Bespoke. For men who care about fashion, it’s an almost magical word, one that conjures up images of sophisticated gentlemen discussing the virtues of various cuts and cloths over cups of warm tea and a tailor’s measuring tape.
For them – for us – a perfectly proportioned suit, hand-cut and sewn to complement the unique forms of our imperfect bodies, is one of the great luxuries in life that comes with a price tag to match.
But now, thanks to the miracles of globalization, I can have that experience – or so I am informed by the mass email that appears in my inbox every three months or so – right here in Edmonton. Better still, I don’t have to part with one of my kidneys to pay for it. A bespoke suit for under $600? Seems too good to be true.
I’d resisted the grammatically-challenged entreaties from Hiras for months on those grounds. After all, first-class tailoring at coach prices belongs in the same category as eat-what-you-want diets and risk-free investments – oxymoronic traps for the gullible and the naive. But eventually my curiosity took over, and I ended up in an eighth-floor hotel room at the Holiday Inn Express. It felt more like I was about to buy a black-market stereo or conduct a drug deal than get fitted for a fine piece of clothing. It didn’t help that the man I was meeting was named Sham.
While I pride myself on being a smart consumer, it took less than five minutes for Sham to move me away from the $579 price point featured so prominently in the promotional materials. “Too light for Edmonton’s climate,” he said. I ended up with a rich navy fabric with a windowpane pattern that would cost me closer to $1,000.
I was confident that the suit would fit properly given that Sham had spent a solid 15 minutes taking measure of every conceivable aspect and angle of my body. He even took a series of pictures, posing me against a wall in the room’s foyer and capturing my posture with a point-and-shoot camera in a scene that could have been mistaken for a casting call for a low-budget porn flick.
But for all the careful measurements that my tailor took (and all the reassurances he offered that the suit would actually conform to them), there was something unmistakably askew, like I’d entered the tailoring world’s version of the uncanny valley. Hiras is a Hong Kong-based business that’s been sending tailors around the world for 50 years – at least, that’s what its website says – but it felt like it hadn’t updated its business practices much since it got started; for example, I was billed in Hong Kong dollars, and my credit card was processed using a manual imprint machine the likes of which I hadn’t seen in many years. It all felt like a historical re-enactment of a commercial transaction rather than the real thing happening in real time.
For the purposes of comparison, and because I’m a clotheshorse, I decided to buy another suit from a different company. Suitsupply is a Dutch operation that’s hugely popular in Europe and recently moved into the North American market. I decided to give it a try after reading positive reviews, including one by the Wall Street Journal, and found that its $639 Sienna line was similar in quality to a $3,000-plus Armani offering.
The suit arrived in less than a week, and while I was getting dinged more than $60 for the shipping on my Hiras suit, this one didn’t cost me anything extra. And I was free to return it at no cost to me if I didn’t like it. Best of all, it cost me less than half of what I’d paid for the Hiras suit that had yet to arrive.
When it did, I took both suits to Junko Daraseng, who runs a shop called Tony the Tailor on 104 Street and 102 Avenue.
“It’s not the worst I’ve seen,” said her son Alex – who’s seen plenty of made-to-measure suits come through the shop – of the Hiras suit. His mother was a bit more circumspect, but eventually her eye for detail overtook her commercially-informed tact and she started pointing out the flaws that she saw. The pick stitching on the lapel was too conspicuous for her taste, the boutonnire hole on the lapel was crooked, both the sleeves and the pant legs were uneven, the interior lining wasn’t finished properly at the point where it meets the rest of the coat and there was an aborted button hole.
The Suitsupply suit wasn’t perfect either, Junko said. The shoulders were a bit too big, and there was a tuft of extra fabric at the back near the armholes. But it’s a decent suit, she said, and the fact that it’s made from a thicker wool masked the weaknesses in its construction.
The Hiras suit’s thinner fabric, on the other hand, magnified its flaws. However, no amount of fabric could mask the misspelling of my name, otherwise thoughtfully stitched into the lining of the inside jacket.