By  on February 11, 2008

An unlikely neighborhood is becoming New York’s new center of tailored clothing.

NEW YORK — There’s something incongruous about Michael Mantegna and his surroundings: he—in natty, peak-lapel, blue pinstripe suit with contrasting vest, pocket square and perfectly burnished shoes—and the area that surrounds his shop, New York’s Lower East Side, the tenement-lined “bargain district” that, despite its recent gentrification, is still a neighborhood in transition, and not at first blush a likely location for a high-end, custom tailor shop. 

But this past September, Mantegna opened a small design studio, called Michael Andrews Bespoke, in the basement of 20 Clinton Street, to serve the growing number of young men who are interested in the service and exclusivity of custom clothing but dislike the marble-floor fustiness of Manhattan’s old-guard tailors and the anonymity of high-end department stores. 

And Mantegna isn’t the only one. In the last three years, the Lower East Side and the area just west of it, known as Nolita, or North of Little Italy, have become the unlikely epicenter of the city’s resurgent custom clothing market. Between Houston and Spring streets to the north and south and Mott and Chrystie streets to the west and east, there are at least five men’s shops whose centerpiece is their custom clothing programs. They are Seize sur Vingt, the first clothier to open in the neighborhood, Lord Willy’s, SEW, Freemans Sporting Club and Duncan Quinn. (Mantegna’s shop, outside that bubble, lies 10 blocks to the east.) 

It’s a curious development in a city whose youngest professionals entered the work force at the height of Casual Friday and whose current leading men’s stores follow the denim-and-sportswear model perfected by Barneys Co-op and Scoop. 

It’s curious even knowing that the market has long anticipated the return of the young customer to tailored clothing. It was assumed that brands with cachet among younger guys (like Calvin Klein) would be able to meet the needs of this new customer and, to a large extent, the market has done so, as clothing companies have hustled to trim silhouettes, update fabrics and launch new lines appealing to a younger guy. 

But the custom end of the market, cluttered with Italian luxury brands and venerable independent tailor shops, is by and large not a youthful one. Models and fabrics within the most visible made-to-measure and bespoke programs are fairly conservative. Nary a customer with an eight-inch drop in sight.

“There is gap in the market for a guy who doesn’t want boxy off-the-rack [clothing] from the department store or over-styled clothes from Thom Browne and Dior,” says Mantegna, who is also a practicing lawyer. “There is also a clear divide between uptown and downtown tailors, which is clearly reflected in their clothes.” 

Mark Andrews Bespoke, which opened its own location in a speakeasy-like basement space after operating out of a shirt store for a year, has landed about 400 customers, the majority of whom are professionals in their late twenties and early thirties who “have money but don’t identify with the conservative dress of their bosses.” Mantegna’s own suit, a slim, classic light-blue pinstripe trimmed with rakish details, like pink buttonholes and a flaming red silk lining, achieves a kind of work-friendly dandyism that his clients are drawn to. 
That point of view is consistent among the new tailors in Nolita, though the exact articulation varies. 

Duncan Quinn, who owns a shop of the same name on Spring Street, is one of the veterans in the neighborhood and refers to his clothing as “rock & roll meets Savile Row.” Scott Wasserberger of SEW, which opened in October of last year, describes his high-low aesthetic as “finery with garbage.” Two doors down from SEW, Lord Willy’s is known to inject 1960s London whimsy into staid classics. 

Like many trends that take hold in New York City, the contemporary tailor shop could prove to be a provincial fascination and never move beyond the city’s hyper-cultured borders. But the Nolita tailors believe their concept has legs. Mantegna wants to open another post in Atlanta and eventually wholesale his off-the-rack line. Wasserberger expects SEW to become a “national chain,” and Quinn, the unofficial pacesetter of the pack, has already opened two non-New York doors—one in L.A., the other in Dallas. “Suits that have a bit of an edge are not available many places,” Quinn explains. 

It’s no surprise that two in this new regime, Quinn and Mantegna, are former lawyers who turned their suit-shopping angst into opportunity. Indeed, the contemporary custom tailor shop seems ready-made for cash-rich, young professionals seeking to indulge both their idiosyncrasies and career goals. But the Nolita clothiers insist that their appeal is more about attitude than age or occupation, and that their clients include artists, musicians and other members of the creative class. 

