The Lure Of Affordable Custom Tailoring

January 26, 2017

The Lure of Affordable Custom Tailoring

A reader emailed me the other day with a question. He’s getting married this June and wanted a custom suit for the occasion. Something he could wear to his wedding and thereafter, so it had to be basic and formal – multi-season fabric, solid navy, and with all the traditional details. His budget was $1,000 and he wanted to know if I had suggestions for where to turn.

We get these kinds of questions all the time. Someone will write in to say they’re flying to China or South East Asia, and they want to know where they can go for good, affordable, custom tailoring. Or maybe they’re looking for something in the US.

The Short Answer

With some exceptions, if your budget is under $2,000 for a custom suit, you’re almost always better served off-the-rack. That number might actually be closer to $3,000, if we’re to be honest. Custom tailoring is difficult, and more often goes wrong than it goes right. Unless you’re working with a good shop (which is expensive), you’re better off with something ready-made. We have two guides for where you can get a suit given almost any budget.

The Long Answer

It’s worth pulling out here the difference between bespoke and made-to-measure (MTM) – two forms of custom tailoring. MTM shops will often call themselves bespoke even if they’re not, so you have to know what really goes behind each form of tailoring. Essentially, MTM is an adjustment off a standard pattern and comes with one fitting. Bespoke is a fully personalized pattern and comes with multiple fittings. You can read more about the differences here.

Assuming you’re working with a good company, bespoke generally fits better than MTM because the tailor has more chances to get things right (those are the fittings). The problem is that – with very, very few exceptions – good bespoke tailoring is expensive. Which is why we set ~$2,000 for the minimum budget (in the US, that should be closer to $3,000).

Figure this: a tailor typically pays about $300 for a good length of suit fabric. Add to that the trimmings (canvas, lining, and buttons, which can total about $150); labor for cutting and sewing (wages vary, but it takes about 40 hours to make a suit); the work required to draft your first pattern (very time consuming); and it’s basically impossible to expect anything for less than $2,000. There are a handful of exceptions in the world, but the chance you’re at one of those shops is next to none.

That leaves us with made-to-measure.

The Problem with Made-to-Measure

Let’s review with how MTM clothing is made. A company here will draft a standard pattern (tailoring speak for a template) for a range of suit sizes. When a new client comes in, they take their measurements, figure out the closest suit size, and use those numbers to adjust their standard patterns. The suit is then made with more inlays than your average piece of ready-to-wear, which allows for further adjustments. Kind of straightforward. Essentially, MTM is like ready-to-wear, but personalized to fit your body type and sense of style.

In practice, the process isn’t so straightforward. Everything depends on three things: the quality of the initial measurements, the quality of the fitting, and how difficult you are to fit.

There are good MTM operations, and almost all of them operate the same way. They have trained and highly skilled sales associates who will measure and fit you in person, often having you try sample garments so they’re sure to get the measurements right.

As custom clothing has become more popular, however, the marketplace for MTM has exploded. Nowadays, you can find all sorts of businesses. Some allow customers to self-measure and do everything online (almost all of these are terrible); some have weird gizmo body scanners (just repackaged 1940s marketing gimmicks and, again, almost always terrible); some have undertrained sales staff (again, poor measuring and fitting will lead to bad garments).

If you’re on a budget, the likelihood that you’re working with one of these more questionable shops is high. Custom doesn’t mean better than ready-to-wear. There’s a lot of bad custom tailoring work out there and, frankly, most of it is affordable MTM. It’s simply people who bought into the idea of “custom” without understanding the importance of accurate measurements and good fittings – two things that require trained, skilled people to produce.

Ready-to-Wear: Often the Best Budget Pick

Again, this isn’t to say that good MTM shops don’t exist. They do and we’ll be talking about some of them in the future. It’s only to say that the field is complicated, and for guys on a budget, you’re almost always better served with ready-to-wear. It’s simple, easy, and there’s a model and size for almost anyone. Best of all, you can put something back on the rack if you don’t like it (an advantage that can’t be overstated). There are lots of cheap custom tailoring shops out there that try to sell you on the idea of affordable luxury and personalized fit, but the adage of “you get what you pay for” still holds true.

(Note: the above is just on custom suits. Custom shirts are a lot easier to get right, even with self-produced measurements. Proper Cloth, a sponsor here, is the best online operation I’ve used. I’ve bought a few shirts from them myself and have always paid full price).