Blame it on Wall Street's astronomical bonuses. When you have the Gulfstream 550, the Maybach and the Warhols, what else do you need? The answer is your very own tailor--a place where you can go to get the perfect suit while being cared for with the ultimate service. That may be one reason made-to-measure menswear--or couture menswear, as it is often called--is the new must-have for the hedge-fund set.
With the income line between the rich and the super-rich becoming sharper and more and more individuals gaining access to run-of-the-mill luxury, the gilded class is looking for ways to set itself apart. Luxury brands are responding with exclusive products that offer a personal touch. "We are so inundated with luxury right now that the guy who once bought three Zegna suits is upgrading to something even more luxurious," says Michael Macko, men's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Even men who cannot afford couture prices want to look more like Daniel Craig or Sean (Diddy) Combs than a casual-Friday holdover from the 1990s. "People want to dress up now," says Jarret Kerman, director of clothing at Ermenegildo Zegna Couture. "Our best-selling suits are in dark, dressy fabrics." He adds that Zegna Couture, with the price of an average suit running from $3,200 to $4,000, has been growing exponentially in the past few seasons, its wholesale business quadrupling in the past year.
Labels such as Zegna, Hugo Boss, Brioni and Ralph Lauren have been serving the upscale-menswear market for years. And überexclusive brands like Kiton, along with London's Savile Row tailors, have long catered to the customer who wants a suit made from scratch--a process that involves a muslin sample, several fittings and lots of cash. Now fashion-forward designers are refitting this service-oriented market.
Last year Giorgio Armani introduced a couture collection of made-to-measure suits called Giorgio Armani Fatto a Mano su Misura (Handmade to Measure). And on April 12 on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Tom Ford opened his first namesake boutique, a 1930s-style haberdashery, where shoppers can find such luxuries as $5,000 bespoke three-piece suits, 18-karat-gold and ebony sunglasses, and dressing gowns cut from 19th century jacquard fabrics.
Also reaching for the top shelf, Brooks Brothers, that classic bastion of off-the-rack suits, will introduce in the fall a special collection created by New York City-- based designer Thom Browne. The starting price for a three-piece suit will be $3,000. And these suits cut a strikingly different figure from the run-of-the-mill boxy gray Brooks Brothers fare. Browne, who is known for his extreme silhouette of tight-fitting shoulders and cropped cuffed pants, delved into the archives and came up with astrakhan-trimmed tattersall coats and gray flannel pants embroidered with fleece, the house's insignia. Claudio Del Vecchio, the Italian-born chairman and CEO of Brooks Brothers, says he plans to sell the line, Black Fleece, in 30% of the clothier's U.S. stores and at eight more in Europe and Asia.
Why the rush on custom haberdashery now? Ford sees it as a reaction to too much technology and information. "I think we've lost the human touch a bit in fashion," says Ford, "I go into stores, and there's nobody to help me. I get recorded voices on the end of the phone. I see this as a throwback to something that we have lost."
That something could be the idea, as Ford has imagined it, of walking into a store as though you're walking into a home. Real luxury, as he sees it, is service, not status. And Ford's store has been lovingly crafted as if it were a private residence with fireplaces, a macassar ebony staircase, a bar, butlers and even works of art from the designer's personal collection. Downstairs are a fragrance den, a room filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves of shirts (there are 340 color choices) and a salon that Ford says is an exact copy of the living room in his house in London. Upstairs, two master tailors and five seamstresses are available for any task from creating a handmade suit to making sleeve adjustments on a cashmere sweater. One of Ford's favorite details is the label inside the jackets, which is 100% silk, hand-sewn and placed just above the pocket especially designed for a BlackBerry.
The idea for the line and the store came to Ford after he left the Gucci Group in 2004. "I started buying clothing for myself, but everything was too trendy or the fabric or the cut wasn't right, so I had things made in London," he explains. But Ford found the Savile Row experience "too dry" and "not what I imagine men fantasize about when they fantasize about luxurious clothing."
While Ford admits his $5,000 suits may not be for everyone, he is planning accelerated distribution for his line, with more stores in a year's time opening in such cities as Tokyo, Milan, Paris and Dubai--a response to the increased desire for luxurious menswear. "When I was growing up in Texas, you couldn't buy arugula in the supermarket. Now you can buy it everywhere," he says. "The more you learn about things like functional buttonholes, the more you want them."