Price is a draw as well. Mantegna’s bespoke suits, manufactured in China, open at a staggering $795, well below many designer off-the-rack (OTR) brands, let alone Italian or Savile Row bespoke suits. Wasserberger, who shut down his family’s 60-year-old tailor shop in Brooklyn to open SEW, retails his OTR and custom suits at the same price, between $1,850 and $4,250. 

This should set off alarms. Custom clothing, consisting of an original pattern and at least two fittings, for the same price as OTR? Wasserberger says he’s able to keep his custom prices low thanks to his father, a 75-year-old veteran cutter who works in back of the small shop making custom patterns. All of SEW’s garments are made at the well-known Primo Coat Corp. in Long Island, Wasserberger says, adding that, as a newcomer to the market, he needs to compete on price. 

Still veterans of New York’s custom suit industry, many of whom have shops in midtown near the city’s suit-clad professionals, have turned a skeptical eye on the upstarts downtown and their claims to tailoring excellence. Among them, esteemed author and sartorialist, Alan Flusser, who’s been dressing the elite out of his eponymous custom shop since 1986. “In true custom, there has to be a raw fitting with the canvas. Then that is turned into a garment,” he says. “My guess is that this is not going on.” He also notes that true custom tailors do their tailoring on-site. 
Bespoke has certainly become an abused term, and its definition in terms of make and fittings is far from standardized. But Wasserberger says his bespoke line matches that of his competitors uptown. “Depending on the customer, we fit him three to four times, including a canvas try-on and a finished try-on,” he says. 

But the Nolita clothiers differ from their forebears in significant ways. Before, tailor shops were run by the master tailor. The grizzled septuagenarian who greeted clients at the door and took measurements also made the garment, or at least knew how. 

But the owners of the new custom shops are not tailors. Many didn’t even have retail experience—Taavo Somer, co-owner of Freeman’s; Mantegna of Michael Andrews and Duncan Quinn included—before opening their shops, let alone sewing skills. But to them, craftsmanship, while key, is no more crucial than point of view, specifically, their vision for the customer. “Any idiot can run a tape measurer around you,” says Quinn, “but that doesn’t mean it’s going to look good.” 

In this world of custom clothing, one’s brand is just as important as one’s ability to cut cloth, and its leaders are less tailors then impresarios, whose clothing is priced according not only to its make and fabric but to the salability of the owner’s taste level. “What I have come to learn is that this business is really abo ut how you convey the measurements,” says Wasserberger, describing his model as a narrow, short body with a fuller top and shoulders. 

And though these up-and-coming shops may break with tradition, they are injecting creativity into a market often dominated by sameness. Certainly a place like Freemans Sporting Club, with its vintage-inspired clothing, manufactured in and around New York City, and sourced from deadstock fabrics, is nothing if not a rebuttal to the prevailing logic of the tailored clothing market, which relies on overseas manufacturing and new-right-now, luxury fibers. “So much of the market is gunning for super 180s and super 200s, just trying to get finer and finer,” says Somer, a trained architect who opened Freemans Sporting Club next to his restaurant, Freemans Restaurant, two years ago. “We don’t do that. Most of our cloth is super 50.” Freemans’ made-to-measure program, starting at $3,000, includes an initial consultation, raw try-on, finishing fitting and a final fitting. The tailoring, however, is all done out of house at Martin Greenfield. 

There is a whiff equal parts exclusivity and rebellion in these shops, albeit a kind of rebellion only the upwardly mobile can afford. Somer said his shop was a response to the prevalence of T-shirts and denim in the market. “Ultimately, it’s not very badass to wear jeans anymore,” he says. “What could be more [transgressive] than wearing a suit and a tie?” 

Explaining the prevalence of custom clothing in the neighborhood, some cite the Lower East Side’s more affordable rents or the growing cachet of Nolita retail, but together these new tailor shops form a loose confederation that is translating a rigorously traditional segment of men’s wear to a new customer. Quinn, for one, welcomes other custom tailor shops to the neighborhood, even ones right down the block. “The more men that come down here, the better,” he says. 

Some might call these contemporary tailor shop owners charlatans who are co-opting the reputation earned by traditional tailor shops. Others might describe them as savvy retailers who have parlayed a staid luxury business to a new market. But the demand within these shops, and their continued expansion, speaks for itself. “Most people come in the first time because of fit,” explains Mantegna, “but what gets them hooked is the creative process. I get a few e-mails a week from guys saying that we’ve ruined them. They’ll never buy another suit off-the-rack again.” 

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