Sew Fine

The bespoke suit is the apex of fine tailoring. But house styles differ greatly. Here, an anatomy of six custom-made looks.

Kiton

Silhouette
Long, sleek, columar.

Cut
Contoured to the body, with very high armholes, tapering sleeves, narrow trouser legs.

Signature Details
Short collar, natural shoulder, high gorge..

Price $10,000 on average

For An Appointment
Fax 212-702-9117 for nearest retail outlet..

Enzo D'Orsi is the ultimate contradiction in terms—a laconic Neapolitan, as parsimonious with words as Gary Cooper. He occupies a singular position at this top Neapolitan house, for he is in effect a private tailor: It is Enzo, and Enzo alone, who makes the company's new K 50 suit from start to finish. (He comes to the United States once a month to meet clients.) So named because it requires 50 hours to complete, this suit is Kiton's most exclusive model—only 15 to 20 will be made this year for the American market.

The K 50 follows the lines of the body so closely, yet lies so lightly, that it seems to be poured on. That's starkly evident in the sleeve-ends, which taper right down the forearm, making the jacket more like a shirt. ("That shows it's made just for you," Enzo said in a garrulous moment.) Yet the suit feels not tight but light (almost immaterial, if you will), especially when done in 14 micron wool, as it is here. That's because the canvas is made of very fine linen, not cotton, and contains virtually no horsehair—just a dab in the chest. The shoulder is completely natural (no padding) and is shaped solely by sewing. The only padding is at the sleevehead, for support. Here, Enzo takes Ovattina, a very light, thin cotton, cuts it in half, then molds and sews it in. Incidentally, those puckers in the picture are not wrinkles; they are a hallmark of Neapolitan sleeves that are set and sewn by hand.

The K 50 suit boasts an elongated silhouette, longer in fact than a regular Kiton custom model "because that's how Enzo likes it," I was told. He achieves this look by placing the shoulder seams well back and the armholes and gorge (the spot where the collar meets the lapel) very high—almost on the shoulder. (In most suits it lies closer to the clavicle.) This makes the collar shorter and therefore harder to tailor because it has neither weight nor length to hold it in place. In this suit that's accomplished through the shaping, stretching, and sewing of the collar fabric—and it is beautifully done, as are small touches, also done by hand, like reinforcing the inside pocket.

Finally, and perhaps most impressive, Enzo doesn't cut a pattern for this suit; he chalks the measurements right onto the fabric. Granted, he does press the suit at each step to fix the shape, as do most tailors, even when they make custom models. Nonetheless, more than most custom suits, this one is the product of virtuoso sewing. Even at Kiton, no one is quite sure how Enzo does it. And he's not talking.


Alan Flusser

Silhouette
Elegant drape, inspired by 1930s Savile Row tailoring.

Cut
Soft, slightly extended shoulders,full chest and back, implied waist.

Signature Details
Soft lines overall, natural shoulder, long lapels, full-cut trousers, sewn-in suspender tabs.

Price
$1,995-$2,696

For An Appointment
212-888-7100

Alan Flusser is a great Anglophile, and his garments take their inspiration from Savile Row of the 1930s ("when Britannia ruled the seas and Savile Row ruled men's seams," he quips), and specifically from Frederick Scholte, tailor to the Duke of Windsor. The hallmark of a Flusser custom suit is its drape: It is cut to swathe the body, not to outline it. Its ambition is to make the wearer seem a paragon of unstudied elegance. (Think English aristocrat at play.)

"Traditionally the Italians achieved elegance through severity of line," Flusser states. "We achieve it through softness of line." What he means is that Italian suits tended to streamline the wearer by fitting closely and being columnar in their proportions—that is, the shoulders were often cut narrower to align them with the waist.

The proportions of a Flusser suit are the antithesis—more triangle than column. This is done by extending the shoulder line slightly so it aligns with the outer arm on each side. This also allows "the jacket's fabric to fall . . . in a smooth, unbroken line all the way down the sleeve," Flusser writes in his book, Style and the Man (HarperCollins, 1996). The shoulders themselves are soft, and the back and chest are cut full so the garment hangs elegantly rather than flows tightly—so that the jacket wears more like a cardigan. And rather than nipping in the jacket to create a waistline, Flusser "implies one" through subtle proportioning and some sleight of hand. "Because of the fullness in our chest," he says, "the effect is to give a man more of a waistline than with the typically trimmer-chested coats of the Italian tailors." Flusser also cuts the lapel line as long as possible (consistent with the client's physique) to reinforce the contrast with the upper jacket, and to bring the eye to the waist-button. "It's the fulcrum of the coat," says Flusser.

