Have suit, will travel
Tailors are racking up air miles as rapidly as their custom-made and bespoke orders will carry them, writes Abid Rahman
Jonathan Payne is a busy man. As head of custom and bespoke worldwide for Alfred Dunhill, he is the epitome of a new breed of jet-setting master tailor. Increasingly in demand, he has clocked up an astonishing 75,000 air miles in the past year dispensing sartorial advice around the globe.
"It's been a hectic few weeks," says Payne. "I come to Hong Kong four times a year. It used to be two, but business is such we have to come out more and for longer," says Payne, adding that the list of countries is growing. "When I travel to Asia, it's usually Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. We have a gentleman in charge of the Japanese business, and we have a gentleman based in Shanghai, who probably flies more than I do," says Payne.
Traversing the globe as a master tailor might seem exotic, but Payne says the reality is somewhat different. "The schedule can be punishing and the days long. My record in Taiwan was 13 appointments in a day. I started at 9am and finished after midnight. It's crazy but fantastic fun."
Payne has been with Alfred Dunhill for the past four years, but is steeped in the traditions of fine tailoring. With stints at Dormeuil, Gieves & Hawkes and then Burberry, Payne is accustomed to dressing ministers, presidents and the captains of industry. "I've been in the trade 23 years, from the cloth side of the business as well as garment side, but the last four years at Dunhill have been very interesting. It's a culmination of all the jobs I've had; indeed, it's more of a way of life than a job."
Bespoke and custom tailoring has exploded globally in recent years, with newly wealthy men in Asia, the Middle East and Russia being the most enthusiastic converts to its time-honoured traditions. Custom tailoring - the more accessible in price terms of the two fine tailoring options - still dominates over bespoke as an emerging upper-middle class in countries such as China gets their first taste of fine tailoring. "There's been an increase in custom tailoring globally. People don't want to be one of a million anymore, they want to be seen as an individual and have input into their product. It's not just clothes, it's happening with phones, computers and cars."
Dunhill's custom business is booming so much that each of its 90 stores worldwide offers custom-tailoring with tailors on-site. However, it is the bespoke service which has grown rapidly in recent years with many of the custom-tailoring clients graduating to the highest echelon of men's fashion. Payne says bespoke is convenient for the world's super rich. "It's the unique nature of the service. For example, I saw a client in May in Hong Kong, but I've just done a fitting for him in London. That's very attractive."
Alfred Dunhill's bespoke services are usually handled by its four 'Home' stores in London, Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong, all flagship boutiques that are more an emporia of all things luxury and masculine than a traditional retail location. However, for the company's most important clients Payne will travel personally to their office or even their home.
With the degree of personalisation that bespoke tailoring affords, national preferences tend to emerge.
"Russians, some of these guys are really broad in the shoulder. There are some seriously big guys over there, so a 62 or 64 is not unusual."
And closer to home? Payne believes that one legacy of the Mao suit is that Chinese men tend to prefer longer trousers and sleeves. Hong Kong and Singaporean men prefer to show off a little bit of cuff.
A large part of the charm of men's fine tailoring is the opaque world it resides in. Men are more than happy to defer to the knowledgeable artisans with their lexicon of terms for different cuts, cuffs and collars. However, it pays, quite literally, to know the basic difference between the two mainstays of fine tailoring.
Custom tailoring: Also known as made-to-measure, is often confused with bespoke tailoring as clients make appointments to be measured for their suit and there is also some choice in terms of fabric and details. The differences can be significant, not just in terms of pricing. Custom appointments would normally take about an hour, says Payne, as clients choose from pre-existing patterns that limit the scope for personalisation.
Bespoke tailoring: The epitome of fine tailoring, with prices to match. Bespoke suits are created from scratch, without a pre-existing pattern and to the customer's exact cut, fabric and detailing specifics, with helpful hints from the tailor. "Bespoke appointments are often longer; if it's a new customer it can take two or even three hours." The process is labour intensive with every part involving hand-cutting and hand-finishing. Given the level of craftsmanship, bespoke tailoring is not time sensitive, with the first fitting followed by a second usually six weeks later, and a final fitting, a further six weeks hence. This means a proper bespoke suit can take up to five months before being delivered to the very happy client.
"One of the strangest requests was somebody asked to have their name embroidered on the outside of their suit, on the chest" says Payne with a laugh, "I refused and had to say: 'I'm sorry, we can't do that - it wouldn't fit in with the Alfred Dunhill way of styling'."