The Bespoke Controversy
What’s in a word?
In 2008, a complaint was filed in the UK with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) against Sartoriani, a shop that advertised their suits as “bespoke,” a term previously used by Savile Row tailors for high-quality handmade clothing. According to David Sapsted of The National:
A member of the public complained to the advertising board, saying that bespoke indicated that suits were made from start to finish by hand, while the Sartoriani suits were cut by machine abroad and then adjusted by hand in the United Kingdom. The latter, he claimed, were merely made-to-measure, not bespoke.
The ASA rejected the complaint.
In their ruling, the ASA explained that while both “bespoke” and “made-to-measure” were “made-to-order” and thus distinct from retail suits, and while “customers would expect bespoke suits to be tailored to their measurements and specifications,” the majority “would not expect that suit to be fully handmade with the pattern cut from scratch. We concluded that the word ‘bespoke’ to describe the advertised suits was unlikely to mislead.”
Furthermore, the ASA added, the discrepancy in price between Sartoriani suits and Savile Row suits would also make it unlikely that the two could be confused.
The ruling “infuriated the Savile Row tailors, who have increasingly complained that they are under threat in an era of cheap imports and off-the-peg suits.” A spokesman for the Savile Row Bespoke Association commented:
“A bespoke suit is cut by an individual and made by highly skilled individual craftsmen. The pattern is made specifically for the customer and the finished suit will take a minimum of 50 hours of hand work and require a series of fittings.”
What’s the difference between a machine-made suit adjusted by hand and a suit made entirely by hand?
According to a Forbes.com article from 2008 by Vidya Ram, something between $4,000 and $28,000. “Suits at Sartoriani cost between 595 pounds ($1,174) and 5,000 pounds ($9,860), while suits at (Savile Row) Norton & Sons start at 2,920 pounds ($5,759) and go up to 15,000 pounds ($29,583).” Charlotte Brewer, head of marketing for Sartoriani explains:
“We create a product which is made uniquely for the customer, to their specifications, to their measurements, to everything that they want. What word other than bespoke encompasses all of that?” … “The majority of our clients haven’t worn bespoke clothing before,” she says. “They have bought off-the-peg and now want something that truly fits them without paying astronomical prices. That’s what we are offering.”
To John Ferrigamo of John Ferrigamo Custom Designs, who creates both made-to-order and bespoke suits, the difference is a matter of time and art. In an advertisement in The Epoch Times, he explains: a made-to-measure suit is often “associated with affordability” and produced by a team of tailors using both machine and hand tools, and the customer can choose fabrics and select from options such as single or double-breast, lapel styles, special linings, button placement, etc.; a bespoke suit is “a work of art,” almost completely sewn by hand by a single tailor, and carries a higher price tag “because of the quality of craftsmanship and handwork involved.” Both made-to-measure and bespoke involve precise fittings.
For Ferrigamo, another threat to the status of “bespoke” is its increased association with things other than high-quality handmade clothing:
“I’m disappointed with how the term bespoke is being used; custom furniture, jewelry, condos, beauty salons. Where’s the respect for the art? The term bespoke is to be used for high quality handmade custom clothing only. That was established by the Savile Row tailors of England as far back as the 18th century.”
CustomMade artisans don’t use the word “bespoke” often in their profiles or gallery descriptions, which is not surprising considering the vast majority of our makers reside in the US. However, the term is used on CustomMade to describe a range of services including custom apparel, custom furniture, custom music instruments, and custom automotive accessories.
If the bespoke/made-to-measure controversy seems distant to American readers, there is a confrontation brewing in the US, perhaps with less acrimony (or at least fanfare, for now), between custom and customization with some parallels to the UK dispute. Mass-customization services by mass production businesses have opened a world of custom experience to the average consumer, but where is the “single tailor” in this process? Not only can consumers choose colors, designs, and styles for their purchases at companies’ websites, in the brave new world of additive manufacturing, they can also upload 3D models of objects and have them “printed” in 3D. However, are these mere adjustments to existing patterns? While there have been no claims (yet) to the exclusive use of the term “custom,” what impact will the popularity and convenience of online “customization” have on consumer attitudes towards traditional custom manufacturing?
Can bespoke and made-to-measure, custom and customization coexist? Are there markets enough for both modes of production to survive? Please share your thoughts.