In the world of retail, catering to the masses takes precedence. Styles, fit, and, it has been rumored, sizing must all be broadened for an increasing consumer market. Seemingly, modifying merchandise for such a wide consumer base has meant excluding certain colorful details and the more extreme trends steadily year by year.
In an effort to do better than last year’s numbers, to move more units and sell more merchandise and make ever higher sales, major companies shy away from the extreme and instead stay with the safe. After decades in the business, perhaps these companies have simply run out of fresh and brazen new ideas, having implemented every creative option, the bag of tricks has been left empty and the proverbial creative well has dried up, and therefore they must rely on refreshing and reincarnating old apparel for a new crop of teenagers or the latest college graduates or those just hired or promoted. At this point, maybe the big conglomerates think they know their public better than they know themselves. Perhaps, the big brands and companies who clothe the masses are scared that a risk will not work and numbers will fall short and sales will plummet and business will suffer.
After being marketed to for a decade and after a decade’s worth of consumption, the average person walking down Fifth Avenue in Chelsea or through a suburban mall, would be hard pressed to find something new or that they do not already own in some incarnation. The fact is that that shirt in the window and that skirt on the hanger are already in their closets.
What to do if you desire something a little different though? Given the lack of brave, new apparel options, more and more people are turning to their own devices. A newer generation is taking cues not just from high fashion runways, nor just from the street, but from history as well, and merging them together to mold these various style elements around their own personal tastes. The result is an atmosphere rife with fantastic possibility for the independent thinking and creative, a trickling sideways of designs and ideas, not shared the old way of a glossy magazine spread, but through blogs and social media sites like The Sartorialist and lookbook.nu, bringing these creations within a finger’s touch for huge amounts of people around the world, and more importantly, those who wish to do things in a different way. Even the revered and now mythical octogenarian Bill Cunningham has been taken online by way of the New York Times website – bicycle and all.
It seems that any time there has been a financial recession over the past century, design and the arts are reinvigorated in a time of great need, both requiring and promoting ingenuity and invention. When America’s independent-minded youth on the sidelines of the mainstream dressed during the midst of another recession in the late 1970s, they decided to clad themselves in their own wild conceptions. The new transplants to Alphabet City had their own look and their own world in places like Club 57 presided over by the rector called Bishop John, where the old rules did not apply and the only goal was simply to create. They could not find clothes that represented them in regular stores, so they trolled downtown thrift shops, cut up tee shirts, safety pinned pants and came up with their own.
Now, in the middle of the current recession, a new independent-minded and free-thinking generation are relying on their own resourcefulness and creativity, determined to craft what they do not see in their surrounds, what is not in the window nor in a catalog nor on a magazine page. The lack luster economic climate coupled with the present level of globalization and online communication, where strangers can share with other strangers a recently purchased pair of vintage boots, or someone in Mexico City cannot only see where – and what – a friend ate in Japan, but also what they decided to wear that day, has created a situation unseen before in history, a ripe environment for those who are so inclined to find their own direction. With each article and item of clothing, with each shared photograph and blog post, these people are crafting themselves and manifesting for the world to see their own (projected) private personality.
Amber Doyle, co-owner and co-creator of Against Nature, says that large retail companies cannot do exactly what her store does. A small boutique on the edge of Nolita and the Lower East Side, Against Nature resembles what one would imagine the pocket of a 19th century schooner captain must have contained. “Bespoke,” she says, is “very small, very niche, it’s not the run of the mill. When it comes to bespoke tailoring, it’s almost like an elite group of people that will do this, it’s a specialty.”
When asked if large retail companies offer this labor intensive and detail oriented service, Ms. Doyle says that “for bigger companies it’s not bespoke, it’s made-to-measure and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a different thing.” Made-to-measure refers to working off of blocks – starting with a size run of suits, taking a one of the various sizes and making little adjustments to altering the over-all design.
With bespoke, the customer and the tailor nurture the design of the garment together. “You start with a plain piece of paper, you take the measurements, you draft a pattern; you really design the piece with the client. With every fitting, it’s adjusted to their body shape.” The individual is more important than the greater market. The process requires “a very personal, hands-on approach where care and perfection are more important than cost and speed – that’s a very different business model than most large brands.”
More than other similar shops, Against Nature also offers bespoke suiting for women. “There are other bespoke shops in the area that do really great work, but when it comes to women’s [suiting], it’s very small.” It seems that constructing a suit from beginning, measurements and a bolt of fabric, to end, its final fitting, has never really been an option for a woman historically, or now for that matter. Amber Doyle, however, found that there was something lacking, so like the young artists before her in decades past, decided to create something to fill it.
