Custom Designed By Hand, Digitally

Certain adjectives carry an almost magical aura that makes one snap to attention and succumb to lust. The words in question vary from person to person; for some it might be "deep-fried" or "Swiss-made" or "turbo-charged." For me, the mystical descriptor is "bespoke"; for years I've pined for a handmade, custom-designed wardrobe. There's just one problem: I'm a journalist, not a partner at Goldman Sachs. So I've had to devote most of my slender resources to satisfying more basic needs like food and shelter.

Now Colin Hunter and Peyton Jenkins think they've found a way for me to have it all. The two preppy, 20-something New Yorkers and onetime University of Virginia classmates are the founders of Alton Lane. The company, which soft-launched in October, aims to offer custom clothing to the discriminating masses by employing another ingredient also irresistible to most males: high technology.

The idea is simple and savvy. The partners, a former banker and a consultant, use a 3-D digital body scanner to measure customers and transmit the data to tailors in Bangkok (who are overseen by a third UVA classmate, the scion of a Thai tailoring empire). By relying on offshore labor, carrying no inventory, and shouldering minimal overhead and staff costs, Alton Lane can offer individualized clothes at a fraction of the price of traditionally made bespoke—about $500 for a suit, versus several thousand. That's a smart move given that the Great Recession has increased demand for conservative duds (read: interview suits), and statistics show young men returning to tailored clothes.

Alton Lane isn't the first company to marry high tech to fashion. That honor goes to Levi's, which put an early version of the 3-D scanner in its San Francisco flagship in the late '90s. Brooks Brothers then brought the machine, which is produced by tc2 (a nonprofit research company funded by the apparel industry), to New York in 2001. But after a big initial splash, Brooks got distracted by a takeover and internal rebranding, and stopped promoting the gadget.

That oversight, and technological developments that have made the scanning equipment much smaller and cheaper (the machines now sell for about $30,000, compared with $100,000 in 2001), created an opportunity that Jenkins and Hunter hope to exploit. The product and price they promise is so irresistible that I had to try it for myself. So early this winter I went to their tiny Broadway showroom, which is decorated like a 15-year-old boy's vision of an English social club: leather couches, a frayed Persian rug, whiskey decanters, and an Xbox. Stripped down to my skivvies and feeling sheepish, I stepped into a black felt–lined booth. As instructed by a purring, automated female voice, I stood on two foot-shaped placeholders, grasped the handles placed at briefcase level, and clicked the trigger. Lights strobed for 7 seconds as 32 cameras and 16 scanners recorded some 400 measurements (of which Alton Lane uses about 30). Either the female android didn't like my underwear or it really, really liked the rest of me, because I was told to take them off and try again. By the time I emerged, fully dressed but with my dignity shredded, my digital avatar had popped up on a computer screen. (Who knew my posture was so terrible?) After about 15 minutes of flipping through fabric swatches and discussing options, I was sent on my way, with promises that my new wardrobe would be ready in three weeks.

Some two months later I'm still wearing my own clothes. It turns out that hoary adages like "you get what you pay for" are as hard to defy as gravity. So far I've been back to the showroom for two fittings, and they haven't gone well. The first was a comedy of errors: my shirt was the wrong pattern and so tight that the placket buckled when I did up the buttons, while the new blue blazer fit like a neoprene wetsuit and rendered my torso completely immobile.

Nor do these guys offer the kind of customer service you'd get from an Old World tailor. During the first failed fitting they were slow to apologize, and offered their regrets only after trying to convince me that this was how their jacket was supposed to fit. By my second trip, at 11 on a Sunday morning, they were venting their frustration directly at me. When I had the temerity to suggest perhaps the blazer shouldn't be cutting off the circulation to my brachial artery, Jenkins looked at me and said, "I know how a jacket is supposed to fit, Jonathan."

Thoroughly convinced that this was not the case, I went to see Alan Flusser, owner of New York's Custom Shop and the dean of American bespoke tailors. Flusser is no enemy of technology—he's currently developing his own iPhone app—but he wasn't exactly surprised by my experience. You "can't really use the word 'bespoke'" for what Alton Lane does, he said. "Bespoke refers to a process where an individual pattern of a person is made while the person is still fresh in the tailor's mind's eye, then a garment goes through two or three fittings, and then it's made by hand on the premises from the best-quality fabrics." In Flusser's view, the tailor-client interaction is one of the most complicated exchanges in retail, since "bespoke is about coming up with very subtle nuanced responses to different problems—posture and that sort of stuff. It's about whether the tailor is prepared to do whatever it takes—including remaking the suit from scratch—to make it work."

One thing led to another and our conversation became a fitting; over the course of about 90 minutes, Flusser and two associates took some 50 individual measurements by hand while soothingly talking me through the process of creating a tweed coat, some shirts, and a pair of gray flannels. I left the studio feeling slightly stunned by what I'd just paid—but also convinced I'd gotten a bargain.

As Joe Dixon, the senior vice president of technical services at Brooks Brothers, told me, "The one thing a computer can't do is talk to you and get a sense of what you really need. There's an intimacy that lets a good tailor be successful. The trouble is that good tailors are a dying breed." Someday soon machines will make our dinners and mop our floors and fabricate our trousers—no doubt cheaply and very well. But something valuable will be lost. So for the time being I'm sticking with the humans and their measuring tape; there will be time to switch once the last one goes extinct.

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