Handmade to Measure

The economy remains shaky, but the bespoke business is looking sharp

Headshot of Robert Klara

On the gritty industrial streets of Chicago’s West Side, 1220 West Van Buren rises from a rust-stained sidewalk beside a filling station. The gilt hotels and oak-paneled clubs of The Loop are a good two miles away. Yet U.S. presidents, corporate titans and movie stars going all the way back to Humphrey Bogart have slipped into the front doors of this address, home of the 96-year-old Oxxford Clothes, each in quest of one article: a bespoke suit that will take six weeks and 20 tailors, placing every stitch by hand, to make.

While bespoke shops still rule the curbstones of London’s Savile Row, there aren’t many brands in the United States that do this sort of work anymore. Still, American bespoke is enjoying increased attention, “a significant increase,” in the estimation of sartorial grandee Andy Gilchrist, who presides over the popular dressing-advice site AskAndyAboutClothes.com. “Men have been realizing the importance of image, and clothing as a factor in that image, in the past few years,” Gilchrist says—and even the swankest designer label cannot promise the customized level of image making that bespoke can. Sales of men’s tailored clothing grew 9 percent in 2011, according to NPD Group—this, despite the forces arrayed against dressing up for years now, including casual Fridays and the lowly fashion watermarks set by Silicon Valley CEOs.

These are hardly economic times that encourage dropping $400 on a shirt, even for Father’s Day. So, how to reconcile bespoke’s popularity with a comatose economy? Actually, the answer may be the comatose economy. While much of fashion marketing bleats messages of trendiness and disposability, bespoke remains rooted in classic looks and long-term value. So while a two-piece Oxxford suit might set one back $5,500, it’ll also last—and stay in style—for the next 20 years. That’s a powerful selling point, according to public radio host Jesse Thorn, creator of the dressing-up Web series Put This On. “Men like to be able to compare and judge objective matters of quality,” he says. “When they can do that, they’re willing to put money into things.”

Nice things, like the custom-made threads just off to the right.

Click the image below to see Adweek's Joel McHale Bespoke Infographic

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.