That doesn't mean a Flusser custom suit fits loosely; indeed, the armholes are cut high, just as in Italian suits, as this has long been recognized as the best way of allowing the wearer to move his arms without having the jacket ride up his back. However, they're egg-shaped, not round, a Flusser refinement. The overall look, however, is utterly different. Flusser calls it "disciplined softness," and "controlled fullness," and says this style of tailoring allows the jacket to be worn all day long. He also has a full line of exclusive furnishings to accessorize the look.

Most custom suitmakers dwell on the jacket because it is in the eye of the beholder and allows the greatest expression of house style. The tailoring in trousers, in contrast, tends to be unseen (a hand-set waistband) or hidden, such as a button fly. Flusser, however, feels that trousers are critical in continuing both the line and drape of the jacket. Thus he has them cut full and with a slightly longer rise—the distance from the top of the waistband to the point where the inside seams of the pant legs join—so they fill the cavity at the bottom of the jacket. "Otherwise the jacket looks like it is cutting you in two," he explains. "If that hole is filled, the impression of height is elongated."

The trousers also have suspender tabs sewn in, as they are meant to be worn with braces because they hold the pants on the waistline better than a belt does. (Flusser is the only tailor who does this, aside from Anderson & Sheppard.) Suspenders also better maintain the line of the pleats—which are English-style, meaning they face inward, rather than Continental style, which face outward. The trousers also have side tabs so you can snug-up the waistband.

Ultimately, Alan Flusser is a classicist; his sartorial ideal is equilibrium, harmony, proportion (which he calls "the bedrock of style longevity"). Perhaps that's why the feeling a Flusser custom-made suit engenders is not drop-dead elegance or cigarette-holder slenderness. Rather, the word that came to my mind first was "substantial," as though I'd just been made partner. A Flusser custom suit is more Wall Street than Via Montenapoleone, more T-bill than IPO. It's intended, as Flusser wrote about traditional worsted cloth, to "help a man convey a stature both confidently masculine and quietly measured."


Attolini

Silhouette
Streamlined and racy.

Cut
Close-fitting, very high armhole, pronounced waist suppression, narrow trouser legs.

Signature Details
Shirt-sleeve shoulder, trumpet sleeve, fish-mouth lapel notches, barchetta breast pocket, pancerina trouser closure, button fly.

Price
$8,900-$9,500

For An Appointment
Fax 212-246-0034 for nearest retail outlet.

Try doing this with another manufacturer's garment," says Massimiliano Attolini, rolling the jacket of a Cesare Attolini suit, the company's custom-made label, into a ball and then kneading it vigorously. The fabric easily gives way, oozing up between Attolini's splayed fingers as if it were viscous, yet flowing right back into shape when he puts the jacket on again. The point of this demonstration is to show off the garment's softness, lightness, and resilience, the sartorial trinity at Attolini.

In the United States, Attolini is one of the least known Italian suitmakers, yet in Naples the Attolini family has been a seminal influence on men's clothing. It was Vincenzo Attolini, the grandfather of Massimiliano and himself a tailor, who helped create the modern Neapolitan style by taking the hardness, heaviness, and stiffness out of Savile Row suits. His son, Cesare Attolini, is a legendary tailor in Naples—he can reputedly draw a suit pattern by eye—and he founded the company in 1989 after working for Kiton and Isaia, both prominent Neapolitan houses.

There is something racy (even rakish) about the cut of a Cesare Attolini suit. Look at the jacket. It flares at the shoulder, nips in markedly at the waist, tapers concavely in the sleeves, has pockets slightly higher than normal, and a bottom edge rounded and butterflied. It's easy to see a Ducati motorcycle as the perfect accessory.

Less apparent to the eye are a wealth of subtle peacock flourishes, such as the upper sleeve, which is shaped like the bell of a trumpet (in fact, it's called a trumpet sleeve); the fish-mouth lapel notch (so called because it is wider than the norm); and the three-button strappato (the rolling of the lapel to the second button while also placing the uppermost button so that it is hidden by the lapel curve). The breast pocket, called a barchetta, or "little boat," for its curvature, mimics the line of the chest. ("A straight pocket looks like a Band-Aid," Attolini says.) Even the back of the jacket is tailored to flow with the body. Rather than dropping straight down from the shoulder blades, it curves in from there to follow the spine down to the small of the back, then comes out over the seat. It's this detailing, as well as the use of linen canvas, which is much lighter but harder to work with than cotton, that accounts for the 45 to 48 hours of hand-tailoring that go into this suit.

