Explore the definition of a bespoke suit, learn the differences between true bespoke, made to measure (MTM), and custom suiting, and discover where to buy the best tailor-made garment for your budget.
More than a decade ago, I discovered the joy of custom-made suits on a work trip to Hong Kong just before Christmas, when I visited Sam’s Tailor.
My frame never fell neatly into an off-the-rack suit. Finding quality tailors who could make a suit just for me was an epiphany that set me on a path to launch Modern Fellows in 2012.
This guide to bespoke, made-to-measure (MTM) and custom tailored suits is designed to define the terms, explore the history and highlight the options available for custom men’s suiting depending on your budget, needs and expectations. Let’s dive in:
Definition of a Bespoke Suit
In broad terms, a bespoke suit can be defined as a garment that is custom made to individual order by a tailor.
The use of the phrase “bespoke suit” was popularized in England in the 17th and 18th Centuries — and cited as early as 1607, according to the 1909 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary — when tailors on Savile Row in London created custom suits from selections of cloth that were “bespoken for” their individual customers. (We’ll delve more into the history of the bespoke suit later.)
The word bespoke has its origins in the English verb “bespeak,” from the Old English “besprecan,” Old Saxon bisprecan and German besprechen, which meant variously to request, arrange or order.
Today, the word “bespoke” may be used, and some would say is misused, to describe a variety of garments that are customized in one way or another for individual order, including made-to-measure and custom-tailored suits.
Adding to the confusion, even experts cannot agree on when to use terms like bespoke vs. made-to-measure vs. custom:
- British author and founder of Permanent Style Simon Crompton insists bespoke suits are distinct from made-to-measure in “one key way” in his book Le Snob. The distinguishing characteristic of truly bespoke suits is that “the pattern is yours and yours alone,” he writes.
- The late, great bespoke tailor Sir Edwin Hardy Amies, who made bespoke dresses for Queen Elizabeth II, defined bespoke as any garment that is “made-to-measure, as distinct from ready-to-wear clothes” in the ABC of Men’s Fashion, which is one of our favorite men’s style books.
A customer browses fabric swatches at Hall and Madden, a made-to-measure suiting startup. Photo credit: Hall and Madden.
The Difference between Bespoke, Made-To-Measure (MTM) and Custom Tailored Suits
Let’s unpack the differences between truly bespoke suits, made-to-measure suiting and custom tailored garments:
A true bespoke suit is created by a skilled tailor specifically for one individual.
London-based fashion designer and bespoke tailor Timothy Everest defines a bespoke suit for potential clients as “wholly unique, individual sartorial masterpiece with over 70 hours of manpower poured into every garment.”
The Savile Row Bespoke Association further defines a bespoke suit as one that is “cut by an individual and made by highly skilled individual craftsmen.” The association notes that a bespoke suit uses a “pattern … made specifically for the customer” and requires “a minimum of 50 hours of hand work and … a series of fittings.”
A truly bespoke suit is designed precisely for one individual’s body shape and preferences. Generally, the suit is constructed by hand by one or a small number of craftsman at a tailoring house.
The unique value of a bespoke suit is the result of an intimate and lengthy relationship between a highly-skilled tailor and a client.
“The magic of the bespoke world starts from the precious relation between tailor and client,” writes Everest in the book Green is the New Black.
(Everest has some credibility here. He worked under the trailblazing Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter before opening his own tailoring business in the East End of London in 1989 and becoming one of the vanguards of the New Bespoke Movement.)
Bespoke suits are characterized by:
- Lengthy production time: The process of measuring, chalking, cutting, fitting and finishing a bespoke suit can take anywhere from 5-12 weeks or more to complete. (See below for a look at all of the steps involved.)
- High cost: Generally, a bespoke suit starts at around $4,000 in the United States and United Kingdom, and can cost $10,000 or more depending on the tailor and fabrics you choose.
- Unique value: A bespoke suit is handcrafted for an individual. An expert tailor can adjust a bespoke suit for posture and curves and mask imperfections. In his book Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed, tailor Richard Anderson observes that, “to put a true and properly bespoke suit on for the first time is a revelation.”
Bespoke suit from the tailor Sebastian Hoofs from a Cologne (Germany), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
A Made-to-Measure (MTM) suit is constructed by altering an existing pattern to the shape and preferences of the customer.
Instead of cutting a unique pattern precisely for a customer, a tailor produces a made-to-measure (MTM) suit by utilizing an existing, standard suit pattern that corresponds closely to the size and preferences of a client and adjusts the fit and details.
