To bespoke or not to bespoke: sartorially speaking that is the question. There have never before existed quite so many ways to acquire a personally tailored suit, though one must be rather careful with the terminology. Or — as the somewhat put-out old guard of Savile Row have recently found to their cost — maybe not. ‘Bespoke’ in their parlance has always borne a very strict definition: the client selects his cloth and lining, discusses the various details with the man who measures all sorts of bits of him he’d rather forgotten about, and this same tailor will carry out the all-important cutting. The suit is then completely handmade to the highest standards on the London premises, with four or five fittings over a period of months being quite the norm. This is how Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman, Henry Poole and the others have been operating for centuries. So protective are they of the process that they have just introduced a kite-mark to indicate that a suit has been made by a member of the Savile Row Bespoke Association. So when a relative upstart, Sartoriani — you’ve seen the adverts and been amazed by the prices — won a High Court ruling to allow them to call their product ‘bespoke’, there were rumblings the length of the Row.
Although I have never had a suit made by any of the above establishments — Huntsman would be the dream, to experience reputedly the best in the world — I have been fitted many times by the excellent John Lester in Jermyn Street, and I have also had very fine suits made by Raja Fashions, the Hong Kong set-up. So I felt it my duty as an industrious investigative journalist — a seeker after the truth — to see what Sartoriani had to offer.
The arrangement is impressive: small premises in Savile Row itself (largely, I suspect, for the sake of the label — the very thing that drives the Association crazy) while all the actual measuring is done in Old Bond Street — rather swish rooms opposite Tiffany and directly above Ferragamo. As Sartoriani are more or less openly courting the virgin — a chap who has finally chosen to be weaned away from off-the-peg — the initial encounter might appear daunting. Indeed, as one is confronted by a row of half a dozen very glamorous women, one might feel one has the wrong address entirely. But not a bit of it — one of these long-legged lovelies will escort you to a leather sofa in a large room with bolts of cloth stacked into mahogany bookcases, and offer you coffee. The fabrics on offer, though limited in hue, are of the finest quality English and Italian wools, while the measuring is carried out by master tailor Luigi Mancino, an extremely affable perfectionist.
The airy room with triple mirrors is a significant step up from the Raja Fashions deal, where one is measured in a Hilton bedroom filled with impeccably mannered Asian tailors who always seem to be watching the cricket on giant plasma flatscreens, whatever the season. But in the Sartoriani room, a shock is looming in the form of a long rack of black jackets, which you will be urged to try on: a novel beginning to a ‘bespoke’ experience. I suppose it saves time, though (Luigi attends to up to 40 fittings a day), adapting an existing template to your personal measurements. Any quirks you might care for are limited to the few styles on offer, but still it is perfectly possible to specify a quite unique suit: I went for Super 120’s Holland & Sherry cloth, a five-button cuff (all working) with one-button coat fastening and a shocking pink lining: jolly. At this point, the whole shebang is packed off to Germany and you twiddle your thumbs for a couple of months.
And at the first fitting: disaster. Not with regard to the cutting or tailoring, but solely because one of Luigi’s vital specifications had been quite ignored: the button on the coat (a jacket is called a coat in this world) should hover at navel level, but this one was nearer the crotch. Oh dear! Luigi was visibly angry at the error, though immediately promised a completely new coat: cool and professional, I thought. More weeks drift, and autumn turns to winter. Extra little tweaks over several fittings, and the final result is really rather fine. And no, of course it isn’t bespoke, and nor is it entirely handmade, but for 500 quid, you simply could not do better. So, while Huntsman remains the dream and Raja Fashions maintains its edge on fabric choice and perfect and truly Savile Row finish, I can safely report that Sartoriani is a very good deal indeed, and miles ahead of anything on the high street (which, in context, is barely to be spoke of).
Joseph Connolly’s latest book is Faber And Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design (Faber and Faber, £25).
Sartoriani, 24 Old Bond Street, London, 0207 495 3556.