The notion of a bespoke $4,000-$5,000 suit may evoke vibes of dashingly handsome rich men, scuttling around in dark lounges on Madison Avenue, smoking cigars and counting their money while getting inseams measured. With the obvious high-end clientele, it makes one wonder..."How can you not get rich selling $4,000 suits?" Turns out, regardless of the price of the suit, custom tailors can barely turn profits.
Adam Davidson of Planet Money explored the bespoke tailoring business in New York City, home of some of the wealthiest clotheshounds in the world, and discovered, that tailors pose
an an odd riddle for our current economy. Why can’t a wealthy city — particularly at a time when the rich are doing so well — support a niche business that people are willing to pay for?... Even with a century-old reputation and a profoundly loyal customer base, it’s nearly impossible to get ahead. “There’s no scalability,” [Anda Rowland of Anderson & Shepherd] explained. “Whether we’re making 50 suits or 1 — each unit costs the same.”
Bespoke suits — like expensive couture gowns — are great for building a reputation, but they are lousy for business. And modern clothiers’ profits have long come from establishing a strong brand and then emblazoning it on all sorts of cheaper products, like fragrances, which can be mass-produced.
Davidson's exploration of the industry is fascinating, and well worth a four-minute read at The New York Times: What's a $4,000 Suit Worth?
Then, check out this accompanying piece on the Planet Money blog, which includes a graphic exploration of "what goes into making the three main types of men's suits — off-the-rack, made-to-measure and bespoke."
[top illustration by Peter Oumanski; bottom image from NPR.org]