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From Brooklyn to Mumbai to London, Bespoke Tailoring Shows Signs of Growth

Seizing on a widespread return to more formal dressing, small and medium-sized tailoring studios across the world are growing successful businesses. BoF spoke to three young tailors in Brooklyn, Mumbai and London.
Thom Sweeney Showroom | Source: Thom Sweeney
By
  • Suleman Anaya

LONDON, United Kingdom — On a quiet street in Brooklyn, the demand for handmade suits from the area's concentration of young professionals is so high that a husband-and-wife team of haberdashers has moved their base of operations to a larger space just to keep up. Meanwhile in Mumbai, a tailor who was making carpets and home textiles five years ago is sewing so many suits a month that his status as one of the city's best-kept secrets seems unlikely to last. And here in London, a well-known pair of tailors that set up shop in 2007 has witnessed such a pronounced expansion of its American business that a pop-up showroom in New York is being planned.

Significantly, the growth is being driven by young men, often in their 20's and 30's, many of whom who were not previously able to afford or particularly interested in custom suiting not all of them in professions like financial services or law that normally require them to wear suits to work. It's a well-documented fact that American television programmes like "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire" have prompted a generation of men that grew up on video games and baggy pants to adopt a more formal, buttoned-up style of dress, more often associated with their grandfathers. On top of this, in certain geographies and sectors, the challenging job market has made proper, more 'grown-up' personal presentation more important than it once was.

But bespoke tailoring businesses are not easy to run profitably. Indeed, because of the intensive labour requirements, they are notoriously difficult businesses to scale. Whether a tailor makes one, ten or a hundred handmade suits, each unit costs the same to produce. And yet bespoke tailoring businesses seems to be alive and kicking.

Earlier this month, Alexander McQueen launched both bespoke and made-to-measure services at its Savile Row men's store. And when Berluti, the LVMH-owned brand, helmed by Antoine Arnault, decided to expand into clothing, bespoke and made-to-measure lines were integral to the label's new positioning. But perhaps a more telling indicator of the resurgence of bespoke and made-to-measure suiting are the small tailors, who, without the advantage of a powerful brand name, are nonetheless building successful businesses.

In New York, husband-and-wife team Daniel and Brenna Lewis' bespoke tailoring business, Brooklyn Tailors, has doubled in size every year since they launched it, in 2007, from their 600-square-foot studio in Clinton Hill. Having outgrown the retail store they opened, in 2011, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which also served as their base of operations last week, Brooklyn Tailors moved into a new, large studio that will serve as both office and space for fittings.

"We carved out a niche for a completely different customer. Most of our customers are in their late twenties to late thirties and many are in creative professions writers, photographers, ad agency creatives, musicians. They don't have a ton of extra money, but they want to make an investment in something that they love and will wear for a long time," Brenna Lewis told BoF.

Brooklyn Tailors aims to take some of the stuffiness out of the bespoke tailoring experience and if their store space feels unassuming and welcoming, it's not incidental. They have also placed emphasis on affordability. "We aren't just catering to a super wealthy clientele. From the beginning, we wanted our clothes to be affordable enough that our friends artists, musicians, creative types could afford them."

In practice, that often means advising customer against the most luxurious fabric choices. "Instead of pushing the customer to go for the Super 200's wool or the pure cashmere, we're steering him towards a well-made Super 120s cloth or a Japanese cotton. These are things that we love aesthetically, are going to last longer than the uber-luxury fabrics, and are quite a bit more affordable."

“Because we've made it a priority to offer a better level of quality at an accessible price, we've also been careful to develop a lean, efficient business infrastructure, putting more money into the product, and less into other extraneous expenses such as advertising, PR, retail space and trade shows,” added Lewis.

“Diversity is also key for scale. Having a store, a web shop and a wholesale business allows us to continue growing in other ways at times when we have maxed out our bespoke calendar,” she continued, referring to the company’s ready-to-wear collection.

On the other side of the world, in Mumbai, Govinda Mehta is considered one of the city’s best-kept tailoring secrets amongst fashion-conscious young men, who flock to his tiny, four-year-old tailoring shop, in the burgeoning Parel neighbourhood, for bespoke Western-style suits in fashionable cuts.

Mehta’s success reflects the rise of a new generation of affluent young men in India — a country with a long and rich relationship with tailoring — who are increasingly turned onto style and fashion, a function of the increased availability and popularity of international brands and style magazines. Mehta also notes “the increase in the number of the undergraduates going overseas to study, something that used to be reserved for the privileged few.”

Mehta, who has no formal training as a tailor, founded his small tailoring enterprise, Raisson D’Être (the spelling relates to numerology), in 2009, after his family’s home textile manufacturing business was struck by bad fortune. As many of his friends already asked him for style advice because of his own, sharp taste in clothes — influenced by subscriptions to a dozen European and American men’s fashion magazines — Mehta saw an opportunity.

Today, he employs two master cutters, a team of up to ten tailors (depending on demand), a finishing and packing team of two and a production and quality control supervisor and has made over 2500 suits for more than 1500 clients, who range from young entrepreneurs and IT professionals to Bollywood actors and a few politicians. While Mehta declined to reveal an exact figure, the company’s revenues are in the six digits, in dollar terms, he said, and estimated to be growing at 30 percent per year. He also runs a consulting service, managing wardobes for clients who tend to be young, foreign-educated members of India’s great industrialist families.

"There couldn't be a better time for people like me to exist today. With the advent of number of international brands coming into India — from Gucci and Zegna to Hugo Boss — that have been hugely successful, more and more men want to carve out a more individualised sense of style as opposed to what's available to every other person," said Mehta.

In London, Thom Sweeney, the bespoke tailoring atelier launched in 2007 by Luke Sweeney and Thom Whiddett, are taking their business to the next level based primarily on two factors: America and a younger, more fashionable customer.

Whiddett and Sweeney started going to New York for fittings in 2002, when they were both still working for East End tailor Timothy Everest. They continued making five stateside trips per year when they started their own business. But seeing increased demand from US customers, the label is now planning to launch a New York pop-up showroom for 6 weeks of the year. For a long time, a healthy American business has been an important source of revenues for Savile Row tailors, but for Thom Sweeney, their customers have been getting younger and younger.

Luke Sweeney attributes the phenomenon to the influence of magazines and journalists that have advocated modern-looking suits, as well as to influential men in the public eye — athletes, musicians, actors — who began dressing up around 2008. Clients include men in “finance and property, party planners and even fashion designers,” said Sweeney.

“More than ever, tailors have to be more accessible and knowledgeable about what’s going on in fashion. Today, a customer may come in who tried on a designer jacket he loved, but it wasn’t quite right for his body. So they come to us and say I like these elements from this designer. We have to be in tune with what’s going in department stores and translate it into something made by hand,” he continued.

In the end, it “makes people want to go back for more,” said Sweeney, who said over 9 in 10 customers come back for another suit. “It’s an addictive thing, because people do take notice. Guys who thought they would never dress up, suddenly discover they love wearing suits. All it takes is for them to own their first good suit.”

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