Top Shelf: The Elusive Meaning of 'Bespoke'

"Bespoke" has a great deal to answer for. Not since "executive" or "deluxe" has a word been so monstrously distorted, abused and otherwise mangled into near meaninglessness. Today it seems that any object with slightly more pretensions to exclusivity than a hamburger can be labeled bespoke. The irony, of course, is that in theory you can "bespeak"—"commission to be made," according to my Oxford dictionary—a burger.

Too often the term "bespoke" is used as marketing shorthand to delineate another quality level for which more can be charged and which, notionally at least, offers a greater degree of exclusivity.

Indeed, it is difficult to arrive at an absolute definition of bespoke. The Savile Row Bespoke Association has made a valiant start, laying down a set of requirements regarding hand-felling and prick-stitching to which a garment must adhere before it can be called bespoke. Even so, nomenclature varies from house to house; for instance, Kilgour offers a tiered system at the pinnacle of which lies the wonderful tautology "bespoke couture."

To complicate matters further, often what is presumed to be bespoke is not: made to order, for instance, is subtly different. What a traditional bespoke tailor—say Rubinacci, Anderson & Sheppard or Caraceni—offers is very different from the made-to-order system. With made to order, a customer is measured and the formula passed on to a factory using a sheet to indicate such things as body shape and stance. Then an approximation—often a very close approximation, to be sure—of a bespoke garment is produced, sometimes using plenty of hand stitching. So it can legitimately be called handmade but not bespoke.

I hate rules, but if there is one rule regarding bespoke, it must be this: just because something is made for you does not necessarily mean that it is better than an object that can be bought ready-made. To return to the burger: perhaps the humble meat patty is best left to an expert like Ronald McDonald, who has many decades of experience and knows how to balance relish and pickle and cheese and bun, rather than going wild yourself and garnishing your own bespoke quarter pounder with, say, mango, anchovies, marmalade, ice cream, toffee sauce and chocolate sprinkles.

Guidance is important; otherwise you go completely off the rails. And with the bespoke "boom" of recent years, there is the risk that those offering bespoke services might not have the experience necessary to guide their customers. Speak (or even bespeak) to an optician like Sheel Davison Lungley of Meyrowitz in London's Royal Arcade, and one enters a world of frame dimensions and lens weights, not to mention the technical aspect of getting the right glass to correct one's sight. There are complex, almost Euclidian calculations about the interrelation of facial features: the breadth of a brow, the length of a nose, the height of an ear. Only when such underlying variables have been taken into account with a trigonometric precision can the discussion about color and material (which many would regard as the important part of bespeaking a pair of spectacles) begin.

But the bespoke artisan is fitting the customer's mind as much as his body. Like an actuary, a skilled tailor, shirtmaker or shoemaker can literally size up a person with a glance. Yet the customer's perception of who he is—and, more significantly, who he hopes to become through the wizardry of the craftsman's skill—is just as important and can only be arrived at after a long acquaintance: a lifetime may not be enough. Not for nothing does the proprietorial term "my" often prefix tailor or shirtmaker; the relationship is a highly personal one and it is a difficult balance to achieve, requiring time, patience and trust.

I have an anecdote from my own experience that illustrates what I mean. Some of my shoes are made by a man called Eric Cook. He is a genius, but he moves in mysterious ways: I once suggested that he make me a pair of lightweight summer shoes. I waited some months—bespoke involves delayed, rather than instant, gratification—and then he appeared with a pair of elastic-sided boots. They were certainly not the summer shoes I was after, but they were so fabulous that I ordered another pair in brown. In a usual customer-vendor relationship this would be unacceptable, but it is precisely what the bespoke relationship is all about. By the way, I am still awaiting those summer shoes.

It is such conundrums that make bespoke such a fascinating field: the thing is that becoming a successful bespoke customer takes almost as much time and instruction as becoming a maker of bespoke items. Take the shirtmaking temple that is Charvet on Place Vendôme, which vouchsafed what is perhaps my favorite ever statistic. The delightful owner, Anne-Marie Colban, once told me that she can offer 400 different shades of white. I have described this place as the Sorbonne of the shirt, where you can debate not just the shade of white, not just the choice of cuff, not just the angle, depth and proportion of the collar, but also the infinitesimal differences in the weight of the interlining in collar and cuff and how this can and should be varied between formal, semi-formal and casual shirts. Like all branches of advanced study, be it particle physics, paleontology or bespoke tailoring, it is a brave man indeed who claims complete mastery of his chosen subject.