For someone who had the art of sewing passed down through her family’s female generations, from grandmother to mother to her, and taught herself how to design and make clothes by destroying them and then putting them back together like a scene out of a Molly Ringwald movie, eventually including women’s suiting was a natural progression for Amber Doyle. In the process, she created a niche for Against Nature. “For women, it’s so rare, even at these bespoke houses, very rarely will they do women… they’re all a little scared of it and I think that’s really funny.” Perhaps because Against Nature is co-owned and co-operated by a woman, and perhaps because Amber Doyle is a young lady always drawn to tailored looks and military inspired details, the shop offers bespoke services to women as well as men. Or, rather, they offer bespoke services to women. As well as men.
One could make the argument that bespoke suits have always been in style, after all Savile Row has been in operation as it is known today since 1803. However, for the first time in decades, it is a look which has become popular for a younger, hipper and less conservative demographic, who do not necessarily have to wear a suit to the office. It is not a new idea, the new part is appealing to a young client. It has become fun to wear a suit. And it helps if it is hand made.
To revitalize their product lines and sales, there are large retail companies, like the Dockers brand owned by Levi, that are adopting the slimmed down, tailored, more youthful feel of this style easily found in neighborhoods created by a collection of new trend setters. By making alterations to its product, these larger brands are attempting to capture a younger, ideally upwardly mobile, generation to replace the aging one. It is what corporations have been doing for decades in order to stay ahead – or alive – since the term youthquake was coined in the early 1960s by Diana Vreeland.
Proof of this growing trend has been evident in past shows by Thom Browne as far back as eight years ago; Tom Ford’s men’s store opened on Madison Avenue in 2007; Band of Outsiders designer Scott Sternberg has featured well tailored suits since 2004. The aesthetic has trickled down as well. Over the past few years, J. Crew has improved and updated the shape and fit of its men’s suits; and Club Monaco has followed by shortening their jackets and tapering their slacks. Stores offering bespoke suiting in New York City, a good deal of them located downtown alone, as well as in major cities around the country, are increasing annually.
She disagrees that it is a mere trend. “Tailors around the world will tell you that it’s something of a renaissance.” The reason? “The resurgence can be seen as going hand in hand with the general move toward handmade, local, expertly crafted products in general, combined with a more personal shopping experience – one in which the customer genuinely participates in creating something unique instead of just putting their credit card down and being handed something designed by somebody else for nobody in particular.”
It is a movement which is growing. “I love what other suiting houses are doing in New York right now, because I really love how they have their own little stamp on things that really sets every store apart from one another. We all have a different style, a different look; we all do the same thing, but it’s all extremely different.” Like any well-made suit, you can expect to have bespoke suiting around for a long time.
Against Nature will soon offer their services en mass on their website. Not bespoke, mind you, because there is no uniform way for the customer to take his or her own measurements remotely and without error. Also, fittings would not be an option, which is a required step in the bespoke process. After all, it is part of the experience. They will have their ready-to-wear pieces like shirting and ties and accessories, as well as gift certificates available for purchase though. “It’s happening,” she promises.
When pressed about upcoming trends, Ms. Doyle admits that she enjoys experimenting while being careful not to forsake the classic style. “Both innovation and resurrection are important creative tools. We’ve done our bit to encourage a few of our classic favorites: bow ties, double-breasted suits, and softer fabrics like flannels.” However, maintaining originality and timeliness and doing things others are not is key. “The tuxedos and dinner jackets we did last year were a perfect example: besides the classic black tux we did some in deep blue with lighter satin lapels.”
It is ironic that the latest style movement among an up-and-coming generation is a finished and tailored suit, a better known dress code for bright young things between the World Wars and Merchant-Ivory dandies. If the world of clothing and fashion has taught us anything, it is that everything comes back eventually, even that which did not really ever go away.
Vincent Ugaro was born by cesarean section in the Autumn of 1983 and raised in New Jersey. After a woebegone youth, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts and attended Emerson College; after graduating in 2007, he then returned to his home state. When not ignoring Sallie Mae or devoting undivided attention to a revolving stack of books on his nightstand, Vincent spends his days running into Lynn Yaeger and stalking Bill Cunningham. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey. Currently, he is working on various essays and short stories.