Inside the business of bespoke shoes, shirts and suits

Bespoke must be one of the most overused words in the English language, particularly when it comes to fashion. A few details applied by hand to a suit, shirt or pair of shoes, gives that item an instant cachet. But is it the real deal?

Fortunately, there's a small contingent of craftspeople lovingly applying their skills to create bespoke items by hand.

Bespoke is as much about the customer's personality as the item itself.

Andrew McDonald

"Bespoke is as much about the customer's personality as the item itself," says shoemaker Andrew McDonald, who has been making bespoke and ready-to-wear shoes for the last 24 years.

Operating from the Strand Arcade in Sydney, McDonald creates bespoke brogues, derby and double-monk classic styles for discerning men and also produces an extensive range of shoes for women. He creates a cast of the customer's foot, takes extensive measurements and occasionally designs orthotics as part of the design process.

Choices for the choosy

The bespoke shoe choices available from McDonald are extensive. Choose from a chisel-shaped toe, a round toe or even a winkle-picker (pointy toes popular in the early 1960s). The decisions also centre on the type of leathers, from cordovan and calf to the horse front. Those looking for something tougher might prefer bison.

Like most of McDonald's shoes, there's usually a slight contemporary twist to even the most traditional style, including asymmetrical shoelace lines. Costing between $2000 and $5000 (for crocodile) per pair, the shoes will be ready to pick up six to eight weeks after being ordered.

While the appearance of a bespoke shoe is paramount for McDonald, it's the fit that resonates long after the purchase. "Most people have slight imperfections with their feet, whether they're wider, longer or narrower, so it's vital to get everything perfect. You can see why my bespoke shoes take, on average, 20 hours to make," McDonald says.

Fit, but you know it

Tailor Daniel Jones is just as fastidious when it comes to creating bespoke suits. Jones runs GA Zink & Sons with his father Robert from their distinctive 1920s storefront in Oxford Street, Darlinghurst.

Daniel's grandfather, also a tailor, purchased the business in the early 1950s from another generation of tailors. Unlike off-the-peg suits that use fusing techniques, GA Zink & Sons only use the full canvas, like a toile used by a couturier.

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The starting point is the fabric, usually high-quality English. A style is selected, double or single-breasted, as well as the detailing, such as a notch lapel. Then the first 'baste' fitting is made, one of usually four fittings for a client.

"The fit is essential, taking account of your posture, as well as body shape," says Jones, whose suits sell between $2200 and $2600 (including GST). Those ordering bespoke suits include judges, barristers and bankers. Grooms also want to look their best for their big day. "You need to allow for about eight to 10 weeks," he adds.

American splendour

American Tailors, at the top of Melbourne's Bourke Street, is an institution when it comes to bespoke fashion. Operating since 1950, the beautifully presented store provides elegant suits for the city's well-heeled. In addition to creating bespoke suits, they also sell suits from Castangia, a leading European suit maker for the last 150 years.

An American Tailors bespoke suit can be bought for between $4000 and $4500, which include three fittings.Before decisions are made as to what type of suit is required, the client's specific needs are discussed. They may have their eye on a particularly fine fabric, often from Italian company Lora Piana, but they may also be regularly flying.

"You need to match the fabric and style with a client's lifestyle. A lightweight fabric may not be ideal for someone regularly getting on a plane," says Sebastian Jiacobello, co-owner of American Tailors. And like others working at the top end of suiting, only canvas is used as a starting point. Even the type of canvas used is selected according to the weight of the fabric, with a 250-gram canvas chosen for the lighter suits.

Unlike mass-produced suits that appear cookie-cutter made, a bespoke suit from American Tailors includes slight imperfections, not in finish or in the fabrics used, but mirroring the slight imperfections in each body type.

"The greatest challenge is allowing for posture," says Jiacobello, who laments when someone walks into the store with a photo of Brad Pitt wearing a suit. "Brad might wear a fashionable suit half-a-dozen times. Our suits are designed and made to be worn for years."

Uber bespoke

Eugene Notermans, General Manager of Hemden, in Malvern Road, Armadale, speaks about his shirts and suits as 'uber bespoke'.

A Hemden shirt can cost between $400 and $450, while the average cost of a bespoke suit is $4500. Hemden sources the finest fabrics from Europe, including Swiss and Egyptian cottons for shirts.

Its wool fabrics come from Huddersfield in Britain, produced from Australian wool. A shirt can take two weeks to make and repairs are part of the process. "After two years, the collar and/or cuffs can be replaced ($75 for a collar and $30 for cuffs)," says Notermans who enjoys using the quote from Oscar Wilde: "Man's first duty is to his tailor."