Ermenegildo Zegna brown wool from Neiman Marcus
Dark Navy cotton polo by Ermenegildo Zegna from Neiman Marcus
Bespoke Experience September 19, 2018
It all started with an appointment and a diet. I only had a month before meeting my new tailor and I weighed 218. It wasn’t the weight but rather there was more around the mid-section than I wanted immortalized in a custom suit, my first custom bespoke suit no less. Not that it can’t be adjusted. Before my appointment I starved myself and lost four pounds. The good news is that I have three months to lose more weight before they need to make adjustments.
I live in South Florida and had to travel to New York City to meet my first and new bespoke tailor Luigi Solito. He and his father Gennaro are on the list of recommended tailors by such fashion experts as Hugo Jacomet and Simon Crompton. I carried Hugo’s large book “The Italian Gentleman” in which Luigi and his father are portrayed, with me to get Luigi’s autograph. That was the bulk of my luggage. I wore a suit and tie and carried another shirt, underwear and toothbrush in a small bag. Traveled light.
Having a chef as a nephew in NYC, he got me a discount on a nice room at the NoMad Hotel, one of my favorite places to stay. But because of the time of year, that still put me out $550. for the nights sleep. All in all I was already in $850 before even meeting the tailor. My brother Steve and I dream of traveling and having the full Italian bespoke tailoring experience in Napoli. I starting thinking that it might not cost that much more.
The trip to NYC went smoothly. That is not always the guaranteed experience. Traveling from JFK airport at the wrong time of day can mean long waits in heavy traffic. I was going to take the early 6am flight but decided to take the more relaxed 10am flight from Fort Lauderdale and it worked out perfectly. A two and a half hour flight and an easy, low traffic Uber ride to the NoMad.
I showered, rested for an hour and headed out with my heavy book in tow. There is nothing better than walking in NYC when the weather is agreeable unless the walk is about an hour and you are headed to a measuring, my first measuring. I didn’t want to sweat and smell upon arriving so I took an Uber.
Leather shoulder bag by Salvatore Ferragamo from Neiman Marcus
I had no idea what this experience would entail. I tried to predict the questions they might ask me and prepared myself. Like, ‘How do you know how to speak Italian?’ ‘When were you in Italy?’ I’m always bad at remembering dates of when things happened. Possible questions and topics of discussions kept rolling through my mind.
Oh, I forgot to mention. As I was reading up on what this experience might be like in Simon Crompton’s forum Permanent Style, one of the best guides I’ve found for men’s fashion, I ran across some shirt tailors that he mentioned. I started looking all of them up. There were four on his list. I found out that one, Luca Avitabile, was also doing a trunk show at the Stefano Bemer Show Room on East 67th on the same exact dates as Luigi Solito.
So I emailed him two days ahead and secured a 4 o’clock appointment with Luca, half an hour before I would then see Luigi. I found out later at the event that Luigi and Luca and the Stefano Bemer bespoke shoemaker, all from Napoli, all work together here every three to four months. Kind of a one stop shop for men’s bespoke. Very nice arrangement.
I arrived 40 minutes early. The showroom is in a high end shopping area of NYC and although I had imagined a big showroom on the main strip, this was on a side street just off the main strip with minimal signage and one labeled doorbell among six others that led to a small hallway and an elevator. It was like an apartment building. I rang and got buzzed up. The studio was on the top, sixth floor.
The elevator opened into the suite which consisted of two small rooms connected by a small hallway. The hallway had a small kitchen and bathroom and closet connected which, in retrospect, made me think this must have been built as a small apartment that is probably also zoned for commercial use. There were five men present. The room on the left looked like the bespoke shoe room for Stefano Bemer and had the shoe artisan there engaged with one client. The other room was for the suits and shirts. I recognized Luigi and Luca there from having seen their photos and then the third guy was the client ahead of me. He turned out to be a wealthy business man ‘assumption’ from San Francisco and has been doing the bespoke thing for a while from what I was over hearing. I get the impression that there are two types of US citizens who do bespoke: the business guys who are always trying to impress everyone by doing the most expensivest shit, and the true connoisseurs who really appreciate the finer things in life. This guy struck me as the former.
But I digress because at that moment I was more interested in what I was experiencing, which was nothing. Other than a glance in my direction, no one said or did a thing in my regard. So not knowing what else to do, I just stood there in the small hallway and watched. And when that became awkward I turned and looked into the shoe room. And when that garnered no interest from anyone, I stared at a photo in the hallway. All and all it was awkward and lasted a good 15-20 minutes. My opening came when the businessman was done with Luca and moved onto Luigi. Mind you, this was a small room with a couch and a small coffee table covered in many small fabric sample books. It was the top floor and half of the ceiling was a sky light. Great lighting, actually too much for Luigi at that moment who asked Luca to help him figure out how to lower the shade a bit.
Afterwards, Luca looked to me and walked over as I went to meet him. I shook his hand and told him I was Sachin. This garnered no recognition on his side, but he invited me to sit on the couch. He offered me water and I graciously declined. And then he offered to measure me. This was the beginning of the hands on bespoke experience. There was no preliminary discussion about who I was, where I came from, what I wanted, how much it would cost, nothing. We just jumped right into the measuring as if we had done this once before and was just back for my second order. Luca had to adjust the tape measure several times to get it where he seemed to want it on my frame which made me wonder why? Neck, shoulders and a few other lengths and we were done.
Then I sat down on the couch to see fabrics. In the same way that I struggled to see past walls when renovating our house, I also struggled to mentally convert a 1×2 inch piece of fabric into a shirt. Having never had a shirt made, I decided to go with white. That narrowed it down to about four choices in 120 gage fabric which Luca recommended after I asked for his advice.
