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Feature: Fall Fashion: Clothiers Make the Man

William Kissel

Custom clothiers bring their tape measures, fabric swatches, and refined tastes to your door to create a complete, personalized wardrobe. They never handle a needle and thread. Their talents lie in their abilities to measure with precision and determine which fabrics, colors, and designs best suit you. And through their connections to the world’s finest cloth houses, suitmakers, and shirt suppliers, they can outfit you with one-of-a-kind fashions from head to toe.

HOUSE CALLS

The difference between personal tailors and custom clothiers, according to Jeff Landis, can be a matter of taste: The former often are unwilling to suppress their judgment and will reject requests that offend their sensibilities; the latter tend to be more flexible. A custom clothier, in addition to consulting on your wardrobe, will try to fulfill even your most radical sartorial visions, regardless of whether he approves of them. "I had a client who wanted a suit that looked like it was literally painted on his body, and every tailor in town refused to make it," recalls Landis, a custom clothier based in Chicago. "We deal with clients who don’t like to hear the word ‘no.’ It’s our challenge to find a way to have it done." In the case of the very tight suit, Landis did have it done—for better or worse.

Landis’ company practices the type of old-world custom tailoring that thrived in Chicago until the 1960s, when the profession faded with the rise of mass-produced menswear. In 1992, Landis purchased Strahorn Tailors, a century-old bespoke shop, from custom tailor Joe Montopoli, and two years later, he acquired the shop that belonged to Fred Mazzei, another popular Chicago clothier, who was known for his suits’ distinctive, clipped peaked lapels. After combining the two operations, he christened the new entity Mazzei Montopoli & Strahorn. He retained the shops’ craftsmen (including Frank Perri, who has been making coats for more than 44 years—first for the late Mazzei and now for Landis) and acquired their client lists. Then Landis took his business on the road.

"I started going directly to the customer, taking care of what he needs on the spot, in his home or office, and that’s where custom tailoring shines," says 49-year-old Landis, who worked at Richard Bennett menswear stores in Wisconsin and Chicago during the 1980s. He found that business’ traditional brand of retailing confining and limiting. "With direct sales," says Landis, "I’m able to show my client a whole store’s worth of clothing and accessories and have everything made to his personal specifications."

Landis caters to his clients at their convenience, instead of during normal retail hours. "My customers are in the financial markets or are futures traders working with the Far East and London, so they keep strange hours," he explains. "I have one gentleman who likes to see me at 10 pm on Sunday because that’s the only time he has available."

Landis’ forte is mixing color and texture into the wardrobes of his predominantly conservative customers without pushing them beyond their comfort zones. "We’re not in Los Angeles, where men might be looking for more of the wow factor," he says. "My clients want something unique and luxurious to pamper themselves, but it can’t stand too far out from the crowd. It might be a $10,000 suit, but they don’t want it to scream that."

Mazzei Montopoli & Strahorn, 312.987.0987

IMAGE MAKER

Kingford Bavender does more than just sell custom clothing; he offers you a persona. In fact, the 58-year-old Minneapolis-based clothier has developed a system he calls the Imagemaker. It helps clients plan their wardrobes, he says, based on the level of authority they want to project on any given day. "I explain how image is a communication tool and that your appearance sends a visual message that should coordinate with the verbal message you are trying to deliver," says Bavender.

Bavender separates his client’s wardrobes into four categories, which range from denim and T-shirts (Level 1) to dark power suits (Level 4).

He also applies different guidelines for different sizes, noting that he will dress a 6-feet-6-inch man differently than he would a man who is 5 feet 8 inches tall. "The taller guy already has physical dominance above the norm," he explains, "so I would try to soften his appearance with lighter colors and textures, whereas I might suggest a navy pin-striped suit for the smaller man to make him look taller and thinner and more authoritative."

