Style: The Style Council
For years, New York investment manager Ed Shugrue III traveled to England on a regular basis to have his suits custom-made on Savile Row and his bespoke shirts fitted on Jermyn Street. Although he enjoys bird hunting in the English countryside, making time to meet with his tailors in London was a chore he found increasingly annoying.
“It’s impractical to have a real Savile Row suit made unless you live in England, because you need two or three fittings. Plus, there is no sense of timeliness among the top prestige makers,” says Shugrue, who is president of ES Capital Management in Manhattan. “It can be frustrating because you don’t always know when you’ll be back to be refitted. They may offer to ship it over, but there is no one to mark it up. It can take as long as a year to get a suit made, and you start asking yourself, ‘Where is all the custom attention that I expected, but didn’t get?’ ”
Shugrue’s intercontinental fashion challenges were resolved when he met Stephen Kempson, a dashing English clothier who had relocated to the United States and was offering his services as a private wardrober to a small but formidable group of American businessmen. Not only does Kempson possess a great sense of style, but he also understands the importance of convenience and expeditious service, says Shugrue. More important, Kempson recognizes that American and British gentlemen have different expectations for how their suits should fit. “In London, they put a strong rope on the shoulder,” explains Shugrue. “When I asked to soften it, they argued, saying that is not how a traditional suit is made. Stephen is willing to make an adjustment here or there; he gives you what you want without all the dogma.”
Kempson, who serves fewer than 40 clients nationwide, may be one of the newest, most discriminating players in a growing industry of private fashion consultants and personal wardrobers. These specialists make their livings by updating the closets of busy executives who have more talent for stock trading than suit shopping. Not only do these clothiers bring their wares to clients’ homes or offices on demand, their services enable busy professionals to acquire custom-made suits and sportswear without interrupting their work and private lives.
The idea of a private wardrober is nothing new. It dates to the 19th century, when wealthy men kept private appointments with personal tailors to peruse the latest striped flannels and solid wool worsteds and purchase a wardrobe for the coming season. Eventually the practice died out in the United States as tailors stopped making house calls. However, over the past two decades, national companies such as Allen-Petrie Clothiers, David Lance New York, David Rickey & Co., Renzi Custom Gallery, and Tom James Co. have attempted to revive this trade by redefining the relationship between a man and his tailor.
As combination stylists/consultants/ salesmen, most private wardrobers are dapper fashion experts who are trained in the fine points of tailoring although they never pick up a needle themselves. They have a keen eye for what silhouettes and hues work best with a man’s form and coloring. Because nearly all worked their way into the business as top clothing salesmen in the country’s best retail stores, they are extremely customer service–oriented.
“Stephen Kempson is more of a general contractor than he is a tailor,” says Shugrue of his wardrober. “He takes all the measurements, and together we select the fabrics and decide on the cut. Then he works with the tailors in England to ensure the construction and the proper drape of the suit.”
In addition to providing the clothes themselves, personal wardrobers enhance their services by using technology to offer additional perks. Partners David Heil and Rick Lamitie of California’s David Rickey, for instance, invented a patented color- and number-coordinated wardrobe management program that enables their clients—including sports greats Magic Johnson, Phil Jackson, and Dan Marino—to put together any outfit at a moment’s notice. David Lance New York will dry-clean, repair buttonholes, and store a man’s entire winter wardrobe during the summer and his spring clothing during the fall. Kempson makes quarterly forays into his customers’ closets to replace worn socks, dress shirts, and underwear. He will even resole shoes if necessary.
Naturally, such indulgences come at a price. Suits and sport coats purchased through personal outfitters can start at $2,500 and run as high as $15,000, depending on the cloth and custom details. Many clothiers also require minimum purchases to compensate for their added services. “It’s not about saving money for my clients,” says Kempson, who is based in Southern California but frequently meets with customers on the East Coast. “It’s about value that comes from the quality, and saving time, which is money.”
It is also a matter of convenience. Most Savile Row suitmakers visit major U.S. cities and see clients in hotel rooms on a revolving schedule, two or three times per year. Wardrobers, regardless of where they are located, are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I live in five homes around the world,” says business and motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, chief executive of Robbins Research International in La Jolla, Calif., and a regular client of David Rickey’s Heil. “Recently, I was at my home in Fiji and was asked to speak at the World Economic Forum in China. I’m pretty informal in Fiji and don’t keep a lot of suits there, so I just called David and he put together something appropriate and sent it directly to China so it was waiting when I arrived.” Heil and Lamitie also photographed and cataloged Robbins’ entire wardrobe on a private web site so he and his assistants can discuss and precoordinate outfits regardless of where the busy executive is in the world.
