You've landed in Hong Kong for a long-planned bucket-list trip – or finally made it to London for the start of that British odyssey. You drop your bags, freshen up and head directly for … the tailor?
It's not such a far-fetched proposition. More than retail shopping, seeing a good tailor can offer a peek inside the local culture and net a souvenir of the place, if it's done right. In a market with inexpensive labour such as China, it may ultimately save money; in a tailoring capital such as Naples, Italy, it can deliver bragging rights. But getting a well-crafted suit that will last more than a few fashion seasons – which is the objective, or else what's the point of buying bespoke? – takes time.
Pretty much every major international city has a reputable tailor dealing in fine fabrics and modern cuts. To get the best out of him (or her), you'll have to make at least three visits – to be measured, fitted and fitted again – over several weeks. Any tailor who promises a quality custom suit in a couple of days or denies your requests for multiple fittings is a charlatan. Buying bespoke is about watching a world-class tailor in his element and bringing home the product of hours of fine craftsmanship. So forget every notion you might have had about coming home from a weekend in Delhi with a £200 (about $330) suit.
"You always get what you pay for," says Pedro Mendes, author of thehogtownrake.com, a guide to men's style. "You're not somehow magically skirting the reality of price by going to these places." Mendes says he could only justify buying a custom shirt abroad because "if you're there for four or five days, it can be made in a short period of time." He cites Emiliano Nelson, the only maker of custom guayabera shirts in Cuba. "Anything beyond a shirt, you need to build a relationship, and that takes time."
But he wouldn't be looking for a deal.
"A tailor in Naples is not [charging a premium] to rip you off. They're doing it because they're exceptional craftspeople."
Case in point would be Vietnam. As clothing manufacturers shift to Southeast Asia from China, Vietnam has emerged as the place to get (replica) fine fashion on the cheap – particularly Hoi An, an ancient port with a tailoring tradition. It's long since been discovered by fashion tourists, resulting in dozens of glossy operations setting up shop. The key to quality is knowing which manage their own handiwork directly. Bebe Tailor and Yaly, where two-piece suits go for under $500, score good reviews for using quality fabrics and for seamstresses who work on-site (not in a sweatshop). But the experience is a cattle call. Over five days, you may be able to get in two fittings, but they'll be impersonal – worse if you have a beef with the cut or quality.
So let's say you're willing to pay dearly for something you love dearly. Hong Kong is the great melting pot for fine tailoring. It's inherited the skills of British occupants as well as Russian and European, who came via Shanghai after the Communist Revolution – not to mention, more recently, the Japanese. A-Man Hing Cheong, headquartered in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, is still considered the most exclusive, yet its peers tend to cluster in Tsim Sha Tsui, the more fashionable district of Kowloon.
If you're based in Kowloon, chances are you'll be walking distance from Gay Giano, who operates out of the Regal Kowloon Hotel. It made a name for precision tailoring and superior Italian fabrics, but also for the pioneering 3-D measuring technology it uses to scan the body. Sensors provide 120 measurements that can quickly render a design, taking into account the drape of the fabric, which can make fittings simpler. You'll still need to invest a couple of weeks into the construction, and around $2,000 for the bill, but you'll leave with a superior product.
Incidentally, if you find yourself in Shanghai, head down a leafy lane to Dave's Custom Tailoring, the Paul Smith of the former French Concession. And in Beijing visit Brio, which has an on-site tailor and a roster of visiting tailors from Naples.
On to London: not a place built for bespoke-fashion tourism. For a custom suit by a Savile Row tailor like Gieves & Hawkes, you'll spend more – and wait longer – than for a custom sofa. Still, this is the Holy Grail. In his cost-production analysis of bespoke, off-the-rack and made-to-measure (tweaked to fit from a standard pattern), journalist Simon Crompton worked out that the production costs of a Savile Row suit made up a larger percentage of the total cost than any other method or retail location. Which underlines the value of Savile Row bespoke. "A lot more of your money – twice as much in fact – goes into making the goods than with most things you buy elsewhere," he says.
We're talking upwards of $8,000 and a 12-week turnaround in many cases. Yet there are exceptions. A suit by Richard James (29 Savile Row), which outfits David Beckham and Hugh Grant, starts at a slightly lower $6,500 with a six-week turnaround. Ditto Hardy Amies (no. 8), tailor to Eddie Redmayne.
Not convinced? You're in good company. Many fashionisters [sic] doubt bespoke suiting is even "worth the drive to Acton" – the issue being relationship-building. Most Canadian cities have superlative tailors, there to support you through weight gain or loss. In Toronto, those who know rate Garrison Bespoke and Leatherfoot Emporium.
Then there is David Livingstone, a fashion writer who's never been tempted by bespoke despite travelling the world in the name of style fashion. "The little truck I've had with bespoke," he says, "makes me think a lot of that trade is, like the barber's cat, full of piss and wind."