Is there a difference between a bespoke and a made-to-measure suit? The question bitterly divides Savile Row tailors and their new-kid-on-the-block rivals. Rhymer Rigby helps referee the fight
It was a storm in the calmest of places, a fight on the most genteel of streets: it was a row on Savile Row, the elegant Mayfair home of English tailoring. The brouhaha was over a single word—"bespoke"—what, precisely, it meant and who could use it. And in the debate, blood pressures rose.
Earlier this year, an anonymous complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Authority against Sartoriani, a tailor on nearby Bond Street. The company had been describing its suits as "bespoke" when many on on the Row felt that "made-to-measure" was closer to the mark.
Sartoriani, naturally, took the opposite position—that there was no meaningful difference between the two. The ASA ruled in the summer and found in favour of Sartoriani, much to the indignation of Savile Row. "We considered that both fully bespoke and made-to-measure suits were made to order," the ASA stated. Customers, it explained, "would expect a bespoke suit to be tailored to their measurements and specifications" but they wouldn't "expect that suit to be fully handmade, with the pattern cut from scratch".
Now, you might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, Sartoriani wasn't selling off-the-peg suits as bespoke. It was selling suits that were individually made to fit the people who bought them. Isn't that what bespoke is? That's certainly the view the ASA took. But Mark Henderson, chief executive of Gieves & Hawkes and chairman of Savile Row Bespoke Association, doesn't feel that way at all: "To be perfectly frank," he says, "the ASA's decision made us really angry. People say it doesn't matter, but it does matter, because handmade and made-to-measure don't mean bespoke. You can have a handmade suit that was made for next to nothing in a factory in Vietnam. To me, the issue is around craft."
Henderson says that on such a distinction rests the reputation of the entire European luxury goods industry. "Savile Row is a place where things are still made by craftsmen: we still have apprentices, and there are 100 working tailors on Savile Row." Understandably, this is not a view shared by those at Sartoriani. "Savile Row doesn't seem to know the difference between handmade and bespoke—a handmade suit is bespoke as well as handmade," says Luigi Mancino, master tailor at Sartoriani. "Bespoke just means fitted to you. It's a process, and it's the measuring that's important." Mancino adds that he's not sure that many people could tell the difference between the two anyway. "I can, but you have to have an eye for it and most of the difference is inside." Besides, he adds, unapologetically, "the ASA decided that we were right."
Others take a similar if slightly less combative position. Dress2Kill, a modern tailors based on The Cut near Waterloo, happily uses the terms bespoke and made-to-measure more or less interchangeably. General manager Ben Pennington says that Dress2Kill will do a bespoke suit for just over £500 whereas "on the Row it would be easily four figures". And he says that while it's true that Dress2Kill's suits aren't made on site—"we have our own factory"—much of the cost difference is down to factors like not holding cloth in the shop and the fact that Waterloo, south east London, is a far cheaper place to open a shop than the exclusive environs of Savile Row.
Leaving aside craft and history for a moment, the crux of the matter appears to be in the pattern cutting. With a made-to-measure suit, the customer will be measured and fitted, and the suit will doubtless fit them far better than its off-the-peg counterpart. But it will come from an existing pattern, albeit one that's been adapted to the customer's shape. With bespoke, you get your own pattern. Everything is made just for you. You start with a loose base jacket that is adapted until it is completely comfortable. It's a perfect fit. A made-to-measure suit is a very good approximation—but an approximation all the same, which is why bespoke suits usually cost thousands of pounds and made-to-measure ones hundreds.
It should not be imagined that these lesser suits are not good products in their own right, but the difference, say those on the Row, is between choosing the finish and having something built from scratch by hand. "We do sell made-to-measure suits," says Henderson, "and there's nothing wrong with them at all, but we make it perfectly clear that these are not bespoke."
But who is right? This is where the argument increases in subtlety. Even many on Savile Row will admit that the word "bespoke" has become something of a devalued currency over the past few years. It dates from the 17th century, when tailors would keep all their cloth on the premises. When a customer selected his cloth, it had been spoken for. Thus, the term bespoke came to mean clothes that were made to a customer's personal specifications. Bespoke subsequently came to be applied to other areas, too, such as furniture. But it always carried the connotations of personalisation and craft. But in recent years, bespoke has been applied to everything from kitchens to the computers that Dell sells—and which can be personalised from a broad palate of pre-defined options—to management training seminars.
And the drift of the word from its original moorings is only part of the problem. There is also the famous malleability of the English language and the lack of a definitive, fixed reference point. French, for instance, has a final ruler on what words mean in the dictionary produced by the famously stuffy Académie Française. There is no such thing in English; the Oxford English Dictionary is authoritative, but it is not the last word, as it were. Nor could it be. English is the world's most widely spoken language and part of the price the English paid for its success was losing control of its content.
Thus, Humpty Dumpty's famous quip in Alice Through the Looking Glass, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less", is literally true. If the popular, vulgar definition of a word overtakes its original definition, well, too bad. And when people are talking about bespoking content for mobile sites, you know that the clothes horse has well and truly bolted. The fact that not everyone on Savile Row has exactly the same view of what bespoke means doesn't exactly help matters either.
The final problem for Savile Row is that the term was never trademarked (although "Savile Row bespoke" is). Anda Rowland, managing director of Savile Row Bespoke Association member Anderson & Sheppard, says that the rather gentlemanly way of doing business on the Row is partly to blame. "My view is that it's a shame. But it's also not that much of a surprise. As a group, we've never done that much to protect what the word bespoke means. It's confusing for the consumer. We haven't used a French model. If this had happened in Europe, people would be up in arms."
Although Savile Row tailors have protested to the ASA, there is a consensus that there's not a great deal that can be done. Henderson says that the Association intends to mount a campaign to help differentiate the Savile Row experience. But, he adds, "I'm rather glum about the prospect of further legal challenges without hundreds of thousands of pounds to spend."
But Henderson does take solace in the fact that a true gentleman can always tell the difference. "It's a bit like champagne and sparkling wines. If you were allowed to sell a £2.99 cava as champagne, there would be disappointed people."
One suspects that the word bespoke will continue to be used by both camps and that at least some of their customers will understand the context-derived differences. Indeed, to some extent, price will be a sufficient guide: one would hope that anyone spending £3,000 on a suit would make sure they were getting the real McCoy. But protecting the word is almost certainly a lost cause and any further attempts will likely unravel as quickly as cheap cloth snagged on a nail. Perhaps the tailors of Savile Row can be comforted by the cheese makers of Cheddar, who, without a PDO (protected designation of origin) have seen their product widely copied and, arguably, their "USP" usurped.
Besides, says Rowland, "It is just a word. Perhaps we need to accept that we've lost control of bespoke, move on and find a new word—and then protect it."
Even Henderson admits that it's not a total disaster: "In 100 years, Savile Row will still be making the best suits in the world, and, hopefully, Sartoriani will be long gone."