your shoes your own. The truth is, though, the price you pay (approximately £2,550 for Tim Little and £4,170 for John Lobb) relates to the fine craft of building the perfect pair of shoes over a 10 to 12-week process. Feet may be an uncomfortable subject for many of us, but housed inside one of these creations, they become a source of great pride.
The accessories world is, of course, primed for bespoking. Whether it’s a customised Bamford watch or a leather bag featuring the art of leather marquetry (an 18th-century technique where each piece of leather is expertly cut and fitted to form a unique motif), this area of fashion welcomes a client’s every whim with open arms.
Founded in 1849, Parisian bag maker Moynat is renowned for its luxury leather bags and wooden trunks. From the beginning, Moynat painted a client’s initials and family crests onto the side of its trunks, with exclusive hand-painted designs (still available via special order to this day) but it also specialises in the creation of unique trunks and bags for any particular fancy. Take the Champagne Trunk designed for Krug: the dark cherry wood trunk mimics the curves of a bottle, while a blush suede interior houses a magnum of Krug Grande Cuvée. Other unique trunks have included an artist’s trunk complete with a collapsible easel, and a fully functional, portable kitchen range.
Moynat’s small team of artisans creates all bespoke orders in its workshop, where wooden frames are individually built, leather is tanned to the client’s specifications, and even small details like hinges and latches are created in house. Some commissions can take as much as a year to come to fruition, but for creations as unique as this, it’s more than worth the wait.
Trunk now ordered, it’s time to find a car you can put it in and hit the road. Bespoke cars date back to the coachbuilders of the early 1900s when automobiles (and carriages) were crafted almost entirely by hand. Chief among these early forerunners was, of course, Rolls-Royce – and the world-renowned brand is still arguably the producer of the most luxurious cars on the road today.
Clocking in at a reported $12.8m, the Sweptail is not only a shining example of what Rolls-Royce’s bespoke department is capable of, but it’s also the most expensive new car ever produced. Premiered in 2017, the coachbuilt two seater coupé is the only Roller of its kind, with a strikingly unique design created in tandem with the client’s wishes.
The rear taper of the Sweptail pays homage to the world of racing yachts, shaping a completely new perception of a dramatic Rolls-Royce coupé. Inside, the Sweptail consists of an exotic wood interior, a panoramic glass skylight and a special compartment for the owner’s briefcase. For a touch of Bond, the owner also requested that a bottle of champagne and two crystal glasses were placed underneath the arm rest – available at the touch of a button.
In the words of Giles Taylor, director of design at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, “Sweptail is the automotive equivalent of haute couture”. We’d be inclined to agree.
While Rolls-Royce is the most iconic coachbuilder, Bentley’s Mulliner division is also creating cars where anything is possible.
Clocking in at a reported $12.8m, the Rolls-Royce Sweptail is the most expensive new car ever produced
Mulliner’s team of craftspeople and coachbuilders have fulfilled simple requests like painting one female client’s car the same colour as her favourite nail varnish, to completely bespoking a Mulsanne limousine. The latter, the Mulsanne Grand Limousine by Mulliner, is the world’s longest ‘original equipment manufacturer’ (OEM) limousine, and saw the coachbuilders stretch a standard Mulsanne by one metre to create the 6.5m vehicle and raise the roof by 79mm. The result was a sumptuous private jet-inspired interior where the four-seat cabin is arranged with all four seats facing one another. Suffice to say, among those for whom money is no object, the options are endless.
Stepping into Audley House is to come into contact with one of the most prestigious bespoke experiences available today. When James Purdey & Sons, creator of some of the world’s finest shotguns and rifles, relocated to the grand Mayfair building in 1883, it wasn’t to know that more than a hundred years later the world’s hunters and crack shots would still flood to its gun shop, but that is testament to the quality of this bespoke experience.
Much like Savile Row’s historic institutions, a visit to Audley House is a unique experience. Each gun is fitted entirely to your personal specifications, including height and more individual measurements like the length of your neck, before it is constructed using the same methods as when the shop first opened.
As well as the craftsmanship, much of which takes place in the gunmaker’s West London workshop, Purdey guns are renowned for their perfect fit – something that is often attributed to how the customers are measured for the gun’s stock. Each is unique to its new owner, but all are constructed from the finest walnut (Juglans Regia) from Turkey.
The true piece de resistance of a bespoke Purdey gun, though, is its meticulous hand engraving. Whether you want a classic Purdey style, a more personal touch such as your favourite gun dog, or something more elaborate with gold inlay, Purdey’s engravers are considered the finest available today.
It takes between 18 and 24 months to build your new gun, so it’s important you’re sure it’s perfect. Even if you’re not certain your request can be fulfilled, it’s always worth a shot.
The idea of bespoke travel can begin before you’ve even left the country. For example, Heathrow VIP offers a service like no other.
It starts with a chauffeur-driven ride from your home to the airport. So far, so Virgin. However, if their fleet of brand new BMW 7 Series aren’t special enough, they’ll source something more unique – bright orange Lamborghini, anyone? On arrival, clients get their own lounge for the duration of their stay – no other guests allowed. But the personal touches don’t stop there.
Let’s assume you’re a particular fan of, say, Damien Hirst, then Heathrow VIP’s art advisor Tanya Baxter Contemporary can have a collection hanging on the walls of your lounge next time you fly through. One of the celebrity guests had never experienced an afternoon tea, so the team shipped one in from the masters, Fortnum & Mason. And if you’re after a particular watch, the VIP buyers can have it waiting for you – VAT free, naturally.
For the next step, let Carrier take care of your trip. This isn’t your average Thomas Cook holiday, of course: what sets Carrier apart from other travel specialists is not just its knowledge and expertise of the best hotels and luxurious locations, but its ability to personalise every holiday into an incredible bespoke experience.
It has curated several themes to get your creative juices flowing: whether that’s ‘The One Shore Thing’, providing access to the world’s most exclusive beach clubs and private islands; ‘The Adventurous One’, for those looking to view the world’s most spectacular scenery in blissful luxury, or; ‘One of a Kind’ experiences like staying in a unique bird’s nest room in Kenya, there’s an array of options available to every kind of traveller.
If fashion represents the broadest appeal in the world of bespoke, there is one category that is by far the most exclusive: there’s rich, there’s super rich and then there’s the level of minted required to commission your very own Philippe Starck superyacht. Over the two decades, the visionary French designer’s audacious and divisive yachts have inspired awe in any one lucky enough to set eyes upon them, let alone step on board.
His latest is Sailing Yacht A, a 468ft-long vessel owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Igorevich Melnichenko. Loosely termed a sail-assisted motor yacht, the £360m floating palace comprises eight decks, with an underwater observation deck hidden in the bulbous bow, alongside a deck that has been engineered in such a way that you can view from the bow to the stern without any structural obstructions.
Its biggest draw (quite literally, mind), is the three mammoth 300ft masts, which stand taller than Big Ben. It just goes to show that, when it comes to bespoke, the sky really is the limit.