The jacket shoulder is a virtuoso display of tailoring—and the heart of the garment, according to Attolini. Those little puffs in the fabric at the sleevehead are the hallmark of a shirt-sleeve shoulder, so called because the sleeve is attached without using an overlap of fabric. Rather, the Attolini tailors use a lip-stitch to join the fabric ends, then they roll about five centimeters of the fabric into the sleevehead and sew it again. The second stitching produces the slight rippling. It is a difficult technique, and the fact that it's hand-done by different tailors is why no two Attolini jackets are exactly alike. ("Elegance is not perfection," says Massimiliano.)

Attolini trousers have one of the best closures I've seen on any suit. It consists of a pancerina, or "little belly," a strip of cloth that comes across the waist and buttons inside the trouser, plus two buttons, slightly offset, at the waistline. (The button fly is optional.) The waistband is very soft and is set in by hand. As with most Neapolitan suits, the trousers have a short rise and narrow legs.

Even if you can drive a stick, it can be a step up to handling the clutch of a Lamborghini. So it is with this suit. The armholes are cut higher than most custom suits, and the jacket, even when made longer for the American market, still doesn't cover the derriè re completely. The lapels also come up high to balance the forward pitch of the shoulder, resulting in a very pleasing framing of the neck and head. But you just may not recognize yourself the first time you wear the suit and look in the mirror. And what's wrong with that?


Jack Simpson for Dormeui

Silhouette
Long and gentlemanly.

Cut
Fitted but not tight to the body, broad chest, moderately high armhole, suppressed and slightly higher waist than normal.

Signature Details
Harmonized patterns and colors, contrasting vest, strong shoulders, peak lapels, in-line vest and trouser pleats.

Price
$2,500-$5,000

For An Appointment
212-396-8888

Jack Simpson gives men the courage to go boldly where they have never gone before. Which means into a sartorial world of rich patterns juxtaposed and who-would-have- thought color matches, where layering is an art form—even when it's just adding a pure white vest to an exquisite blue suit to make it a piece of formalwear. In lesser hands the result would be dandyish; but in Simpson's all that richness is beautifully restrained by the conservative tailoring (he loves English fabric); perfect pitch for proportion and harmony; and an eagle eye for accessorizing. (Dormeuil has a full line of shirts, neckties, and other furnishings.) Like Alan Flusser, Simpson, who became president and design director of Dormeuil in November 1999, doesn't clothe you in a suit, but in a sensibility.

The three-piece suit exemplifies Simpson's firm conviction that "patterns are best complemented by other patterns." The fabric, worsted cashmere, is a small hound's-tooth check with subtle windowpane overplaid. The contrasting solid vest provides the foil, and the blue striped shirt, says Simpson, is actually the key to establishing the overall balance. "A white shirt would have drawn too much attention to itself," he says. The goal is that no one detail stands out, but that the eye is constantly presented with color harmony and pattern contrast.

The foundation for Simpson's aesthetic is an old-fashioned appreciation for masculinity. He cuts his jackets longer than normal (five-eighths of an inch in size 41 long, for instance) to make the torso look tall, and he creates shoulders that he describes as "strong." That means they are lightly padded, softly roped, and slightly widened to maximize the contrast with the moderately suppressed waistline. The chest is also broad and the lapels slightly wider than usual —but only if your physique can take it—to draw the eye to the shoulder area. Peak lapels are the house style, betraying Simpson's love of men's clothing from the '30s and '40s.

Simpson is also a big fan of the vest: Dormeuil does over 50 percent of its suits with them. Simpson feels they give the client a suit with more flexibility than a straight two-piece does. For instance, the jacket and vest could be coupled with a pair of gray flannel trousers to create a completely different look, a bonus if you travel on business. But it's also true that the vest puts yet another card into Simpson's hand, one that he plays beautifully. Just look at how the tuck pleats in the vest harmonize with the trouser pleats. It's proof of Jack Simpson's first principle: Deftly handled, more is more.


Oxxford Bespoke-Est 2000

Silhouette
Slim, long hourglass.

Cut
Close to the body, with high armholes and a sharply nipped-in waist.

Signature Details
High waist-button, flared sides, angled vents, longer jacket.