A made to measure suit “[gives] you control over the details but not the overall design of the suit,” notes Gareth May in How to Drink Snake Blood in Vietnam: And 101 Other Things Every Interesting Man Should Know.
Made-to-Measure (MTM) suits are generally characterized by:
- Shorter production times than bespoke suits: Online made-to-measure tailors like Black Lapel and Lanieri advertise that they can produce a suit in as little as 3 weeks. I have had suits delivered in as little as 2 weeks.
- Lower costs than bespoke suits: Made-to-measure suits can cost as little as $400 or less at online tailors though, in many cases, you get what you pay for. At traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, suits generally range from approximately $700 – 2,000 depending on the brand, fabric and options.
- Better fit and choice than off-the-rack suits: A made-to-measure suit won’t fit as perfectly as a bespoke suit, but it allows much greater customization of fit and options like lapel shape and size and pocket style than off-the-rack suits.
- A variety of business models and levels of customer service: Made-to-measure suits can be procured via a variety of business models:
- At online custom tailors like Black Lapel and Proper Cloth, customers may take their own measurements and may never see the inside of a retail establishment;
- At showrooms from digital native brands like Indochino, Knot Standard and Alton Lane, customers may be measured once at a showroom and then either receive a finished garment in the mail or return for a fitting; and
- At established brick-and-mortar retailers like Brooks Brothers, Nordstom and Suit Supply, customers may get measured and return to the store for one or more fittings.
Indochino uses try-on jackets in various sizes to help narrow down the right base model, which is then customized further through their made-to-measure program.
The phrase custom-tailored suit can be used to refer to bespoke, made-to-measure or off-the-rack garments.
Technically, a custom-tailored suit should refer to the process of adjusting off-the-rack (aka off-the-peg, aka ready-to-wear) suits. Even when a ready-to-wear suit fits well off-the-rack, it will almost certainly require finishing and alteration of the pants’ length and potentially adjustments to the jacket’s sleeve length or tweaks to other elements to ensure a proper fit.
However, many (including yours truly) use the phrase custom-tailored suit or custom suit generically to refer to bespoke or made-to-measure (MTM) suits.
The Process of Making a Bespoke Suit
The Bespoke Suit process is deliberate, is comprised of multiple stages, and takes time. Each tailor has his or her own process, timetable and quirks, but the process generally involves the following steps:
- Initial consultation: The first step is to schedule an initial consultation with a tailor and/or cutter. During this intake meeting, the tailor or cutter will discuss the purpose of the suit and the client’s style and fit preferences and lifestyle, and consult on fabrics. The tailor or cutter will take detailed measurements and carefully observe the client’s posture, build and stance. This is an important getting-to-know-you session for both the bespoke house and for the client. This experience lays the groundwork for the first suit and for the subsequent relationship between the tailor and client.
- Creating a working model: During the initial meeting, the cutter will begin to construct a paper pattern that is unique to the client. After that consultation, the tailoring house will procure cloth lay out the paper pattern, use chalk to strike the pattern onto the cloth, and then cut cloth panels to begin to form the suit. A tailor will add canvassing and liner. Those pieces will then be sewn together with white tailor’s thread to form what is known as a “baste” jacket or working model.
- Basted fitting or first fitting: At this point the client returns for a first fitting, which is also known as a baste fitting. The client tries on the “baste jacket” for the first time. The client and tailor will get a feel for the fit and the tailor will note adjustments to make.
- Adjustments and additional fittings: After the basted fitting, the tailor will make adjustments and call the client back in for an additional fitting. If more fine-tuning is required, additional fittings may be necessary. This back-and-forth can take 4 weeks or more.
In the video below, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) follows the journey of a three-piece bespoke suit constructed by Savile Row house Anderson and Sheppard. Established in 1906, Anderson and Sheppard is one of the Savile Row area’s oldest tailors and has suited the likes of Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and Prince Charles. As you watch the video, notice the firm’s signature English Drape cut, which Anderson and Sheppard defines as “a now-classic suiting silhouette, that surfaced as a more comfortable alternative to the rigid constraints of military dress early in the 20th century.”
You can watch Part 2 of how to make a Savile Row suit.
The Process of Making a Made-to-Measure (MTM) Suit
The process of constructing a made-to-measure (MTM) suit is a little less arduous:
- Get measured: Customers may go into a store like Nordstrom or Suit Supply to get measured up for a made-to-measure suit. (Take a look inside Suit Supply’s store in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood.) Alternately, online made-to-measure tailors like Oliver Wicks and Black Lapel offer instructions for how to take your measurements yourself. Still others, like Proper Cloth, offer a quiz that produces a “smart size” without having to take tape measurements yourself. (Some businesses, like Lanieri, offer the option of taking your own measurements online or visiting a showroom. Take a look inside Lanieri’s Atelier in Paris.)
