Bespoke shirts used to be exclusive. Describing the nightclubs of Paris, Evelyn Waugh defined the gold standard of style: “shady young men in Charvet shirts sit round the bar repairing with powder-puff and lipstick the ravages of grenadine and crème de cacao.” The House of Charvet has clothed the likes of Charles Haughey, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and many an arms dealer from Zurich.
But one need no longer pay exorbitant prices at the Place Vendôme nor visit the cotton emporia of east Asia, where generations of US travelers, officials and GIs sauntered through aisles, chalk in hand, marking bolts of fabric to be shorn to their measure at a fraction of the price of Savile Row. (Let me confess it here: many’s the time I’ve used a trip to Asia to renew the wardrobe; if you are among the unlucky minority who have to wear suits to work, visiting a well-recommended tailor in places like Beijing, Hanoi and Bangkok can save enough money to cover your airfare.)
But times are changing, and now cheap clotheshorses can order custom made outfits from home. As the LA Times notes, the rise of e-tailors has made custom shirts more easily available to any aspiring dandy. Simply enter the required measurements, choose the fabric, collar, and details, and in a few short weeks your very own bespoke shirts will be assembled in Asia and delivered to your address.
The prices still don’t match what I’ve seen overseas, where you can often get a very nice custom shirt for what you would pay here at Costco for the factory kind, but mail order custom shirts are within reach of more and more shoppers. And my guess is those prices will fall. Already I can get measured for suits by a tailor in New York, and have the clothes made overseas for roughly what a comparable off the rack suit would cost here.
This trend will grow; the internet puts people who want custom suits and shirts together with people who want to make them. It cuts out the middlemen: the executives, the managers, the buyers for the big chains — but it empowers consumers. The family firm in Thailand or China that takes your order and makes your clothes gets a better price than they would working in a factory for a big company. You get cheaper clothes that better reflect your own sense of style and fit you better than anything Sears has in stock.
This system is still in its infancy, but more and more of us are going to enjoy access to custom design and to custom made clothes. And the trend will spread. Since before the industrial revolution, the textile industry has led change in technology and marketing. Today’s canny consumers are ordering their clothing direct from far away makers with exactly the features and materials they want; tomorrow it could be appliances and even cars that are ordered and assembled this way.