Then I asked both Luigi and Luca to sign Jacomet’s book, which seemed like a gesture enjoyed by all. Luca Avitabile is not mentioned in Jacomet’s book, so I asked Luca to sign the first page of the bespoke shirts section of the book. As I was putting the book back into my leather shoulder bag, which seemed like it was designed specifically for this large book, I glanced down at some ready made shirt samples in a chest to my right. I realized that I hadn’t discussed collar and cuff styles with Luca. Maybe that is something you discuss at the first fitting, I am still not sure. But he acquiesced and we sat back down and made the style decisions regarding the shirts. I went in wanting larger pointed collars but let Luca steer me toward spread and semi spread style collars and two of them would have double cuffs. I don’t know how your mind works, but mine too often wants to make changes after the fact. I am learning to resist that temptation for everyone’s sanity.
As I started to leave, shaking both Luigi and Luca’s hands and telling them that it was an honor and a pleasure to meet them both, I hesitated in the hallway contemplating talking to the shoe master since he was alone at that moment and I had time. He is also mentioned in Jacomet’s book and I thought I might also get his autograph. His name is Tommaso Melani whose family took over after Stefano Bemer passed away in 2012. But before I could make my move, Luigi pushed the call button for the elevator and I decided to just take my leave.
Again a lot of this is a reflection of my expectations which could have easily been over-rated. After all the real experience is in the wearing of the bespoke clothes which I will get to experience in January when it is freezing in New York.
I look forward to my first fitting and perhaps a growing and ongoing relationship with Luca and Luigi. After all, it is hell looking for a new tailor. LOL
Here is the first thing I learned from my experience. The more you know about what you want; weights of fabric, kinds of fabric, colors of fabric, design etc. the better. Then you should also know something of the background of your tailor and their style and of course it helps to know the cost.
I wasn’t really prepared for the shirt tailor since I had only gone as far as booking the appointment, so I thought it best at this point to ask questions like what is the process, is their a minimum, what is the cost??? Luca explained that the process was a measurement today, a fitting in three months, final fitting and receipt of shirts three months after that. There was a minimum order of four shirts at 250£’s per shirt. That is a lot of shirts to order bespoke without ever trying the shirts or shirtmaker before. Another thing you will want an idea of is the conversion rate between English pounds and US Dollars. As I started chatting I realized I did need that glass of water after all and asked for it. There was no place to set a glass of water so it sat atop the stack of fabric books that we were shuffling around as the glass of water was raised and lowered again.
In my research I read of others experiences where the client who goes to Napoli gets to go out to dinner with the tailor while there or goes out for an espresso with him, or the client who goes for bespoke shoes and has dinner with the shoemaker and his family. It was the shoemaker in the other room who actually came over and offered me a coffee, which in Italian is an espresso, and I hadn’t even engaged him. I accepted.
I gave my approval to the shirt deal by saying “Let’s see what all colors I should get with my four shirts”. I decided on white, pink, blue and light grey and then proceeded to go through the fabric choices. I really had to rely on Luca’s advice and questioned him often to decide what was best for me. Once that was concluded Luca said we were done and I was referred to Luigi. Luigi looked up my name on his list and gave me some recognition.
Although Luigi hadn’t requested any information from me when I booked my appointment a couple months earlier, I had taken it upon myself to exchange a dozen or so emails with him sending him photos of suit colors I might be interested in. We had history. Both these gentlemen were quiet and reserved but seemed genuinely nice when interacting with me, though they did not initiate a lot themselves.
I remember a scene from a later episode of Hercule Poirot where he is insulting his tailor because Poirot’s suits keep needing to be let out, his own fault of course. I started to wonder about what the general experience is for these tailors dealing with various expectant clients all the time? I watched as the businessman from San Fran was happy to make it all about him. You never know where people are coming from, and these tailors are coming from three generations or experience in the trade. You can’t always dictate what your experience is going to be with a tailor, but that can end up being part of the criteria with which you choose one experience over another going forward.
I asked Luigi how his father was doing. Luigi was a master with the tape measure. He was also great about making suggestions. The fabric choices for suit fabrics is far more extensive than for shirts. If you don’t know what you want ahead of time it could be overwhelming. I knew I wanted dark grey and I knew I wanted traditional Neapolitan styling. I was happy when Luigi and I agreed on everything; classic wide lapels, three-roll-two button stance, button fly trousers with side adjusters and cuffs. Here is a great article on the history and styling of the Neapolitan suit: The Rake
I prefer heavier wools for suits which is risky for me because I live in South Florida. Napoli has our exact same weather, so I wanted to rely on how the Napolese men manage to wear suits year round. According to Luigi they do it in two ways; one by wearing a lot of cotton jackets and pants and the other by wearing a light wool that breaths well and is very wrinkle resistant. He showed me these wools after I had already chosen my grey wool, because that is when I asked that question, but instead of changing my mind I decided to keep these in mind for future suits or jackets. Mind you I did choose a light weight wool.
After we were done I paid Luigi a deposit of 1,000£ on my bank debit card because he didn’t accept American Express and I hadn’t gotten around to a Visa or Mastercard that offers rewards, which is now on the to do list. I don’t know if that deposit was just towards the Solito suit. Since Luca had not asked for anything, I wondered if the deposit was somehow for the entire group order? But I think it was just for the suit and additional trousers. I also ordered a pair of off white bespoke trousers from Luigi. I showed him this photo of Cary Grant and said I want something like these.