The definitions of "bespoke", "made-to-measure" and "custom" suits are, in my opinion, the most misunderstood terms in the tailoring universe, especially when it comes to evaluating which is "better."
Sometimes clients see the ultimate suit as one "made from scratch." What does that mean? No tailor simply takes measurements and drafts a pattern based on those measurements. He must have a starting point from which he can adjust to the client's dimensions. These starting points are called "slopers" in our trade and every tailor has them. If he does not have slopers, then there's a good chance that his clothing looks amateurish or homemade.
"Made-to-measure" can be a very effective process to retaining the lines of a particular sloper, but made for a particular client's body. However, it may only be effective if the client deviates only slightly from the base sloper for that style. In other words, he may be just a bit slimmer or taller than the base sloper. The "made-to-measure" garment is generally produced without interim fittings and looks completed when the client first sees it after placing his order. Minor adjustments to the "made-to-measure"garment can only be done at the end of the process..
If the client is more hard to fit, the "made-to-measure" system of making a pattern needs to be enhanced with interim basted fittings. These fittings recognize that the pattern making process is imprecise and that important adjustments to the garment need to be made at these fittings. These interim fittings signify that the suit building has left the realm of "made-to-measure" and entered the world of "custom."
So, what is "bespoke?" It's really a British term and is usually applied to the Savile Row tailors in London. Those tailors have codified a methodology that they consider the proper way to make a suit. With all due respect to our British friends, this methodology generally requires the use of heavier fabrics than is popular today. They also tend to work with very narrowly defined slopers, their "house style." If you don't like their house style, you're out of luck!
To my way of thinking, "bespoke" represents the epitome of the art of suit making. It must contain an additional element that is generally absent in the prior two categories. In true "bespoke," the clothing must be made on the premises of the tailor and not farmed out. Making the clothing on the premises, as we do at Kozinn+Sons, means that the tailors who made your clothing are the same ones who adjust it for you. Those tailors know their clothing, and how it's made, best. Plus, there's less chance for miscommunication, when your clothing travels across the workroom floor rather than across an ocean.
By the way, more fittings for a custom suit is not necessarily a sign of better quality. It may just be a sign of less skillful fitter. There is one tailoring concern in New York that makes all its clients suit jackets to a standard size and then does a fitting without the sleeves and collar in place. The client sees a partially made garment held together by basting stitches and assumes he is getting “real custom,” when all he is getting is a lot of inexact alterations that kill any style the garment originally had..
Do not lose sight of what the ultimate goals are when you have clothing made for you—that you look good, feel comfortable and the clothing is built to last. Choose your tailor on his ability to help you accomplish these goals, not by the labels attached to his process.
Kozinn+Sons Merchant Tailors
22 West 32nd Street, 5th Floor
New York NY 10001