Christopher Hickman flew into Toronto from St. John's one recent morning expressly to buy a suit. But not just any suit: His goal was a custom-measured, hand-sewn suit with his initials discreetly embroidered on the back of the jacket collar.
"I normally get all of my suits tailor-made," says the CEO of the Marco Group, a Newfoundland-based construction firm. "I like being catered to on a very personal level."
He isn't alone. Even though times remain tough for many and self-indulgence is still a dirty word in the business world, the recession has been an unlikely catalyst for jump-starting bespoke suit-making, according to analysts and those who practise the trade.
"When the economy gets tight, competition gets tougher for new jobs and for keeping current jobs, so levels of office dress rise across the board," says Mark O'Connell, a former men's-wear designer who is now a professor of fashion at Toronto's Seneca College.
"Having suits custom-made sends a message about confidence and success that is invaluable during uncertain economic periods."
At the same time, the old-school practice is getting a boost among younger men through a range of pop-cultural influences, from the elegant suits worn on Mad Men to the growing style cred of iconic basketball players such as LeBron James, who, because of his size, wears custom-made suits out of necessity.
"I'm getting more young men in for made-to-measure suits," says Rodolfo Marone, a custom tailor who makes bespoke suits costing $1,000 and up at G. Tonino Tailleurs, a Montreal atelier.
Steve Pelman, a second-generation designer/tailor who makes $1,500 bespoke suits at Samson Custom Tailors in Vancouver, reports similar traffic: "Last month was the busiest of my career in terms of bespoke sales, and 50 per cent of them were new customers."
According to Pelman, many of the young males who frequent his business are remarkably well versed in the specifics of tailoring. Armed with knowledge they've gleaned from the Internet, they can debate the merits of a surgeon's cuff or a side vent, double breasted versus single.
And they appreciate the connection to a traditional art that provides them with a unique end product. "They are coming to me after going to the stores to buy off the rack and finding out the suits don't fit and cost too much," says Lou Myles, a veteran Toronto-area tailor who has made bespoke suits, averaging around $1,800, for clients including Pierre Trudeau, Tony Bennett and members of Guns N' Roses.
A dissatisfaction with store-issue suits is what motivates bespoke fan Hickman to regularly travel the 2,000 kilometres from Newfoundland to visit Nello Sansone, head of the made-to-measure division at Harry Rosen on Toronto's Bloor Street West.
"I think it's my third visit here now. For me, the whole experience of being fitted is as pleasurable as the fit itself."
In Sansone's studio at Harry Rosen, framed portraits of star customers such as Dustin Hoffman and the late jazz legend Oscar Peterson line the walls, giving it a touch of discreet celebrity glamour.
The courtly Italian-born tailor also serves up cups of espresso and cappuccino to his clients, adding a dose of Old World charm to the process of being fitted.
"I was seven years old when I first picked up a needle after school, to keep me out of trouble," Sansone says.
A decade and a half ago, his employer revived the bespoke segment of the business at a time when its viability was less than certain largely to keep him around. "He's a rare talent," Harry Rosen says. "And I didn't want to lose him."
Although he's over 70 now, he is a long way from retiring, Sansone says, adding that his division has never been busier. In a building next door to the Bloor Street store, nine men and three women - one hired specifically to make only hand-stitched button holes - work full-time to produce one-of-a-kind garments for customers from across Canada and as far away as England. The price for a made-to-measure suit averages $3,750.
When the older generation of craftspeople do retire, the survival of the bespoke trade will depend on young men such as Matt Myles Masciangelo, an apprentice designer/tailor whose enthusiasm for creating made-to-measure suits is as keen as that of the young men buying them.
"With bespoke, you're saying you're unique," says the 27-year-old, who trains with Lou Myles, his uncle.
"Instead of having to buy stock that is already made up, you have the option of choosing something a little bit different. It's cool to be the only one at the office with that specific type of cloth instead of the 50th person dressed all the same."