Those close to me know that I have two wardrobes -- slob (most days) and aspiring dapper (on occasion). Back when the dollar hit its most recent highs to the pound and euro around the turn of the millennium, I used to buy most of my clothes on business trips to London. From shirts on Jermyn Street -- Hilditch and Key is by far the best (don't get me started on that diatribe) -- to an off-the-row tailor who is about 15% less than his Saville Row neighbors, I became accustomed to shelling out good money for a classic style. But it wasn't mad money. Today, these tastes would require mad money thanks to a euro / pound / dollar exchange that makes a Boxster cost nearly twice as much in the UK (factoring in taxes) as it does in the US. Perhaps this is why so many Europeans are buying European cars in the US and re-importing them back in their home countries. It's also why many Europeans are not-so-jokingly referring to the US as their new low-cost sourcing country.
But none of this is good news for my wardrobe given my thrifty tendencies. In fact, it's especially bad news considering my proclivities towards bespoke work clothes rather than the more plebian off-the-peg or made-to-measure threads that US retailers try to pass off as the real-tailored thing -- which they're most certainly not. Given this poor exchange situation, I've been unable to justify what amounts to over $200 per shirt for the real London thing, not to mention the cost of a bespoke suit these days given the exchange. It's not that I don't have the cash. It's just that there are better places for it and I couldn't sleep at night knowing that I was devoting those types of sums to my wardrobe.
Given this situation, I set out a year or so ago to identify some new sources of clothes. What I discovered in China was disappointing, unfortunately. While in Shanghai, I tried one shirt-maker that came highly recommended. The prices were right ($45 per shirt) -- roughly double or triple that of typical Shanghai tailors. To be truthful, the quality and fabric selections were not bad relative to London. But I had to stay on them for every detail, lest they skimp around the edges. The final product was also cut too short on some shirts (presumably to save money) and ends up coming un-tucked at the slightest movement. Final grade: C+. Now, this is not bad relative to much of the crap that passes for custom tailoring and shirt-making in China and Hong Kong relative to London, but I don't have time to sit on a provider to get all the details right. I expect it. Nor would I consider shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a suit after this experience.
Turns out other Asian cities aren't much better. Bangkok has loads of cheap tailors, but few who have served Western apprenticeships (if any). Central Europe is another option. In fact, my tailor contracts to have his shirts made in the Czech Republic (and they're quite good -- better than Thomas Pink and approaching the few real Jermyn Street shirt makers that are left). But I probably wouldn't trust them for a bespoke suit, unless I had a strong recommendation from a friend. There are also local options in the US (e.g. Oxxford, Hickey Freeman), but they're quite pricy, not to mention not quite the real thing from a fit perspective, considering they're not bespoke tailors.
In desperation, I stopped by my local Brooks Brothers in Chicago the other day. I must say I was impressed. The last time I bought anything there was right as the quality was going downhill. Clearly since the new owners took over after Marks and Spencer drove the quality and experience into the ground in the late nineties, things have improved dramatically. Is it a replacement for my old providers? Probably not. But if you're looking to save a small Fortune over European prices for similar quality, it's worth a shot. In the second part of this post, I'll provide a few tips based on some recent purchases at Brooks Brothers, my new Spend Management wardrobe provider.
- Jason Busch