Despite the obvious advantages of such services, the one shortcoming of a private clothier is the dual role he plays as both stylist and salesman. “He can be an annoying pain in the neck and a typical, finicky, pushy salesman,” says radio host Mike Francesa about wardrober David Schwartz of David Lance New York. But, Francesa acknowledges, “David knows his stuff, and he’s a fanatic about what he does.”
One of Schwartz’s calling cards is a custom wardrobe book—a concept he discovered while working for competitor David Rickey in the early 1990s. The book catalogs the contents of each client’s closet and employs a special numbering system to help even the most fashion-challenged man navigate his way through ensemble coordination. “If you have a black suit with a lavender pinstripe, the book will show 10 shirt-and-tie options that go with it,” says Francesa, adding that Schwartz is so fussy he sometimes phones in his disapproval if the WFAN sports show host veers from the cheat sheet on television appearances. Francesa, however, counts on the criticism for guidance. “Whether I’m dressed in a business suit or casual sport coat and slacks, everything matches. I kind of pride myself on that,” he says. “When you’re big and don’t have the body beautiful, it’s nice to wear well-made clothing that looks great and fits right.”
Clearly, the goal of any personal wardrober is to sell new clothing each season, acknowledges Schwartz. But it is always an evolutionary process rather than a fast sell, he says, downplaying his sales function. “If a guy comes to me the first time and says he wants to buy 20 suits, I won’t sell them to him,” explains Schwartz, who, along with Managing Director Marc Streisand, meets clients in an elegantly appointed, cherry wood– paneled townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Instead, he says, the process begins with a half-hour rap session to learn about a man’s business, how and where he travels, and how he uses his clothing. Schwartz and Streisand use this initial consultation to develop a database of what the man owns and what voids in his wardrobe need to be filled. “I’ll usually start with a small taste of something that is a little more subtle in color, such as a gray or blue pinstripe or something solid,” explains Schwartz. “From that we see what we like, figure out the shape that fits him best, and move forward from there.”
Heil proceeds at a faster pace, suggesting a minimum first order of four key items or ensembles—a suit, a sport coat, a sportswear outfit, and a tuxedo—so the customer can sample each of David Rickey’s specialties. “But,” says Heil, “we produce only one outfit right away to make sure they’re satisfied with the quality and the fit.” Once they have a blueprint of sizes and preferences, Heil and Lamitie fulfill the initial order, and later graduate the customer to a complete wardrobe—everything from suits, shirts, and neckties to formal wear, shoes, socks, belts, and cuff links.
A well-honed stylistic eye, attention to detail, personalized service, and the ability to build a fine custom wardrobe are the key elements to look for when choosing a private wardrober. But it is important to remember that just because something is custom-made does not mean it is well-made, points out David Rickey’s Heil, whose business has its own in-house tailor for alterations and currently employs eight wardrobers nationwide.
Most wardrobe consultants do not have the luxury of working with top suit houses such as Kiton, Attolini, and Brioni primarily because their services compete with those brands’ own bespoke businesses. Instead, they often have their suits tailored by Adrian Jules or Martin Greenfield in the United States, Cheshire Clothing in England, or Lou Myles in Canada, among others. These are all reputable, well-established companies, but they remain relatively obscure in the world of luxury apparel. Their clothing is mostly machine-made with handwork added later because, as Heil puts it, “Our clients don’t want a handmade suit that looks homemade.” But not all wardrobers have to rely on third-party tailors for manufacturing. Some national operations—including Tom James Co. in Franklin, Tenn., which operates 124 offices nationwide and is part of the Individualized Apparel Group that also owns Oxxford Clothes—are large enough to produce their own clothing.
“A tailor might be a great man of the needle,” says Schwartz, a gentleman so versed in stylistic elegance one hardly notices his girth cloaked under an impeccable navy beaded-stripe Super 180s cashmere suit and geometric-patterned silk necktie. “But even if the quality is great, you’re not necessarily going to get the style to go with it. If you go to a store, you’re limited to what it has. Coming to me is like going to Bergdorf Goodman, but instead of it saying Bergdorf’s out front, it says [the client’s] Suit Shop, because everything in the place is made for you.”
Leading Personal Wardrobers
David Lance New York
David Rickey & Co.
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Martinez Custom Clothier
Baton Rouge, La.
Savile Row Custom Clothiers
St. Louis, Mo.
Tom James Co.