Suits for All Seasons

Last summer a large yacht appeared in the Bay of Naples. Onboard was a leading American industrialist. Shortly after it anchored, a tender was sent to collect Mariano Rubinacci, probably Naples's best-known custom tailor, who has outfitted the likes of Les Wexner, Ron Perelman, Jeffrey L. Bewkes, Barry Diller and Luca di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari.

This trip was something well beyond the ordinary. In the time since that meeting, the customer has ordered more than 200 suits—and a single bespoke suit can start at $6,200. Rubinacci produces only about 1,000 handmade suits a year. With shops in Naples, Rome, Milan and London, he counts this customer as an entire extra operation. "In 40 years I have never experienced such a thing," he says. "The maximum until now was 30 or 40 suits a year, but over 200 ..." His voice trails off in awe.

In today's world, a handmade suit— expensive to buy, labor-intensive to build—should be an anachronism. Instead, the top end of tailoring is enjoying a remarkable vogue. Bulk buying of custom suits is becoming increasingly common among the superrich. And tailors are reaping the rewards. For instance, Anderson & Sheppard, a Savile Row tailoring house known for its soft silhouette and the former patronage of the Prince of Wales, recently took an order for 68 suits. "It was fantastic for us, but of course they don't want to wait too long," explains the head cutter and managing director, John Hitchcock.

In an on-demand world, the really rich are prepared to pay for the best-quality fabrics and craftsmanship. But they do not like to come in to see the merchandise. It is hardly unusual for a tailor to fly across a continent on a client's plane to conduct a fitting. The proprietor of one longestablished Savile Row tailor says his firm now flies to Japan, in addition to America and Europe, to fit clients. He has a full order book—but his London shop is empty.

It is the fast-paced, multicontinental way of life of today's über-bosses that accounts for the growing demand. These days, it is routine for a captain of industry to have homes in four or more time zones. "If you have five or six houses, each with 10 suits for winter and 10 for summer, it is very easy to get up to 100 suits," says Rubinacci. And then there are those who like to buy suits for their business partners. Anyone can send a case of cabernet, but sending a colleague to one's tailor is a more sophisticated gesture.

In an ever more brand-aware world, tailoring is coming to be seen as a cool, personality-defining choice. Timothy Everest, one of the leaders of the British tailoring revival that began in the 1990s, designs clothes for Jay-Z. "The other day we were talking about diamond-encrusted fabric," he says. Everest has an atelier in London's chic but scruffy East End, and now a shop in Mayfair as well, and makes regular visits to New York to see his influential clients. "They understand what is going on in the world of fashion, but they don't want to be part of that fashion world." After all, many clients are pioneers who would hate to be seen as slavish followers of fashion.

When it comes to their new role as the favored playthings of billionaires, the world's better-known tailors are cheerful but cautious. "The other day I took an order for 22 suits," says Hitchcock. "I went to see my own CEO, and she looked up and said, 'I hope you took a deposit'." She was right: the client may be one of the richest men in the world, but it could all be gone tomorrow.