June 18, 2008 3:00 am
London's Savile Row tailors, long synonymous with the best of British craftsmanship, have lost their centuries-old grip on the word "bespoke'' as a new breed of retailers seeks to bring made-to-measure menswear to the masses.
The Advertising Standards Authority, in its ruling published today, dismisses a complaint that flogging suits not entirely handmade as "bespoke'' is misleading.
On the street where the word is said to have originated and where even the most basic pin-striped ensemble can run to as much as £5,000, it will be a decision that raises even the most genteel of eyebrows.
Savile Row institutions such as Gieves & Hawkes, which sells to the monarchy, and Hardy Amies have been fighting a rearguard action against dipping sartorial standards for years.
The advertising regulator's ruling may further intensify competition at a time when even the City's elite are forsaking high-priced luxuries in the wake of the credit crunch.
Sartoriani, a menswear retailer, was referred to the ASA for offering bespoke suits "uniquely made according to your personal measurements & specification''.
For the bargain price of £495, down from a regular £995, consumers were promised the choice of the finest Italian fabrics as part of a "limited introductory offer''.
Sartoriani, for its part, readily admits that its suits are not entirely handmade. After an initial fitting session in London, where a customer chooses style and specifications, the fabric is sent to Germany to be cut and sewn mostly by machine.
No consumer, the company argues, could possibly be deceived into thinking that they were buying a suit made to the world famous standards of Savile Row for one-tenth of the price.
Within the British menswear industry, the term bespoke has traditionally referred to a fully handmade suit, using a pattern cut from scratch.
According to Savile Row lore, the word dates back to the 17th century, when shops on the street still kept their cloth on the premises and a customer would "speak'' for a particular length of fabric.
Under strict quality guidelines monitored by industry association Savile Row Bespoke, a two-piece suit must be crafted from a choice of at least 2,000 fabrics and requires at least 50 hours of hand-stitching.
However, in its first foray into the realm of what is and what is not bespoke, the ASA says that the historic term of art has moved on.
While customers would still expect a bespoke suit to be tailored to their measurements, the majority would not expect that garment to be entirely handcrafted, the regulator said.
Sartoriani called the decision a victory for individuality and for "affordable luxury''.
"The ruling marks the dawn of the 21st century for the tailoring industry which, for many years, has been overshadowed by the emergence of big brand names,'' the company said.
Lombard, Page 18
You can have a bespoke kitchen, bespoke wallpaper, a bespoke wedding or a bespoke mortgage, writes Tom Braithwaite . But at the birth of each neologism a Savile Row tailor shudders.
For the traditional craftsmen in Mayfair, the word has a clear meaning: a suit must be cut from cloth to a wearer's personal pattern drawn up after taking dozens of body measurements.
The Oxford English Dictionary was of more help to Sartoriani than Savile Row in the spat over the word, with its definition of a garment "ordered to be made".
Tailors say the word goes back decades to when a customer chose a measure of cloth and it was said to have "been spoken for".
In Savile Row today, individual customers' patterns are still kept on racks. In contrast, made-to-measure alternatives alter standard templates rather than starting from scratch.
The ASA adjudication sided with Sartoriani in its assertion that the tailors' definition was not the same as that generally held by the public. They also said "some tailors and high-end fashion designers described their made-to-measure suits as bespoke".
Careless or complicit in helping to change the definition, those tailors will not be popular with some of their peers.
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