Bavender’s idea of a balanced closet includes three well-made suits, each a conservative shade of blue or gray. "Black is a little overpowering for daytime business, so I advise against it unless you dress it down with a colored shirt and tie combination," he says. A high-quality travel blazer that pairs with a variety of trousers also should be part of the mix, as should a heavy topcoat, if one is necessary. "In Chicago, you need a topcoat," he says. "But Minneapolis is probably the weakest coat market in the country because we go from heated garage to heated garage. No one ever goes outside." (Click image to enlarge)

Regardless of where you live, Bavender says, making an impression with your wardrobe requires more than fashion sense. "If you’re going to the effort to create the proper image with your clothing," he says, "then you have to go to the next step and have it made for you and fit properly."

Kingford Bavender, 612.750.9486, www.bavender.com

POWER OF PERSUASION

As a clothier who also operates a pair of men’s retail establishments, Ron Brodeur is an anomaly among his peers. While he tends to clients in their homes, his business partner, Rob Carvell, travels between the duo’s two Brodeur Carvell stores in Florida (in Fort Myers and Naples), assisting customers who prefer to shop for themselves.

Brodeur finds it advantageous to offer his private clients the option of choosing either custom-made clothing or ready-made pieces from Pal Zileri, Mabro, Ermenegildo Zegna, and other brands that his shops carry. "The stores are intended to complement, not replace, the custom business," says Brodeur, who honed his sales skills selling college textbooks door-to-door before establishing his custom clothing service in 1993.

The boyishly handsome 43-year-old refrains from dispensing directives to his more mature clients. Instead, he makes only subtle suggestions that are intended to help them upgrade their wardrobes gradually. "You don’t tell a guy in his 60s he shouldn’t be wearing something, because he knows what he likes," says Brodeur.

"There is a gentleman for whom I’ve been making shirts and trousers since the day I began," he continues, "but he doesn’t buy a lot of suits." Brodeur once slipped a swatch of a Super 120s wool cloth in front of the client and suggested it would make a fine year-round suit, but the client was not interested. "Every year since, he has asked me, ‘What’s your newest, best fabric?’ This year I showed him Scabal’s new Summit 250, which makes a $13,000 suit, and he ordered one."

Brodeur Carvell, 239.940.7848, www.suitup.net

PERSONAL BEST

When Rod Baker moved from Colorado to Southern California in 1990, he expected that he would have an easier time selling custom clothing. "In Denver, they pair their Eddie Bauer boots with corduroy slacks and two or three layered shirts, and they’re ready to go. That’s business-casual dressing," jokes Baker, 44, who is the top clothier at Renzi Custom Clothing in Santa Ana, located 45 miles south of Los Angeles. "My clients are pulling up to restaurants in Bentleys or SLR Mercedes, and they want people to know that’s their car when they get out wearing their Bruno Magli shoes with no socks and linen slacks. Many of them are successful entrepreneurs who haven’t worn suits in 10 years."

Baker particularly enjoys working with clients to create fashions that are not available in any store. "My client gets to customize his wardrobe from 10,000 fabric choices," he explains. "He doesn’t have to go to a store and pick from the five or six things that might fit him. My client orders anything he can dream up, and it’s always in his size."

One man’s dream might be another’s nightmare; nevertheless, Baker does not question his clients’ tastes. "Some want to wear cutting-edge things that I personally wouldn’t wear, but because of how they look and who they are, they usually can pull it off," he says, noting that he once was commissioned to make a green morning jacket by a client who wanted to add something "wild" to his wardrobe. Not everyone possesses that much chutzpah, however, so Baker offers some basic, conservative wardrobe suggestions.