Price
$3,500-$9,000

For An Appointment
800-225-5135 or 617-262-6100

The Oxxford Bespoke-Est 2000 suit is a quite conscious attempt by a venerable American clothier—the company was founded in 1916—to show that it's not just "All America, Wall Street, George Bush." Those are the words that Mike Cohen, Oxxford Clothes' senior vice president of sales, comes up with off the top of his head when I ask him how the company has usually been thought of. And he's right: Oxxford does what might be called Sartorial American CEO better than anyone.

Bespoke 2000 is a collaboration with Murray Pearlstein, head of Louis Boston, the only place the suit is available. Cohen describes the suit as "a modern approach to Savile Row tailoring." By that he means that the jacket reflects the English tradition by being longer (by a quarter inch) and more fitted than the usual Oxxford cut, but modern in that it is lighter and softer in its construction than one you would find on Savile Row. That probably reflects the influence of Pearlstein, who is a great admirer of the light tailoring characteristic of the Neapolitan school of tailoring.

The Bespoke 2000's hourglass silhouette is one of the most distinctive of the suits profiled here. The shoulders are wide, very soft, and natural; the armholes are cut higher than usual for Oxxford and are sharply defined; and the gorge is placed slightly higher for a longer, slimmer look. But the most distinctive styling element is the pronounced suppression that begins well north of the waist—almost at the top of the rib cage, in fact. The slight flair at the bottom of the jacket and the sharply angled vent finish off the line—and echo the 18th-century riding-coat origins of the Savile Row suit.

In other respects the suit is pure Oxxford, however. Every seam is hand-turned and hand-cross-stitched for strength. The jacket has bellows pockets , so called because they open inward to keep the contents from breaking the external line of the jacket. (Oxxford actually has a U.S. patent on the design.) The trousers have a patented one-piece back, which provides a better shape to the small of the back. The lapel and undercollar are hand-padded—Oxxford is the only company that still makes them this way—and the lapel has the widest boutonniere buttonhole of any suit made today.

With the Bespoke 2000 suit Oxxford takes the idea of custom to its logical extreme in that it uses only fabrics made in small-run bolts. In most cases Oxxford has only enough material in a given pattern to make one suit or sports jacket. So even in navy- blue, a Bespoke 2000 suit is one-of-a-kind.


Loro Piana

Silhouette
Long and slim, emphasizing the legs.

Cut
Close and tight, but also soft and supple.

Signature Details
Short, butterflied jacket, trousers with no break, flared lapel pinstripes on double-breasted suits.

Price
$2,500-$4,000

For An Appointment
212-980-7961

Sergio thinks, Sergio believes, Sergio feels: These phrases are the mantra at the Loro Piana boutique in Manhattan. They refer to co-chairman Sergio Loro Piana, perennially named one of the most elegant men in Italy and in his own company the absolute monarch on questions of style.

Tailoring is not the mainstay of Loro Piana, fabric is. The company is the world's largest buyer and weaver of fine wool and cashmere, and it is much better known for its sportswear and accessories than it is for custom suits. But if you come here for the latter you'll get two things: One of the best price/value relationships in a custom suit in America, and a garment that's the essence of Milanese tailoring, which means a soft-shouldered, soft-chested suit. It is much more supple than one from Savile Row ("You put one of those jackets on the floor and they stand up by themselves," jokes Umberto, Loro Piana's master tailor in New York) but not as light as one from Naples. The tailoring is first-rank; what makes the suit singular is the way the Milanese style has been distilled by Sergio Loro Piana.

More than most suits, this one emphasizes the legs. The trousers, have almost no break at the cuff and they're cut narrow, so they virtually outline the lower body—fabulous if you're tall, but also if you're of moderate height. After all, the original customer was the Milanese man, who tends to be smaller-boned, shorter, and lighter than his American counterpart. The jacket is cut on the short side, dividing the body in half so almost the entire leg is visible. (Since I'm tall, Umberto actually made it even shorter.) Smaller elements, such as the placement of the trouser pockets right on the side seam and the prominent butterflying of the jacket bottom reinforce the emphasis on the lower body, while also adding to the streamlined feel of the suit.

In pursuit of a long, athletic silhouette, Sergio places the gorge high and the armhole, too, and gives the shoulders a hint of roping. On double-breasted suits, he insists that the lapels be very wide and that pinstripes flare out at the top of them—a very smart touch, actually. Jacket sleeves are shorter than most to give cuffs the limelight.

Just don't ask for a single-breasted peak-lapel suit: Sergio doesn't think it's an elegant cut, and therefore Loro Piana will politely suggest an alternative. "We lose a lot of business because there are things we won't do," says Loro Piana's North America president, Pier Luigi Guerci. In this homogenized, customer-is-king world, you have to admire that.