The pandemic changed our habits in an abundance of ways, but aside from the religious daily walks and banana bread making, one of the deeper impacts of locked-down life is our further detachment from the physical retail world.

Of course, this is nothing new. The high street was already on dubious ground before it was fundamentally shaken to its core by Covid – the digital age, a little company called Amazon, and fast fashion saw to that. But there’s no doubt the pandemic broke the camel’s back.

As we became prisoners in our own homes, the delight of hearing the doorbell go and a package being delivered was welcome respite from the monotony of daily life. We shopped online because it was one of the precious-few things we were able to do within lockdown restrictions. We were bored, a new houseplant here, a wardrobe of Scandinavian loungewear there, was at least one way to pass the time. Sure beats another Zoom quiz. (*Shudders*)

As the online marketplace bustled with activity, the high street breathed its last few breaths. Arcadia, Sir Philip Green’s bust fashion group, and the long-troubled Debenhams chain, closed 500 stores across their combined estates; the luxury sector hung on for dear life, furloughing thousands; and countless independent stores quietly shuttered outside of the newspaper headlines.

So, should we pronounce the high street dead? Cause of death: Covid-19. I wouldn’t be so sure. In the same way that we’re rushing back into bars and restaurants, physical retail offers an enjoyment we simply can’t replicate at home. We are social creatures at heart and personal interaction with staff, utilising their expertise to make informed buying decisions, is something that few online providers can provide; sometimes, experience trumps convenience.

And that’s where the wonderful world of bespoke comes in. Here is a sector that celebrates the custom-built and the handcrafted – a collaborative process between artisan and client that results in the creation of something beautiful. As the choppy waters of this global pandemic slowly subside in the UK, is it any wonder that we are seeking out these personal experiences outside of the digital sphere?

The term bespoke was born out of the tailoring world in the 17th century when a customer’s chosen cloth was said to “be spoken for”. So, as part of a new series where we celebrate the many and varied world of bespoke, we begin our journey with a conversation with one of the UK’s foremost tailors.

Below, Eithen Sweet, head cutter and bespoke tailor at Thom Sweeney, shares his insight into the bespoke suit, and why now is the perfect time to invest in one of your own.

Eithen Sweet, head cutter at Thom Sweeney tailors

“The fundamental difference between a bespoke suit and a tailored suit is that with a bespoke suit you are having something made to your exact measurements. You’ll have a dedicated craftsperson working on your pattern throughout, and a team of skilled craftspeople also making it to your exact specifications.

A tailored garment is a means to an end: you need something that’s off the peg, it’s going to fit you well enough, and can be tweaked if not. Then there’s a made-to-measure garment, which is taken from a set size and then you get a finish fitting at the end. Both are good garments for what they are, it’s all depending on your budget and what you need it for.

If it’s your first time into a bespoke house or any kind of handmade situation, you’ll notice that there’s a lot more attention to detail from the get go in initially building that relationship and understanding of what the client wants from the team. A bespoke garment is an investment, and over time that investment will only get easier, but I think the main thing is that someone is using their skills and knowledge to make you the most perfect garment they can.

Everyone always talks about perfection in suits as that’s what everyone wants – I don’t know if it can ever be achieved, but we try. I think for me it’s all about the relationship building and knowing you’re getting something that is made specifically for you; hence bespoke, ‘be spoken’, in that terminology.

The price bracket for a bespoke suit varies depending on where you go but at Thom Sweeney, you’ve got made-to-measure and ready-to-wear starting around £1,500 and then bespoke you’re looking at around £3,500 starting for two-piece.

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Obviously it’s more expensive, but you’re paying for that quality and the fact that you have a team of people working on your garment for you.

With garments that are made from a block, i.e. made-to-measure and ready-to-wear, you are set with the styling details of that garment – if you like it, cool; if it works your body, that’s great. If not, you kind of live with it. But with bespoke, your options are infinite.

You can design what you want, what you feel works best for you alongside what the tailor thinks may work. It’s understanding that you can specify to the finest detail what you want and we can work towards achieving that for you.

I think what’s really special about bespoke is that you get so personal. That’s a real honour for us. You’re involved in the story of the craft from the outset rather than simply being a patron. You are the foundation: it can’t go anywhere without you at the beginning.

You immediately know if a suit fits, and if a client puts it on and it doesn’t feel right or something is not sitting right, that garment is completely defunct. If the client is not happy, we’re not even close to achieving what you’re looking for, whether or not it’s made well or whatever. It’s a partnership in getting it right.

Bespoke has always been at the core of Thom Sweeney – it’s the pinnacle of what we do here. A lot of people these days are far more clued up before they come in to buy something because of the sheer amount of information that’s available to people, and you can really dive into the nuts and bolts of bespoke suits online before even going into a shop. So a lot of people have a preconceived idea of what each tailor specialises in.

The cuts are so very different at each house, it really is what you might like, but also whether you find that you are comfortable in those shops. Each is a different kind of situation. We have a house cut which is a little bit softer, a little bit more contemporary than some other houses, but we still nod to those traditional values of tailoring – we just adjust the fit for a modern lifestyle. We like to think of it as a ‘seven-day-a-week’ suit.

You’re involved in the story of the craft from the outset rather than being just a patron

It’s a particularly British trait that these suits are passed down as family heirlooms, or you get generations of the same family staying loyal to a tailor. A lot of these institutions on Savile Row wouldn’t still be here without that support. But that’s what’s special about this industry: it manages to keep within arms length of the ever-changing world of fashion because it’s so consistent in its values of offering quality.

