In the first half of this two-part commentary, I went about describing what Filipino custom outfitters do and why they are not supposed to be considered true bespoke tailors. I also gave my word to identify a possible substitute for that moniker.
Before I reveal my suggestion, bear in mind the following as the characteristics of the typical custom outfitter here in the Philippines:
- the taking of basic measurements and their translation into equally basic patterns for each client
- making garments according to pre-existing proportions which are minimally adjusted to suit the client’s recorded measurements and pattern
- time- and cost-saving shortcuts for fundamental parts of clothing construction (machine stitching almost all of the garment’s seams, adhesive fusing in collars and lapels)
- considerable freedom of expression is available for clients in terms of color and decorative trimmings, but not for specific proportions of the different parts of the garment
- personalized consultation and rapport-building, which normally help craftsmen to understand clients’ needs and build long-term business relationships with them, are given less time and importance
Of course, this is still considered a notch above RTW, where the consumer usually doesn’t even get to meet the craftsman or someone similarly involved with the manufacturing. But this list doesn’t quite match the characteristics of bespoke either. What it closely resembles is made–to–measure, the somewhat broad middle ground between RTW and bespoke.
Made-to-measure, or MTM for short, is called such because it is a system that produces generic garments following a client’s specific measurements. The difference with bespoke is that MTM still draws up clients’ patterns with a generic set of proportions in mind. MTM outfitters will try to adjust those generic proportions as close as possible to a client’s pattern, without compromising the overall form. This is as opposed to bespoke, who creates the proportion of each garment entirely from scratch based on a client’s bespoke measurements and pattern.
Picture it this way: MTM can follow your chest and waist measurements closely, but it cannot follow how curved the hollow of your back is or how your torso tapers from chest to waist. In contrast, bespoke can do those things and so much more.
We may ask why MTM doesn’t just follow bespoke’s example. If it’s a process for creating custom clothing, why doesn’t it just maximize the potential for personalized proportions? There’s actually a good reason why they don’t, and it has to do with the second major difference between bespoke and MTM.
The MTM garment construction process almost exclusively uses machines, for efficiency and lower labor costs. This means that when the cloth is cut based on the generic MTM pattern (with adjustments to match the client’s measurements), it can be fed directly through sewing machines with no need to re-calibrate their settings. If the machine sewers had to adjust their equipment for each project, it would defeat the purpose of efficiency achieved through machine sewing.
The same adherence to efficiency and cost-saving applies to how jackets, blazers and coats are generally given supportive internal structure. The bespoke standard is collar and lapel canvassing, a process of sewing in layers of supportive material inside the lining to give lapels and collars an attractive natural look. MTM, however, foregoes canvassing and just uses heat-sensitive adhesive fusing. This results in lapels and collars that look like flat and lifeless sections of cloth folded together.
Altogether, this means that clients of MTM outfitters only have access to color and decoration as their ways to personalize the garment further. MTM can accommodate a client’s choice of material, fabric color, and decorative trimmings such as contrast stitching or unique buttons. Bespoke personalizes clothing beyond this level, making every garment feel unique to an individual from the fit and proportions down to the material, the color and the decorative trimmings.
There is one other thing bespoke craftsmen do that MTM outfitters do not, and that is forming a solid business relationship with clients. Bespoke tailors probe each client’s needs in detail, in order to form a basis for how to deliver their services. Not everyone who commissions a suit or a topcoat does so for the same reasons, for example, and this is why proper consultations with clients is the best practice among bespoke tailors. This is also done with the additional consideration that the client may become a regular, creating potential for future business with them and even with their descendants. Meanwhile, MTM outfitters are mostly concerned with what kind of clothes a client wants made, and will ask the bare minimum of questions. Their goal is mainly to generate a sale from an inquiry, and to do it in the most efficient way possible. Now, I’m not saying this is absolutely wrong. It’s a valid business practice; my point is just that it accomplishes very little besides making a sale and freeing up the outfitter to work on other queued commissions. There is little consideration for creating a customer experience that will encourage clients to become regulars.
It is for these particular differences that Filipino custom outfitters are, I argue, better referred to as MTM outfitters instead of bespoke tailors. It’s the same logic as knowing the difference between an EMT and a doctor. MTM is not, however, a label intended to debase our local clothing craftsmen. The respect for their work remains, and is all the more enriched with the knowledge of what they can and can’t do. It’s when we are fully aware of their capabilities and limitations that we can maximize the potentials of their services, and therefore ensure that they can adequately deliver according to reasonable expectations. Consistent delivery will help them maintain and improve their reputation and attract other new clients.
By identifying them as MTM and educating others on what to expect from that level of craftsmanship, we are helping them keep their businesses thriving in ways that exaggerated labels of bespoke or couture cannot. And I think we can all agree that it’s better to have them around, than to make do without them. (Just imagine how difficult it would be to get perfect wedding outfits, or properly fitted uniforms for our children!)