- Choose your details: While MTM does not produce a true custom experience, various companies allow clients to customize everything from the color of their buttons to lapel widths to pocket type. Read Modern Fellows’ review of of online custom tailor Black Lapel’s suits for a look at their customization options.
- Evaluate the finished product: Generally, in about 3-6 weeks, a MTM suit will be ready for the client to try on. Some companies, like Knot Standard, suggest clients try on the garment in person to evaluate the fit. Others, like Indochino and Black Lapel, will ship a suit directly to the customer’s address.
- Make adjustments as needed: This step can be the most challenging, particularly when a suit is shipped directly to a customer who must then evaluate the fit for himself. When a suit is shipped directly to a customer without the opportunity for a professional to evaluate the fit in a showroom, it leaves open the possibility that a customer will overlook or not complain about minor imperfections, which would leave a garment less perfect than it could have been with minor tweaks.
After providing your measurements to an online custom tailor like Black Lapel or Indochino, the suit will show up at your door several weeks later.
How Much Does a Bespoke Suit Cost?
That depends: Do you want a truly bespoke suit or a Made-to-Measure suit?
A true Bespoke Suit is very expensive.
There is no way around it: Bespoke suits are expensive. A true bespoke suit starts at about $4,000 in the United States and Europe but can cost much more. For example:
- A two-piece bespoke suit at Henry Poole starts at £4,133 excluding VAT (around US$5,200), according to Business Insider in 2018.
- Dege & Skinner’s bespoke suits start at £4,254, reported GQ Britain in 2016.
- Beam Fashion indicates that a bespoke suit at Huntsman on Savile Row costs nearly £5,000.
- A bespoke suit by Anderson and Sheppard made from bespoke cloth from Fox Brothers’ cloth mill, which is designed by a client and spun to order, cost £5,500 according to the FT way back in 2011.
- There’s seemingly one price outlier: Founded by former investment banker Ian Meiers in 2008, Savile Row newcomer Cad and the Dandy offers bespoke suits starting at just £1,000 in London, Stockholm and New York. (Side note: Ian took the name Cad & The Dandy from a line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest.)
Perhaps the best way to answer the question of “how much does a bespoke suit cost?” is that, “If you can afford it, you shouldn’t have to ask,” which is what William Skinner, managing director of Savile Row bespoke house Dege & Skinner, told J.J. Lee in his terrific memoir Measure of a Man.
As a result of the cost, time and skill required, relatively few bespoke suits are actually produced. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard constructed just 25 suits per week.
A Made-to-Measure (MTM) suit can vary widely in cost.
A made-to-measure suit can cost a few hundred dollars or thousands of dollars depending on the company, fabric and options. MTM suits tend to be more expensive at a brick-and-mortar retailer like Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom or Suit Supply, where clients should expect a higher level of hand-holding and personal attention. As a general rule, digital-first made-to-measure suit companies tend to offer more affordable made-to-measure suiting options.
For example (all prices are based on information available at the in-line links below as of August 2019 unless otherwise noted):
- Brooks Brothers offers made-to-measure suits starting at $1,145, though finer materials can cost $2,000 or more.
- Suit Supply made-to-measure suits cost $999 and up.
- Hall Madden crafts made-to-measure suits starting at $950.
- Knot Standard suits are priced from $845 according to its website.
- Italian online-custom tailor Lanieri makes custom suits from $595.
- Black Lapel sells made-to-measure suits from $499.
- Indochino sells custom suits from $299.
- Proper Cloth, which is best known for its made-to-measure shirts, now offers made-to-measure suits from $695.
A look inside Suit Supply’s made-to-measure room in their store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC.
4 questions to ask a tailor before purchasing a bespoke or made-to-measure (MTM) suit
Below are some key questions to ask any prospective tailor, whether you are looking for a truly bespoke suit or a made-to-measure garment. Just be aware that the answer is likely to differ depending on whether you’re after an inexpensive MTM suit or a top of the line bespoke model with all of the bells and whistles.
- What is the “house style” suit? Each tailoring house or retailer is likely to have its own style and philosophy about how a suit should look and fit. As tailor and author Richard Anderson explained to CNN, “It’s like handwriting; we’re all taught to write, but we write in different ways.” This is also true of made-to-measure tailors. For example, it appears that Proper Cloth tends towards classic suit styles, wider lapels and luxury fabrics, while Black Lapel favors bold patterns, slimmer lapels and contemporary fits.
