by G. Bruce Boyer
The Duke of Windsor was a stickler for detail. Fanatical when it came to his clothing, he was precise about the number of buttons on his jacket sleeve and the height of his trouser cuff. He had special linings sewn into his custom-made ties to produce the exact thickness of knot he desired, and when he decided that he really preferred American-style trousers with an English-style coat, he simply had his suit jackets made in Savile Row and the trousers made in New York City. It was something of an international compromise, which his wife referred to as "Pants across the Sea." But then, that is not quite as precise as the inclinations of George "Beau" Brummell, the great Regency dandy who reputedly had a different glove maker for each hand.
There are those men who wallow in the very "process" of custom-made clothing,studiously pouring over the swatch books, luxuriating in the endless discussions of details and the numerous fittings over weeks and months. There is a great deal of pampering as fitters take the corporeal measure of a man, and there is no denying its arcane charm--if you've got the time and the inclination, not to mention a decent tailor and boot maker.
But many of us don't, and we merely want to look well turned-out without all the fuss and bother. We want a well-made suit that fits with minor alterations, one that we can examine and try on, rather than just imagine how it may look.
The problem traditionally has been that the gulf between custom-made and ready-made business wear--tailored clothing, shirts, ties and shoes--was both broad and deep. Selection, in terms of styling and silhouette, has always been rather narrow with ready-to-wear; and assembly-line work cannot begin to duplicate handmade quality. The designer movement in menswear these past two or three decades has only made more men aware of these disparities. There are some designer clothes that have a sense of style but no real quality to them; and then there are one or two quality manufacturers whose idea of brio is someone with all the dash and élan of Henry Kissinger. So the question remains: Where can a man get some stylish-looking quality gear without a lot of endless bother?
Do not despair. There is, as it happens, an international handful of ready-to-wear firms that are every bit the equal of custom quality and styling, firms that employ the finest craftsmen, use only the best materials and have a sense of classic taste.
At a time when hand-tailoring has been in steady decline, a few firms have created an innovative concept as a commercial basis for manufacture: a "factory" of craftsmen. Whether in the United States or Europe, the recipe for producing exemplary ready-to-wear is virtually the same: Success depends upon a happy marriage between technology and craftsmanship.
Success calls for the ability to use technology where it can do a better job and the foresight to keep the craftsmanship where handwork cannot be surpassed. That means using technologically advanced machinery and computers where they can do the most good--recording orders, keeping track of inventories, filing patterns, mailing correspondence and other clerical duties--while also bringing craftsmen together and organizing a workplace for the manufacture of handwork: hand-stitching, hand-cutting, hand-pol-ishing and whatever else cannot be duplicated by machinery.
Let's be clear what we're talking about here. When you have talented craftsmen working with the finest materials--the best woolens, cottons, leathers, horn buttons and the rest of it--the only difference in custom work is the use of individual patterns. With handmadeready-to-wear, quality is assured, styling is superb and fit depends upon the silhouette a man prefers. And the results at this level of competence must be judged on styling: We are discussing the relative merits of a Rolls versus a Bentley. Prices, needless to say, are as comparable to custom work as is quality.
"There's an almost mystical relationship between mind and hand when it comes to the work of real craftsmen," muses Joseph Barrato, CEO in the United States for the Italian firm of Brioni, tailors extraordinaire for 50 years. In the famous workshops and apprentice school in Penne, in the Abruzzi region of Italy, 200 tailors handcraft suits of impeccable subtlety. "In Italy, they talk about how long it takes to make something, not how quickly it can be pumped out," says Barrato. "The measure of craftsmanship is quality, which means aesthetics married to function. There is still the tradition of taking pride in doing things the best way, rather than the quickest way."
And how long does it take to make a fine suit?
"A single tailor working in a custom tailoring shop can make no more than three jackets a week--and that's the standard," Barrato says. "In Italy, they talk about garments in terms of hours: 'It's a 10-hour suit,' 'a 15-hour coat' and so forth. The artisans at Brioni make an 18-hour coat, which means as much handiwork as in any custom shop."