With the demands of modern life, whereby people want things quicker, there has to be an understanding of the balance between immediacy and having the patience of waiting for quality. It doesn’t matter what you can afford, just because you want your suit tomorrow, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to happen. That’s probably the biggest challenge in modern times is getting clients to appreciate that balance.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s been key for us to showcase how diverse we can be. We were always on the edge of pushing new things that we can make and offering clients much more versatile options beyond your average charcoal or navy suit, but when you’ve got a workshop that can pretty much make what you want it’s important to keep giving clients new ideas. So I think it’s key to keep ideas fresh, but also keeping that solid traditional foundation going. They might sound slightly contradictory, but I think they work together quite well.

Bespoke isn’t just about offering your office staples, it’s being able to offer your clients a diverse selection of garments, and for them to really push you as well. At the moment I’m making this denim jacket, this car coat, that’s completely deconstructed in great cloth. You can wear it at the weekend, you can throw it in the car boot and it’ll be fine. It’ll last years, and you can wear it with jeans or whatever. It’s these things which are exciting for the client as well because they can use their creativity.

Obviously, the most common question in bespoke is “What’s the craziest request?” but the truth is there’s nothing too mad that we’ve done. It’s always limited to whether it looks nice or not. We’ve done things like boiler suits; at the moment on my table is an equestrian waterproof waistcoat, which we’re making for a client in New York; but then next to that is just a nice navy blue jacket. It’s totally random, but there’s always something interesting. We had one client request a completely purple suit, with a matching purple cape… I don’t know when he’s going to wear it, but he loved it, and I suppose that’s the point.

Thom Sweeney Townhouse cutting room
Thom Sweeney Townhouse cutting room

I think people want us to say that we’ve somehow built a Bond-like machine gun into a suit, or something else from Q Branch. But no. The one thing that each of our bespoke suits share is that they look good and they feel good for the individual client.

You do get a portion of our client base who are like “Right, I need four suits,” and want you to outfit them for the working week, but I think it’s worth saying bespoke isn’t just for the wealthy; it’s something to aspire to as well.

We’ve got a number of clients who have started with a ready-to-wear jacket, moved onto made-to-measure, and then got their wedding suit or a dinner suit made in bespoke. It’s great to go on a journey with these people.

The beauty of bespoke is, of course, these suits are going to last you a very long time. It’s an investment piece. This suit will look and feel right for many years to come. That’s why after is as important as the process to make it.

We’re always keen to make sure that if your suit needs looking after or a press or an MOT that we’re the ones doing that and keeping the lifestyle of your suit going as long as possible. The suit is made to last if it’s looked after, if it’s not then it’s going to degrade quicker. Unfortunately, not everyone treats their suit with such love as the next person, but if we can offer that service, hopefully that should take some pressure off.

When you start your bespoke suit, you’ll most likely meet myself and then alongside me might be one of my two undercutters. From that process, I will see you from your first consultation. We might have a couple of meetings before we know what you want, and only then will I measure you up.

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From those initial measurements, you’ll have your first draught of your paper pattern put together and then on to the first fitting. We look at around three to four fittings for your first bespoke suit. Once you’ve had one and depending on the style choices the second is slightly easier, as long as the measurements haven’t changed too much and the style you want is similar.

Fittings are about four weeks apart, depending on the client’s availability. They start very simple. The first fitting is called the ‘baste fitting’ where your pattern that I’ve cut by hand from your skin measurements is put together in the basic form of a suit, held together by white basting thread (hence the name) – there’s no pockets, no canvas in it, or structure, it’s just that initial shape. That fitting is really for me to make sure that your suit’s on the right track and we’ve got everything we need to get going. It also gives the client an initial look at the cloth and how their idea is coming to life.

The suit evolves from that point, it’ll go to ‘the forward’ or a ‘pocket baste’ depending on how well that first fitting went. The forward is when the jacket now has the front edge in exactly the right place and can be sewn into the facings, while the pocket baste shows the pocket positions using mark stitches. Either way, I will still go back and rip the jacket apart and recut the pattern from flat before handing it to the tailor to get it put together again.

From there, we go to the ‘finished fitting’ where we sign off on all the details and make sure that you’re happy with the completed suit. By that time, I would hope so, because we can’t change too much in regards to the styling. But we will keep chipping away until I’m happy and the customer’s happy with what we’ve got. We always say it takes a few wears to break in your new suit, the canvas has got to relax and soften around you.

All told, it’s around a 10-12 week process for your first bespoke suit. You have to realise there is a bit of back and forth sometimes, but if you’re willing to be patient and put in the time, you will be much happier. It’s worth the wait.

What’s special about bespoke is that you get so personal. That’s a real honour for us

Why is bespoke witnessing a renaissance now? I think there are so many opposites to this process in the commercial world: everything is now, now, now. There’s something special about knowing that you are investing in something which is going to last you potentially a lifetime.

Bespoke in its identity can only get stronger as time goes on. With all these ideas recently, “the suit is dead” or “we’re all going to live in casualwear”, it’s just a knee jerk reaction to the rubbish situation we’re in. You can never disregard quality and good service. At the end of the day, I think that’s what most people would always want in some way or form. Online retail can’t compare with that.

In the last ten years, there has been a resurgence in people wanting quality: “Buy once and buy well,” is something I very much believe in. And I think that’s true of most people. They want to be really thoughtful about what they are purchasing, especially if it’s an investment piece or if it’s a high value.

There’ll always be a place for formalwear in some sense, whether that means the suit is a slightly more relaxed fit or we change some of the small details, sure, but tradition in a form will always be there. The world is always looking for a quick fix for the situation – ‘This is next, this is now’– but I think there’s something reassuringly stable about a suit. It’s the perfect remedy to the crazy-relaxed stylings of the last 18 months.

Who knows? Maybe we will see the return of the Dandy movement or something similar.”

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