Businessmen once again invest in custom suits


0511_SuitingUpBusinessmen are once again investing in custom suits.

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By Susan Hauser

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the market for European custom suits is bursting at the seams. Bespoke tailors on London’s famed Savile Row are chalking up a huge surge in business, as are custom tailors throughout Italy, France and Britain.

 

Bespoke: Made from scratch. The suit pattern is made from the customer’s measurements and style preferences. Garments are partly or completely made by hand.
Made-to-measure: A standard pattern is altered to fit the customer. Numerous style options are available for a custom-made suit.
Ready-to-wear: Also known as off-the-rack or off-the-peg.
0511_SuitingUp
Mile Djuric, a made-to-measure specialist with the Kiton clothing company (left), and Jake Hanover of Mario’s in downtown Portland review fabric swatches at a recent trunk show. Hanover is the director of made-to-measure clothing at Mario’s. // Photo by Teresa Meier

Does this European bespoke trend translate into Oregon-speak? At Portland’s fine menswear shops, owners and managers briefly set aside their measuring tapes to share the news that yes, indeed, Oregon businessmen are again investing in their own suave style as the economy improves.

“We’re seeing a tremendous increase after a two-year drought,” says Tony Spear, owner of Este’s Men’s Clothing in Northwest Portland. “People were holding on to their clothes, so alterations were up. My tailor was making money, but we weren’t.”

Spear says business was off by 20% in 2007 and 2008, “and we were in better shape than most.” But it got even worse in 2009, dipping down 35%.

Now, he says, “There’s a huge resurgence in clothing sales because these guys didn’t buy stuff for two years.”

John Helmer III, third-generation president of John Helmer Haberdasher, reports the same at his store. “Sales of suits are way up, 47% above last year,” he says. “Of course, that’s from being kind of down.”

At Mario’s in downtown Portland, made-to-measure director Jake Hanover says men are apparently again willing to spend a considerable sum for a good suit. Even with an “entry-level” price of $1,400 for an Italian made-to-measure suit, Mario’s is seeing what could be called a boom — at least when compared to the past few years.

“Flat was the new up,” says Hanover, recalling the industrywide slump, when the recession brought losses from 35% to 50% to menswear specialty stores. “If you equaled the year before, it was a win. But now we’ve gone into a few quarters of actual gains — a steep enough slope that you could ski on it.”

 


 

Abraham Lee, who claims to be Portland’s only true bespoke tailor because he makes custom suits by hand using patterns based on the client’s own measurements, says his Northeast Portland business has been improving as well. But he pegs the beginning of his turndown to an earlier date, Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, says the native of Seoul, “I feel things are picking up.” He’s back to making a few hundred suits per year for customers as far away as New York and Alaska, although, he says, “It was much better before 9/11.”

Lee charges $1,000 to $4,000 for a custom suit that is hand-basted by his two assistants and mostly sewn by machine after at least two customer fittings. Certain details, such as buttonholes, are always sewn by hand.

It takes as long as eight weeks to complete a suit, dating from when Lee takes 18 measurements on a customer’s body. Lee has another income stream, however. He also operates the dry-cleaning shop next door.

Hanover points out that for the discerning gentleman, bespoke suits and made-to-measure suits have their own merits. Mario’s specializes in made-to-measure suits from prestigious designer labels. The difference is that made-to-measure begins with a try-on garment, rather than a unique pattern. But custom details for a made-to-measure suit are “close to limitless,” he says.

That goes for the price, as well, particularly for top Italian brands, such as Brioni and Kiton. “You basically can spend as much as you want,” says Hanover. “You can spend a down payment on a house in their upper register of options.”

Spear says Este’s offers high quality, sans the designer labels. Prices for suits, made to order at a Baltimore factory, range from $1,295 to $3,500.

Helmer says custom suits account for only 10% of his business, which is known for its hats. “But we’re kind of a wooly-tweedy type store,” he says. “And we carry some labels no one else in town does.” Suit prices range from $695 to $2,200.

Helmer says what his customers are mainly looking for in a nice suit is the confident feeling that wearing it brings.

“Confidence is huge,” he says. “That may well be the driving engine that the economy needs.”




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