By Alan Flusser
Quality is not an accident. In the case of tailored clothing, it is the logical outcome of mating top-notch ingredients with highly skilled labor. Unlike fashion or personal taste, genuine quality is neither subjective nor provisional. Although quiet in demeanor, it tends to assert itself with age. Like a vintage Bordeaux or handmade shoe, its propensity to please increases over time.
Years ago, the aim of all masculine costume was for the wearer to look like those privileged enough to afford fine clothes. For the Brit, this meant bespeaking his needs to a tailor from London’s legendary Savile Row. An Italian would put himself in the artisan hands of a local sartoria. With today’s sophisticated male once again embracing the mantle of high-quality, tailor-made looking fashion, many men want to know how to avoid the false economy of the poorly made.
There are three hallmarks of authenticity that distinguish the top suiting cloths. First, the cloth must consist of 100% natural fibers, preferably fine-spun worsted wool. Second, the cloth must be constructed from two-ply fibers running in both the warp (vertical) and the woof (horizontal) directions. Many better cloth makers use two-ply yarns in the warp, but substitute single-ply yarns in the the woof. While the cloth can still feel expensive, such construction compromises its ability to resist wrinkling and wear well over the long run. The final yardstick in validating a cloth’s claim to superiority is in its origins. The best fabrics are either produced in mills situated in England’s Huddersfield region or from those found in Biella, Italy. Because of their history, manufacturing culture, and reputation, these are the only mills still capable of producing cloth at such rarefied standards of quality.
With regard to the tailoring part of the equation, two elements determine the degree of a garmen’s intrinsic quality: the amount of time invested in its production, and the skill level of those who craft it. Time has to do with amount of handwork and number of individual operations involved in each garment, while skill level reflects the amount and consistency of craftsmanship found at each stage of the manufacturing process. Ideally, the ultimate goal of purchasing expensive tailored clothing is to come away with something that looks as it if were custom made. To be able to assess a fine suit’s relative value as well as its likelihood of molding to the wearer’s unique physique without losing the integrity of its own silhouette, several questions need to be answered.
One, are the garment’s fronts created by fusing its layers together, or have they been attached to a floating piece of canvas by hand? Second, are its armholes, shoulders, linings, and collar set and sewn completely by hand from start to finish, or are just parts of each area hand-tailored? Are the visible seams stitched by hand for purely cosmetic appeal, or do they represent a similar degree of handwork underneath? How each of these areas is constructed plays a crucial role in helping your off-the-peg purchase to take on the subtle individuality of its owner while maintaining itself over its extended lifetime.
Of course, the definitive test will occur prior to beholding yourself swathed in front of the fitting mirror. If, as you are sliding this gossamer-weight piece of handiwork over your shoulders, images of settling down into a down-cushioned sofa suddenly come to mind, you have probably come across the genuine article. And, in the process, you will have learned what the aristocracy knew all along — comfort is the ultimate luxury.
This essay originally appeared in the Saks Fifth Avenue menswear magazine for Fall, 1998.