From Naples with love — bespoke suits in Abu Dhabi
Bespoke vs. made to measure. There's a difference - one you need to know about if you like to shell out for suits. Why? Because one costs more, and looks better. Pay for what you get. Copywriter and presenter Hisham Wyne is always in a suit. He talks to a tailoring startup in Abu Dhabi about many things - including why made to measure is nothing like bespoke.
When Bespoke Italia owner Abdallah Bin Desmal Al Suwaidi first purchased one of his branded suits by laying out a reasonably hefty sum, he was delighted with it. Right up to the point that his tailor pointed out the suit was average, with not a single stitch done by hand.
His chagrin led him down a pathway different to his normal business as he set out to unravel - literally - the world of bespoke clothing, and figure out the difference between off-the shelf, made to measure, and truly bespoke.
The result of his endeavours is Bespoke Italia, which he first opened in December 2011. It is a bijou shop ensconced on the Abu Dhabi Corniche compared to the sizeable cafes and car showrooms in the vicinity. Inside resides a world of fine wool fabrics and some of the sharpest suits in the UAE. As the name suggests, Bespoke Italia does bespoke suiting - and gets every article stitched in Naples, Italy, for clients in the UAE.
Abdallah settles back to explain the differences between bespoke and made to measure.
"There are three categories of suits: off-the shelf, made to measure, and bespoke. When designers started a fashion revolution and made couture accessible, they created sizes that could fit most people. Different brands have different fits, and work for different people. You’ve heard people say 'The best brand for me is such and such.' That's because it’s the right shape in relation to their body type, because people obviously have different physical structures."
Having dispensed with off the shelf, Abdallah moves on to made to measure. "Well, my experience is that most luxury brands tell their clientele their tailor is coming over in the summer, and also in winter, and ask if they would like to order suits. But these tailors take your measurements on a standard size that they already have. So if you are a size 50, they will drape you in a suit that size and tweak it.
"When you make to measure, the foundation of the suit comes not from your body shape but a standard brand size. And that is something I didn’t know at first. The made to measure idea was to facilitate mass production because designers couldn’t do bespoke suits for everyone."
Armed with this insight, Abdallah went further, becoming a complete enthusiast for clothes that fit extremely well because they are tailored to purpose.
"We went back to old school personalisation from the '30s, '40s and '50s. Everyone had their own tailor then. Bespoke was all there was. And honestly, given the prices that good off-the-shelf and made to measure suits command, there is no reason not to go back to bespoke."
That Abdallah is enamoured of the entire business of fine clothing is evident in the way he walks around his shop, talking to his tailor and carefully handling each piece of unfinished fabric as he tells its story. If one goes in to get measured for a suit in Bespoke Italia, Abdallah is there in the fitting room with his tape measure, his kandura pristine, combining the gravitas of an accomplished businessman with the absolute delight of doing something he loves. "When something becomes a passion, I explore it thoroughly. I investigated, I discovered and learned. I knew next to nothing about setting up a bespoke fine suiting shop when I started. So I had to go into the tiniest of details and learn about tailoring and finesse."
Bespoke Italia's tailoring bank is in Naples, save for a lone young Neapolitan tailor responsible for measurements in his shop. Surely that doesn't lend itself to any economies? But Abdallah believes that excellence, if can't be relocated, must be followed.
"If you look through history, the best tailoring has long been in in Naples. The quality of tailoring there is a world apart. If you wear a suit from a Neapolitan tailor, there is a huge difference in material, both outside and inside the suit, and the drop of the suit on you. So we do everything in Naples. We haven’t brought any tailors over because most of the masters there are old and established. They have been in the same locations since the '50s and '60s. They aren't going to move now, and there's no reason for them to.
"But there is still need for a tailor here in Abu Dhabi to take initial measurements, and mark out changes on the first try, or 'prova' that comes back from the masters in Italy. We needed someone from Napoli, who could speak the dialect. If we had someone from Milan, for instance, we’d still have issues communicating because of linguistic differences," says Abdallah.
Bespoke Italia speaks to the heart of Naples, and has some of Naples' most famous tailors working for the shop. Abdallah admits this when pressed on the issue.
"We have some of the most famous tailors in Napoli working with us. We have three or four famous tailors, because of volume. If we’re requesting fifty suits a month, we need to split the load because a master tailor will only handle so many. On the other hand you don’t want to delay the client unnecessarily."
The process is can be time-consuming the first time around, with suits taking up to a month to deliver. Abdallah explains how suits travel halfway around the world a few times before they are finished to perfection.
"The first, and most important step, is to take accurate measurements, which we do here in Abu Dhabi. These are emailed to our tailors in Naples. The fabric our client has chosen is sent over to our suppliers, who ensure that sufficient quantities are sent over to the tailor. The tailor cuts the first 'prova' or try, and sends it to Abu Dhabi. We have a contract with a courier company to facilitate this. It takes about three days to send suits to and from Italy."
"When the first prova shows up here, we call in our client for fitting. Our tailor here marks out any adjustments needed, and the suit is sent back for finishing," he explains.
Shipping the first try from Abu Dhabi takes three days in transit, while sending it back take another three days. Add in a final three days for the finished article to travel from Italy, and you've spent around ten days in transit. The actual cutting and stitching time is around twenty days more. But things are far more rapid when a client revisits Bespoke Italia, because a record now exists with the tailors in Naples.
"Every tailor has certain clients. When a suit is finished and the client happy, notes are taken of changes and adjustments that were needed for the suit to be perfect on a client's body. The next time a suit won’t take as much time, because the tailor knows the nuances involved in the fitting."
At present, Abdallah considers Bespoke Italia a bit of a pilot project designed to test the waters and educate people about the joys of bespoke. But that hasn't stopped him acquiring some very important clients, with suits destined for members of the UAE's royal families hanging in the aisles.
Initial results have been promising, and Abdallah now wants to take the Bespoke Italia brand further. For one, he wants to expand into offering a wider range of completely bespoke apparel.
"Apart from suits, we already do tailored shirts and even individually tailored jeans also made in Naples. But there are some things tailors can't do, such as leather jackets and shoes. We would like to find skilled artisans who can make these for our clients too."
He is also keen to expand Bespoke Italia's geographical presence.
"We’re going to be opening other establishments. I would like to open in Dubai, and then expand into the region. And if we succeed, we can go international. Then we can consolidate tailors into our own tailoring unit. But will never move out of Napoli. That’s where the cream of tailoring is, and that’s where we’re going to stay."
As he turns and starts discussing the merits of double breasted versus three-button suits for a particular client, one gets the feeling that Bespoke Italia is a brand we're going to be hearing a lot more of.
Hisham Wyne knows a lot about suits and jackets. He has to. As an internationally recognised public speaker, presenter and MC, he’s on stage every week helping brands host great events — and he’s always dressed for it. He’s also a very experienced content consultant, creator and copywriter. Presentation might be important, but knowing the difference between competing terms is more important still.