Referring to “bespoke” as the latest thing is admittedly a bit of a stretch. After all, the term’s usage dates to 1580 (bespeak—meaning “to arrange beforehand”). And, for as long as anyone in the branding world can remember, bespoke has meant the same thing: that obscenely expensive men’s suit from a tailor on Savile Row or Madison Avenue.
But just in case you haven’t noticed, bespoke (a clunky modifier that means completely made-to-order) is enjoying a rather unusual renaissance, popping up not only in ad copy but also within categories that have nothing to do with suits: sneakers, jeans, and even bicycles and rare hardwood floors.
We’re not talking about mere customization—a monogram or iron-on stripe. These brands start from scratch and create something unique and handmade for each customer. 3×1, a new atelier in New York, will measure, cut, and sew you a pair of jeans that you design. A Manhattan tutoring firm called Bespoke Education creates complete curricula to help Junior score A’s from grade school to Yale. (“In a world of uniformity,” says founder Tim Levin, “people are looking for more.”) Even Nike, among other mass-production leviathans, is strutting with the bespoke crowd, letting you create your very own Air Force 1 shoe that nobody—not even Vince Carter—can say he’s got in his closet.
Why now? Several forces seem to be at work. Foremost is a backlash against the sort of brand homogenization brought to you by Target. “In a world of product symmetry, it becomes more important for consumers to be able to point to their individuality—even if it costs more,” says retail analyst Marshal Cohen of the NPD Group. Josh Feldmeth, CEO of Interbrand, calls it “the provenance of me.” Bespoke bicycle maker Mike Flanigan adds that the localvore movement has helped too. “People are starting to discover specialized craftsmen they never knew existed,” he says. And Meg Woodhouse, director of marketing for bespoke linen brand Matouk, observes that “the scarcity, uniqueness, and even the lead time involved in bespoke has made it the new incarnation of luxury.”
Here, a sampling of bespoke’s more unusual players—and not a men’s suit among them.
1. Since 2008, LV Bespoke Wood Floors has let customers dictate every aspect of what’s underfoot, from the choice of wood (“Bespoke White Oak Espresso” is shown) and plank width to effects like French bleeds and surface treatments like hand scraping. “The push for made in the U.S.A. is really helping us right now,” says principal James Caroll II.
2. “The populace has become aware of quality—it’s a backlash to Walmart,” says Mike Flanigan of ANT (Alternative Needs Transportation) bespoke bicycles. Flanigan hand makes up to 50 bikes yearly (price $3,000 each), such as this Truss Bike, inspired by late-1800s Iver Johnson designs. “You can choose everything,” Flanigan says, from grips (cork, anyone?) to color (he offers 188 different paint colors).
3. “Bespoke allows individuals to have a sense of ownership of the design,” says a spokesperson for 21 Mercer, Nike’s bespoke boutique that opened in SoHo two years ago. A two-hour, $820 appointment gives you a choice of 31 pieces and 83 color options. Two weeks later, your very own Air Force 1 sneaks are ready for pickup—and flight.
4. Asked why he left his Earnest Sewn brand to create 3×1, a bespoke jeans boutique, Scott Morrison says he “just wanted to see jeans done right.” Which means: individual fitting, selvedge denim, American-machined buttons, and a factory on premises. “A bespoke customer is looking to create something very specific,” Morrison says. And for $1,200, that can be just about anything with two legs.
5. Matouk has been making bespoke linens since the 1930s when Mrs. Edsel Ford once dropped $1.2 million on tablecloths. But marketing director Meg Woodhouse says bespoke is enjoying a resurgent popularity. “Customers are seeking artisanal, handcrafted goods,” she says. Matouk lets them select elements including color, thread count, appliqués, and hemstitches.