TAILORS and others in the garment trades are rather a close-mouthed lot. The secret formulas underlying various sauces and bitters are no more secret than the markup and the costs in the men’s clothing industry, but there are a few odd fads about the $245 ready-made men s suits mentioned in these pages last month that might be worth passing along. It had seemed unaccountable to me that anyone would pay such a price for a ready-made suit while a custom tailor of considerable repute is charging the same amount for his suits, which many people believe are the best in the world. Yet the ready-made business has its supporters.
“When a man pays that much for a ready-made suit,”one expert explains, ” it means that he has probably been badly singed at some time or other by one of the incompetents who call themselves tailors. There are other men who are in a hurry and who won’t take time for fittings, and you need at least three fittings on a made-to-measure suit. Then there are still others who don’t know what they want and who prefer a wellmade suit—especially if it’s a little on the sharp side —to the more conservative cut they would get from a first-rate tailor.” A fair number of well-to-do men would never, under any circumstances, he explained, turn to a custom tailor for their clothes.
As in the ease of almost all handwork, not even the best custom tailor can make two suits that are exactly alike in cut and fit. Somewhere in the creation of garments from cloth, tiny changes set in, an extra stitch or a hit of stretch here and there — changes which can defy all but the most, accomplished craftsmen. Even after the last stitch has been taken, a woolen garment can be further shaped by skilled pulling and pressing. Where all these needs have been fully dealt with, a good suit will keep its original shape throughout the life of the fabric.
In the quality of the tailoring process, the opinion seems to be that ready-made and custom-made suits can be identical. “Use the best materials and the highest specifications in each case, and the cost is likely to be about the same.” so my informant told me. “In the ready-made suit the customer has to pay the manufacturer’s profit plus the retailer’s markup, while only one markup profit is charged by the custom tailor. But the best of the custom tailors probably has to charge for a much higher percentage of other expenses; he has to pay a stiff rent in a good location; he absorbs the payroll cost of all the fittings as well as the cutting and sewing — I believe a single fitting might cost a tailor eight or ten dollars in payroll, and three or four fittings could cat up 10 or 15 per cent of his selling price.”The ready-made producer, by contrast, occupies a lowcost factory location, and fittings arc not his problem but his dealers’, “This fitting business can run into real money.” The expert, who had engaged in all branches of the business during a long and successful career, gave a derisive laugh. “A man’s weight changes by twenty or thirty pounds, his clothes no longer fit, so he takes them back to his tailor for alterations—free. Most tailors have to charge for it, but what can you do when a really big customer gains six or eight inches around the waist, brings in his suits, and complains about the fit ?”
The variety of fabries in a readymade offer is necessarily rather limited because of the huge inventory which would result if a big assortment were maintained in so many lengths and sizes. This deficiency is corrected to some extent by one of the $245 ready-made houses, which allows its dealers a quota of completed suits each year and an equal number to be made to order from a sizable selection of swatches. Thus a small dealer might buy twenty-five suits and put them into his stock and thereby be entitled to take orders for twenty-five more in more widely assorted fabrics. The fact remains that most men who wear this sort of suit seem to go in for fabrics of conventional design.
For any good suit, it was formerly estimated that about a third of the price represented the cost of the fabric, another third the labor, and a third all other expenses and profit. The informed guess today puts the labor cost at half the price, but all these factors can vary according to the volume. The custom tailor mentioned above was charging $140 for his suits in 1936— depression times —so that his price of today represents an increase of only some 70 per cent, surely a modest advance in comparison with others. In contrast, my informant estimated to me that one of the $245 ready-made suits formerly fetched $60 and that the $60 suit was just as good as today’s.
New increases in the tariff on imported textiles are likely to boost today’s prices even higher; but tariff or no, the subtleties and variety of British textile design will continue to find preference in the higher-price suits. This is, of course, a sore point with American manufacturers of woolens. They make, they argue, just as good a cloth as the British manufactures do.
But when it comes to design, the American usually goes no further than solid colors, herringbones, a diagonal weave of great simplicity, and plain vertical stripes. The British go right along, meanwhile, producing new designs every year, scores and even hundreds of variations in weaving, all within rather severe limits of decorum and conventionality, but achieving, nonetheless, a one-of-a-kind suiting the like of which was never seen before and will never be repeated. A “dark suit" in one of their fabrics will meet the conservative standard of what a dark suit ought to look like, yet on second glance it will be seen to bear no resemblance to any other dark suit,