My Tailor, Myself

A scene from Savile Row Field Day, a celebration of wool by bespoke tailors on London’s famed Savile Row

My love affair with custom clothing began a few years ago, when everyone banded together and got me the birthday gift to end all birthday gifts: a trip to buy a handmade suit at Al’s Attire–a whimsically old-world tailor shop with a modern edge, situated on a cobbled, windy North Beach street.

Because I am a small guy with narrow shoulders and high sartorial ambitions, the likelihood of me finding a suit that fits off the rack at H&M, Macy’s, et. al. is nonexistent. Regardless of body type/gender obstacles, buying a handmade suit is magical: part therapy, part luxury, part art. A great tailor is like an awesome acupuncturist–not entirely necessary when uninitiated but unmistakably vital once discovered.

My favorite part? In the tradition of bespoke tailoring, Al brings out swaths of fabric like a fairy godmother and asks you to choose the stripe and color of the lining or to pick between subtle shades of gray pinstripe. He has dozens of button shapes and vintage pattern books to spread before you. What color thread? What sort of button hole? Collar? Also, once you’ve done the fittings and the collaboration is complete, Al’s puts a little label with your name on it on the inside of your garment. Swoon.

The suit I ended up with is a versatile charcoal grey with a smart vest (complete with a ticket pocket)–the basic building block of a gentleman’s closet, with a little winking twist here and there. The suit is perfect for weddings, work events, fancy dinners and funerals. As evidenced by Mad Men, you cannot go wrong with a grey suit.

After a few years in my grey suit, I wanted something different for my wedding. I didn’t have the budget for a whole new navy blue suit (my first choice) so Al and I designed a vest and shirt to go with the grey suit pants. I wanted to work with a brown/blue color palette (with a hint of purple to match Michael’s dress–this ended up being reflected in my vest’s buttonholes). Here’s what we came up with:

Photo by Kareem Worrell

The fabric I picked for the shirt is heavy–almost workman-style– and brown/tan striped. Al washed it many times to give it a softer feel. The collar and cuff buttons are architectural–double-fastened and looped. The collar foregos a point for a rounder edge and the front of the vest is chocolate brown. You can see the that detailing better here:

Photo by Kareem Worrell

The best part is that my grey suit now has two totally different looks, which is the man on a budget’s version of an entirely new outfit.

Al’s sense of modernity is especially evident in his playful, hidden details. Check out this custom suit jacket he made for another client with a flash of yellow blooming under the collar:

If that weren’t enough, Al is also a shoemaker. Like everything else, he can customize them for your feet alone.

The concept of addressing the nuance of physical difference through making attire from scratch has been a revelation. Clothes should fit you! Fan-fucking-tastic idea.

And I know Americans are not the first to think of it. The handmade suit is a longstanding British tradition. (Rich) Brits throughout the ages have gone to family-run tailoring businesses on Savile Row and had suits built to last decades.

I often think I have very little desire to visit London and then I find myself salivating over two hundred years of wisdom made material, like with this beauty by Savile Row’s Stuart Lamprell (featured in The New York Times). Bespoke suit? Oh, it will be done.

Even Lamprell’s work in progress is gorgeous:

My migration toward elegant, fitted clothes has been philosophical as well as aesthetic. I love the idea of paring my closet down to a few pieces of immaculately crafted and curated garments rather than the American Apparel bonanza it currently is (not to knock them, they do the cotton V-neck perfectly, but every day is not a weekend and sharp is sharp).

The neighborhood laundromat can assist with basic alterations: bringing in a shirt or a pair of pants, for example. But every city has a tailor who is a genius: someone who can transform my store bought clothes into a song of myself. And then there are the few who can shape coats and vests and shirts from scratch.

All of this has got me thinking: it’s greener, cleaner and more beautiful to purchase a little with a lot than a lot with a little. In a world of mass-produced, disposable, ill-fitting clothing, I’m moving in a different direction. As much as possible, I want to stand behind the integrity of my every buttonhole, to have a thoughtful relationship with what I wear.

About Thomas Page McBee

Gentleman first, always. James Dean is my patron saint, poet is my gender. More about me here: www.thomaspagemcbee.com

2 comments

  1. Agreed! As a short, and very curvy woman, I've always tried to wear vests, with no luck. I ended up getting a gift of a bespoke vest from Duchess Clothiers, who measured me to the max. And when there was a slight alteration needed to perfect the bust area, they did it —free of charge— the vest is now comfortable and formed to my specific body. I love it!

  2. Michael Tracy

    Couldn’t agree more with everything in this piece (particularly the bit about the ticket pocket.. what self-respecting gentleman could be without?).

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