10 September 2012


Savile Row London

What’s a $4,000 Suit Worth?

The title of an interesting article about craft in the New York Times, by NPR correspondent Alan Davidson. Interesting to me, because I'm curious about the economic models that support crafts-people and how they compare with the economics of those who craft cities, and the value to those who support the craft.

Turns out it is very difficult to make a go of it in the bespoke suit business, difficult in the United States, and anywhere else in the world. Most, even those with the means, are not willing to undertake the wait and the trouble of multiple fittings, let alone investing the $4000 plus outlay. Even to be to be clothed in something that is 'that good'. The bespoke tailor offers the accumulative skills of craft, the knowledge of the materials, the cutting acumen, the experience of knowing how the cut and drape of the garment can flatter the owner over many years. A result that can only be created by a few very skilled and experienced artisans available in the world. Yet despite the great benefits of wearing such a garment, the superb detailing, the conveyance of discernment and taste upon the wearer, with the sheer value it represents, still the market places a low overall demand for such a thing. The profit for such an endeavor is quite low.

From the article:

"Tailors pose an odd riddle for our current economy. Why can’t a wealthy city — particularly at a time when the rich are doing so well — support a niche business that people are willing to pay for? Even London, the historic home of the bespoke suit, isn’t immune. During the 1980s and 1990s, Anderson & Sheppard — the prestigious Savile Row suit maker to kings and movie stars — seemed content to survive through its existing clients and, perhaps, their sons. But in 2005, Anda Rowland joined the company and began catering to newer customers. (She even plans to introduce a line of casual trousers and accessories to capture more of the brand’s value.) Seven years ago, the company made 17 suits each week for revenue of $3.6 million. Today Anderson & Sheppard makes around 25 suits per week, for $5.4 million a year."

The article goes on to describe how that is remarkable growth for a custom suit maker, but by Wall Street standards, not much to crow about.

So we have another anecdote describing the unfortunate condition: in spite of all the accumulated wealth of the world, the real artisan is dis-proportionally devalued, and overlooked in favor of the ephemeral. Why do these artisans pursue something where the monitory rewards are so marginal? They do it, because they can't help it; they love it.

And cities themselves require a fair amount of 'bespoke' work to make them work well, now and over time. Most who build in cities do not value or even understand the effort and expense, the inconvenience, the force of will that it takes to make a great place, the bespoke place. So we get a lot of off-the-rack, and made to measure (draw your own city-building inferences to corporate architects and formula design) responses in the places that we live and work. Craft in city design is given lip-service, but is seldom supported for very long, or very often.

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