- Where will my suit be made? On-premises or at another location? Most high-end bespoke tailors will construct the suit on-site at its tailoring house. At the other end, most online made-to-measure tailors will send measurements to a factory in the United States, Europe or Asia. Is it important that your suit be made in the United States? If so, take a look at Brooks Brothers MTM program.
- Is the suit’s lining fused or glued, or instead does it contain a hand-sewn half-canvas or full-canvass? A glued or fused lining is cheaper. It doesn’t move as well with your body and can reduce the useful length of the suit. The Gentleman’s Gazette has a great primer on fused versus hand-sewn canvass linings.
- Will a human or machine construct my suit? If both, which parts of the suit will be machine-made? This is a particularly important question to ask if you are paying top dollar for a bespoke suit. If you’re going to shell out $5,000 or more for a suit, you want to be paying for that human touch.
Savile Row- Tailoring at Henry Poole and Co., London, England, UK, 1944. Original photo source.
History of the Bespoke Suit
The history of the bespoke suit dates back to the 1600s.
The first bespoke suits were born in the court of King Charles II of England.
Until the mid-17th Century, English royalty wore distinctive colors and fine materials befitting their stature in society. Elizabethan-era Sumptuary Statues prevented the common man from emulating these fashions.
Following a rough couple of years marked by an outbreak of the plague and London’s Great Fire, in 1666, King Charles II ordered his royal court to dress down in dark colored vests, coats and breeches befitting the somber mood of the time, thus creating the precursor to the modern suit.
Samuel Pepys, who as Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under King Charles II kept a detailed diary, observed on October 8, 1666 that:
“The King hath yesterday in Council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”
Pepys observed the Duke of York and King Charles II adopt the dress of a dark vest and coat later that month. He and the rest of the nobility soon embraced this austere look as well.
That somber look that was introduced by the English court began to be adopted more widely in the 18th Century across England.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, tailors in and around the now-famous Savile Row in the City of London helped popularize the modern bespoke suit.
Beau Brummell, engraved in the 19th century from a portrait miniature. Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Beau Brummell, widely credited as one of the most important drivers of men’s contemporary dress in modern history, began frequenting textile shops and tailors in the City of London with precise ideas for new coats, trousers, shirts and other accoutrements.
Into the 19th Century, on the other side of the pond, American men were less preoccupied than their European contemporaries with the status of a bespoke suit.
Americans gravitated towards off-the-peg suits from the likes of Montgomery Ward, Brooks Brothers, R.H. Macy’s, and Sears Roebuck. “It dovetailed with the U.S. ideal of democracy for most men, no matter their class, to be able to dress well in the ready-made suit,” according to Anita Stamper and Jill Condra in Clothing through American History: The Civil War through the Gilded Age, 1861–1899.
Ready-to-wear suits continued to rise in popularity in the 20th Century. Bespoke suits from the likes of Savile Row became increasingly a luxury niche for those relative few who could afford them.
The Rise of Internet-enabled Made-to-Measure Suits
In the late 2000s, the internet enabled the rise of direct-to-consumer e-commerce, led by menswear startups including Bonobos (founded 2007) and Proper Cloth (founded 2008) as well as Warby Parker (founded 2010) and its many competitors.
An early community of online made-to-measure custom tailors grew up alongside these brands, including MTM pioneer Astor and Black (2004), Indochino (2007), Alton Lane (2009), Knot Standard (2010) and Black Lapel (2012).
Many of these digitally-native brands struggled early to fine-tune their business model. Knot Standard was plagued by early negative reviews from customers. Indochino tested out a traveling tailor concept before establishing showrooms in malls and town squares across America. Astor and Black folded.
Yet these online custom tailors continue to iterate and technology continues to improve. Men’s style startups like MTailor are employing technology that allows an app to take accurate measurements of your body.
Over the past decade, these brands have made it easier and cheaper for men to access made-to-measure suits. While these MTM suits are not truly bespoke, they helped to bring new interest and focus to custom men’s suiting.
Clients can customize a variety of options including lapel type and width via online made-to-measure tailor Black Lapel.
Conclusion: What’s the Right Suit for You?
Today, online-enabled MTM brands like Black Lapel, Proper Cloth and Suit Supply are part of a vibrant community of online, brick-and-mortar and omnichannel options for made-to-measure suits for men. They, along with more established retailers and the historic bespoke houses of Savile Row and elsewhere, ensure that men have never had more choice when it comes to custom suits.
Whether your budget is $500 or $5,000, there’s a custom suit out there for you.
What is your favorite custom suiting option?
About JakeJake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.
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