As Hamlet never said: ‘To buy or to bespeak? That is the question.’ It is an existential question worth pondering, and one that is answered as much by the heart as the head.
Bespoke tailoring is about more than clothes: it is an entire culture of which the best garments that money can buy and the human hand can make are the tangible product.
And on the individual level it is a habit that soon becomes an addiction. My grandfather had beautiful clothes many of which I wore and when it came to getting my own things made Mr Stamp of Broad Street in Oxford was my first tailor. Although it was 30 years ago, I still remember giving him a waistcoat from 1937 to copy. It happened to have belonged to a Spitfire test pilot who had lived near Oxford and had been made at Castell’s where Mr Stamp had been an apprentice. He looked at it closely, then turned to me and told me the name of the man who had sewn the buttonholes and how much the cloth had cost per yard half a century before.
I was hooked. Without knowing it, I had embarked on a journey that would, in the last year of the last century, lead me up the steps in front of No. 11 Savile Row.
To cross the threshold of Huntsman may be just one step, but it is also a giant leap and like all giant leaps a little daunting. Huntsman is the Vatican of bespoke tailoring, a mythical name, tailor to kings and Hollywood royalty as well as the home of the fabled one button coat made in checked tweeds of an almost magical power. To be truthful I would not have made that leap had Terry Haste, my own cutter not started work at Huntsman, also home to the legendary head cutters Brian Hall and Colin Hammick and now led by the talented co-head cutters Messrs Carey and Carnera.
The weight of history can be felt here. And although with time that long room; with the fire flickering in the grate and the stags’ heads and time-faded royal warrants on the wall; may become familiar, but will always remains special.
There are of course practical benefits to having a suit made for you and for you alone: it will be as individual as you are, there will be no compromises on fit, everything will be exactly as you want it
A visit to Huntsman is accompanied by a sense of occasion, after all the conception of a new garment is an important business, but an enjoyable one too. The inspection of cloths and linings; the selection of trimmings and the discussion of styles all act as an amuse bouche stimulating the sense of pleasurable anticipation. Compared to buying a ready-to- wear suit, bespoke tailoring offers choice, think of it like moving from black and white television with three channels to the HD multichannel, multicolour, on-demand 24-hour banquet of entertainment available today.
There are of course practical benefits to having a suit made for you and for you alone: it will be as individual as you are, there will be no compromises on fit, everything will be exactly as you want it. While taking measurements, the cutter will assess your physique; optimising its benefits and concealing its flaws. Pockets will be where you want them and in dimensions to accommodate exactly what you want to put in them. For the frequent traveller a cloth that holds its shape might be recommended; for the outdoorsman a stout tweed; for summer flaneur linens in all colours of the spectrum… that’s another thing about tailoring, it opens the eyes to a world of possibility: professional and social engagements are transformed into sartorial opportunities.
It is hard to be unimpressed by the miracle of tailoring: how a set of figures read off a measuring tape and translated into a paper pattern, becomes something that almost lives – a second skin in which to feel supremely comfortable. And what is more, it is possible to see this miracle taking place over the course of the fittings. The first seemingly rough hewn pieces of cloth and canvas held together with large white stitches take on a refinement over the weeks as minute alterations are made here and there: so that checks match perfectly, the back and front of the coat are balanced, the break of the trousers on the shoes is calculated and such questions as to width of lapel, depth of pocket flap and the inclusion or otherwise of brace buttons or turn-ups are answered. It is a collaborative process, cutter using his or her eye and experience to interpret the wishes and requirements of the customer.
And then the final movement comes when the gestation is at an end and the suit is born, a source of pride, pleasure and the ineffable sense of well being that knowing oneself to be impeccably dressed bestows. A bespoke suit, will, if cared for properly, remain a faithful companion throughout life; and as subsequent generations will have the pleasure of discovering, throughout the lives of those who come after you.
Nick Foulkes, January 2016
Nick Foulkes, at huntsman for the launch of his acclaimed Bernard Buffet biography