And it shows: Each jacket is completely hand-cut with scissors; the chest, lapels, collar, armholes, buttonholes, lining, pockets and sleeves are all sewn by hand. Everything is hand-pressed. It is virtually the same way at Kiton, a firm that employs 170 tailors in Naples to make clothing the old-fashioned way. Both Brioni and Kiton limit the number of garments they make to a few thousand per year--or about as many suits as the large clothing factories churn out in a week using laser knives, conveyor belts, a bit of glue and some pressing machines.
Brioni, in fact, has continued the time-honored artisan tradition of apprenticeship by establishing its own senior tailors school to train young people in the craft, the technical aspects of which have a heritage that dates back more than 100 years. And a visit to the Kiton plant in a Naples suburb shows tailors sitting in small groups, doing the work in their laps, one stitching a buttonhole, another a sleeve head. At a worktable across the aisle, a man hand-presses a lining. Many of the tailors have tape measures slung around their necks; it is very much the Old World in a modern setting of space and light.
That experience holds true with the great shoemakers. At the French firm of J.M. Weston, "production moved into a high-tech factory in 1990, but the old cobblers' benches are still used, and the construction methods haven't changed in half a century," says John Ryan, United States sales director. At least 80 percent of each Weston shoe is made by hand, from cutting the leather pattern to final polishing. The firm, which began making shoes and boots at Limoges in 1865, still has its own tannery, to ensure the proper aging of the leathers. Across the Channel--or through the Chunnel, if you will--in the English town of Northampton, Edward Green & Company has been making shoes since 1890, with the skills of the craft handed down from one generation to the next. The firm continues to make the knee-high boots for the Queen's own Household Guard, a tradition begun with Queen Victoria.
"We simply wouldn't think of using glue," says managing director John Hlustik, in a voice that makes you think he would probably thrash you if you mentioned Velcro fasteners. "In fact, we use wild boar bristles for stitching, instead of steel needles, and we make our own twine because it's both thinner and stronger." That's the kind of dedication to craft I'm talking about!
Neither firm, of course, mistakes the frighteningly trendy for style, choosing instead the tried-and-true cap toes and tassel slip-ons, a classic monk strap here, a calfskin-and-linen spectator there. The tremendous variety they offer comes in the form of leathers, finishes and fittings. Sizes and half-sizes in five widths are the norm, and traditional styles usually are available in several different shadings and finishes.
"We are concerned with welted shoes," Hlustik says, "because they are the only ones that can adequately be repaired." Too true, and while we are on the subject, quality shoe manufacturers will, for a modest charge, rehabilitate and rejuvenate your purchase so that you can be well-shod for years and years. That is value for the money.
Shirtmakers have their own set of rules for perfection. Single-needle construction is a must, so that seams don't pucker, and collars must be sewn in layers, rather than be fused (a polite term for gluing). Only the finest long-staple and lustrous cottons and mother-of-pearl buttons are used.
Tie-making is a special art. Some, such as the famous French firm of Hermes, founded in 1837, print their own silk twill in an extremely ornate and complicated silk-screen process. The British firm of Charles Hill produces handmade jacquard-woven silk ties in a variety of weights, from 24 to 50 ounces, the traditional patterns of which are drawn from the archives of historic English silk mills.
The crown jewel of neckwear is the legendary seven-fold tie. The concept of the seven-fold is simplicity itself: A square yard of finest silk is folded in on itself seven times until the tie shape is formed; then it is hand-stitched and pressed. That is all there is to it. No lining is needed to maintain its shape or to tie a perfect knot.
The seven-fold's salad days were the early decades of this century, but as cheaper mechanized production replaced artisan tie makers, and as the price of quality silk rose after the Second World War, the seven-fold all but vanished. Today, there are only two companies that still make the seven-fold: Robert Talbott in the United States and Kiton in Italy.
"The truth is," says famed Biella designer Luciano Barbera, whose family has produced incredibly refined clothing for three generations, "that to make anything well it must be more than a business: It must be a passion." Exactly.