The bespoke suit, with its exquisite detail and luxurious fabrics, was once reserved for only wealthy style connoisseurs, but custom tailoring is becoming a growing trend among professional men, as prices fall and awareness grows.
"The word is out," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group, a consumer and marketing information service. "Nobody knew about bespoke suits before, unless you were wealthy. Now the common guy is wearing them. It used to be an underground market—now it's at street level."
But the true bespoke suit is a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted garment made expressly for a client. (The Old English word "bespoke," refers to cloth that's been 'spoken for,' or reserved.) Men who appreciate the highest quality are increasingly going to great lengths to get the suits they desire.
According to Cohen, the bespoke suit industry currently comprises about one percent of the menswear market. Based on the suits' rising popularity, however, he expects the segment to double or triple its market share over the next couple of years.
With the advent of online shopping, male consumers are more engaged, he said. And the numbers back him up; menswear sales overall increased by five percent last year, from $57.8 billion in 2012 to $60.8 billion in 2013, eclipsing a more modest four percent increase in women's apparel.
"When it comes to their clothing, men today are looking for something individualized. They're looking for something that sizzles," said Jeff Landis, president of Montopoli Custom Clothiers in Chicago and a board member of the Custom Retailers and Designers Association.
Nicholas Joseph Hansen, owner of Nicholas Joseph custom tailors in Chicago, sees the trend as a way for men to make their mark.
"Absolutely, a suit makes a man," Hansen said. "Attention to detail. Professionalism. The world is more competitive than ever today. You've got to find a way to stand out.
"Everyone is working on developing their personal brand," he added, "Employers are looking at that. I know for a fact that the biggest companies are doing social media searches and seeing how these guys present themselves."
Fashion industry insiders are quick to point out that there is a distinct difference between a true bespoke suit and a less expensive made-to-measure, custom suit. At Nicholas Joseph, bespoke suits come with custom muslin fittings, three rounds of alteration and are meticulously sewn in Hansen's Chicago workshop. The price of a custom suit can range from $800 to about $1,800, while bespoke suits start at $2,800 and go up to $4,800.
"To get that $800 price point, we have to work with overseas tailors, because they work for a lower price," he explained.
In fact, American tailoring companies often outsource work to family-owned workshops in places like China, Thailand, Hong Kong, South America and Vietnam. Only the most exclusive garments are made with expensive American labor.
This is a problem for men who love bespoke tailoring but are unwilling, or unable, to pay retail for it. For some of these buyers, traveling halfway around the world is not too much trouble to get what they want.
"I go overseas twice a year to buy my suits," said Ari Zoldan, CEO of technology firm Quantum Networks in New York City. "There's a bespoke section in Koh Samui, Thailand, and one in Hong Kong. You can come home with a suitcase full of suits at a fraction of the price."
Zoldan said he and some of his business associates have been outfitting themselves this way for years. Even calculating the airfare (about $1,200) and travel expenses (about $800 or so, including hotels), American businessmen come out way ahead.
"In the U.S., a typical bespoke suit costs $3,000. In Hong Kong, it costs about $300. You're bypassing the middleman and buying direct. Personally, I would never spend more than $350 for a suit."
There's also the fun factor.
"In the Hong Kong shopping district, there are maybe a 100 stores lined up in a three-block radius," he said. "People come with pictures from magazines, you know, 'I want this cut, this style, this fabric.' It's great. It's just a fun experience. In between fittings, you spend your time on the beach."
There are other ways to sidestep the premium price of bespoke tailoring too, according to Zoldan.
"Certain tailors will come to your house or your office in New York," he said, "or some people hit the trunk shows at the big hotels. At trunk shows, tailors from Hong Kong and China invite customers, measure them and return six weeks later with the finished goods."
The cost of buying a suit at a trunk show prices is two- or three-times higher than buying direct, but still substantially lower than retail, he said.