By  on June 18, 2007

MILAN — Traditionally the word couture brings to mind chic socialites who recognize the impeccable cut and flou of a one-of-a-kind designer gown. But now that term is gaining widespread currency in men’s fashion.

Tailored clothing labels introduced in recent seasons include Zegna Napoli Couture, Gianni Versace Couture and Ozwald Boateng Bespoke Couture. Valentino dubbed his fall ’07 show “Couture for Tomorrow’s Man.” In interviews, designers from Hedi Slimane to Giorgio Armani have bandied the “C” word about as they described their luxe, individually tailored brand of men’s wear (though Tom Ford recently renounced the use of “couture” in reference to men’s fashion, arguing that it is too inextricably linked with women’s wear).

Still, the list goes on, and it seems to have inspired competing terms—su misura, personal tailoring, abito privato—all of which point to a growing interest in highly sophisticated, personalized tailoring. Made-to-measure is no longer just about fitting men who are difficult to fit. It is fast becoming the ultimate expression of personal style, as well as an increasingly significant piece of many men’s wear businesses.

“Luxury has become so commonplace,” says London-based designer Todd Lynn, who before launching his eponymous men’s line last year created bespoke suits for Bono, Mick Jagger and other rockers. “New luxury is not about if you can afford it, but if you can get it.”

If “luxury” has become somewhat devalued through overuse, made-to-measure is the next frontier in reaching discerning customers, and offering them a singular product and experience, according to industry watchers and fashion executives.

“The sensibility of having a garment that is made and customized individually is compelling,” says Roger Cohen, president and chief operating officer of Corneliani USA. “These are products that are yours alone—a story to tell your friends.”

Over the past few years there has been a proliferation of designer and tailored brands looking to cash in on the made-to-measure phenomenon. Their approaches vary—some are closer to true custom clothing than others—but a cross-sampling of men’s wear players indicates that made-to-measure programs not only boost sales but help designer and luxury brands achieve a level of exclusivity coveted by consumers.

“In the last two years we’ve seen made-to-measure and custom programs really take off,” says Jim Hurley, managing director or the New York–based Telsey Advisory Group. “Everyone from Prada to Ralph Lauren is promoting made-to-measure in their stores, and that wasn’t the case a couple of years ago. There is definitely [a growing] demand for it.”

Zegna, Isaia, Kiton and Savile Row stalwart Gieves & Hawkes are among the many companies that have already seen double-digit growth in their made-to-measure programs.

Depending on the brand, made-to-measure typically represents from about 10 percent (as in the case with Corneliani) to 20 percent (Zegna, Isaia and Pal Zileri) to 25 percent (Kiton) of top-tier tailored clothing sales. And forecasts for the future are bullish. Executives at Kiton, Isaia and Pal Zileri said they expect the percentage to rise to 30 within the next two years. Zegna said it is seeing 10 percent yearly growth as it concurrently expands its service to footwear, belts and leather outerwear.

“Made-to-measure has been phenomenal for us,” says Gildo Zegna, chief executive officer of Ermenegildo Zegna, which has been offering the service for more than a decade and has a factory wholly dedicated to the category. “It requires a major investment, but we have been very satisfied with the returns.”

Indeed, as many companies have discovered, entering the made-to-measure field requires more than just intriguing marketing and some handsome fabric swatches. It takes skilled tailors, a knowledgeable sales staff, adequate floor space and a production cycle geared toward timely, individual deliveries.

“There are many skills involved—measuring and understanding fitting, selecting cloth, adjusting where necessary and so on,” says Mark Henderson, CEO of Gieves & Hawkes. “The customer’s expectation is high and, when well executed, the result can be a truly pleasurable experience for him. The end result can fit almost as well as a bespoke suit.”

Bespoke—that British tradition that involves an individual pattern hand-cut for a client—is where it all started. And while very few companies offer true bespoke product, few are averse to capitalizing on its principles of personalization and superior service.

Canali started a made-to-measure program in its Beverly Hills shop this season, with plans to build a solid foundation before presenting it to its retail partners. Other tailored clothing companies have extended the service to shirts and ties, while brands outside the sartorial realm have also ventured into customization.

For years Ferragamo has offered made-to-measure footwear. This fall the Florence-based company will begin testing made-to-order knitwear in its Italian stores, and a full launch is expected next year.

Knitwear is a newcomer to the custom trend. Before Ferragamo, Cruciani was one of the few brands, if not the only one, to also offer custom knitwear. Clients can choose from 315 colors and never again have to worry about sleeves being too long.

“Made-to-measure garments in general bring with them organizational production problems,” says Luca Caprai, owner of Cruciani. “We’re fortunate because we are knitwear specialists. With knitwear, it’s even more difficult to find the right fit because the material is more elastic than the fabrics used in suits.”
Managing fabrics is just one of many challenges. Once production is in place—which often includes sophisticated software to recover and keep track of personal measurements and a client’s singular curvature—the emphasis turns to service at retail.

While many brands offer trunk shows or even more personal initiatives—Corneliani holds small dinners at clients’ houses the night before a trunk show—most requests come at other times. Executives emphasize that a capable sales associate is just as valuable as a skilled tailor. Not only do associates need to take precise measurements, they often must act as psychologists, listening to and advising customers on the various choices.

“Is it a premium product or a premium service? It’s both,” says Zegna. “You have to have that mix and you have to be consistent on a global level.”

As Patrizia Mastromauro, brand manager of Pal Zileri’s abito privato (or “private suit”) service, puts it: “The company needs to descend exactly into the retail point of sale.”

Like Pal Zileri, many companies have stringent training programs for the on-floor staff. This is a crucial area of competition: Tailored clothing executives love nothing more than pointing out the shortcomings of competitors’ programs.

Tailored heavyweights, like Brioni, Kiton or Santandrea (formerly Saintandrews) rightfully defend their provenance. “You need to make the distinction between an industrial su misura and a sartorial su misura,” says Luca Trabaldo Togna, owner of Santandrea.

Antonio De Matteis, commercial and marketing director of Kiton, agrees that there is an “abuse of the term su misura,” but he recognizes the growing importance of made-to-measure. “I’m pleased that so many designers are beginning to take advantage of a service we’ve offered forever,” De Matteis says. “Anyway, there’s su misura and then there’s su misura.”

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