Regardless of where he lives, Baker says, "Every guy has to own a black or navy suit because he can wear it for business, for impromptu formal occasions, or pair the jacket with jeans." Baker also is a proponent of leather jackets. "Whether you are a rock and roller or a very conservative businessman," he says, "there is always a way to express your style with a leather jacket." For those living in, or traveling to, the Sun Belt, Baker recommends linen. "Linen is flat-out the most comfortable thing a man can wear, and it’s a great barometer of affluence," he explains. "A man wearing linen that isn’t wrinkled can afford to wear it once and have it cleaned and pressed. It’s perceived as something the wealthy wear because it requires a great deal of care." (Click image to enlarge)

Renzi Custom Clothing, 949.289.4845, www.renzicustom.com

FINAL CUT

It is an occupational habit for Peter Roberti: Whenever he shakes your hand, he immediately makes a mental note of how large your pants pockets should be. "When I ask a client what problems he has with his clothing, no one has ever told me he has trouble getting his hands into his pockets," says the 46-year-old Roberti, who is based in Rochester, N.Y., and has been fitting custom clothing for nearly three decades. "If I notice he has large hands, I ask if it’s okay to make his pants pockets a little bit larger. That’s when he realizes it’s been a problem for him."

By considering such small, hidden details, Roberti has earned acclaim as one of the country’s top custom clothiers from the Custom Tailors & Designers Association, the oldest apparel trade group in the United States. Roberti attributes his prominence in part to his father, Adriano Roberti, a master tailor from Italy who founded Adrian Jules, which makes many of the custom suits sold by Roberti and other clothiers across the country.

Sales are a big part of my job, but understanding how a suit is supposed to fit is the most important thing," says Roberti, who understands clothing construction well enough to recognize that a simple change, such as enlarging the pockets, often can dictate additional alterations elsewhere on the pants. "For that reason I always take a thigh measurement, so I can make the necessary adjustments," he says, adding that the size of a man’s foot requires equal attention. "If a man has a shoe size that is big, like a size 14, you can’t make the pant cuff a standard 19 inches in diameter. It’s got to be slightly larger, say 21 inches, so the proportions look right."

Peter Roberti (through Adrian Jules), 585.342.7160, www.adrianjules.com

BROTHER ACT

Brothers and business partners Manuel and Rudy Martinez of Baton Rouge, La., rarely have to court new clients. Their colorful sense of style and considerable Southern charm tend to attract inquiries, albeit more often from women than from men. "Mostly it’s the wives who come up to us and say, ‘I want my husband to dress like you,’ " says Manuel. "And we always reply, ‘Well, he can.’ "

It requires a sharp eye to coordinate a patterned linen waistcoat with a wool tweed jacket, and it takes a great deal of confidence to wear a hot pink cashmere blazer, the way the Martinez brothers might when visiting clients at their homes. "I think clothes speak long before you open your mouth," says Manuel. He credits their fashion sense to "parents who believed that if you dress well, people will treat you with respect."

Most men do not know how to mix colors, textures, and patterns, says Rudy, "so we try to teach them how to do it without looking too trendy. When they learn, they immediately become more interesting. People look at you and say, ‘I want to meet that individual.’ " 

Although neither brother is a tailor, both are familiar with the trade. Manuel, who is 55, began his career in 1979 as a tailor’s apprentice in Houston and was later mentored by top New York tailors William Fioravanti and Tony Maurizio. "They helped me create my signature coat, which is a classic British shape but with a trimmer silhouette and a lot of special details, such as hand-stitched lapels," he says. After graduating from business school at Louisiana State University, Rudy, who is now 45, studied fit and tailoring with a master craftsman from the Custom Tailors & Designers Association before joining his brother’s upstart firm, Martinez Custom Clothier, in 1988. They work with a roster of high-end suitmakers and employ a staff of master cutters to create all of their clothing, including pima cotton trousers and madras cotton shirts for the golf course.

"Louisiana has a lot of Mardi Gras and social events, so typically our clients need clothing to take them from the boardroom to the ballroom," says Manuel, noting that the brothers cut a lot of lightweight suits and sport coats, as well as a surprising number of tailcoats for formal occasions.

Ultimately, say the Martinez brothers, what you wear in more casual social settings and circumstances distinguishes you most. "Business clothing is a uniform, whereas sportswear is where a man is able to make a fashion statement," explains Rudy. "If you’re going to a polo match in Palm Beach, why not dress like you own the horses—even if you don’t?" (Click image to enlarge)

Martinez Custom Clothier, 225.928.9107, www.martinezcustom.com

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Photo by Ted Morrison