What is handmade, really?!
Getting at the heart of craftsmanship
A large part of my time abroad is time spent getting at the heart of craftsmanship. It is a mission of mine to decode the cryptic world of handmade objects. Why? Because they are amazing and when we understand what goes into these pieces, we move past the object worship and can really appreciate the hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years that go into a tradition.
Back home I transcribe the conversations I have with craftsmen into layman’s terms. Left in their original form they might be confusing. My aim with these transcriptions is to create an environment that opens the conversation, where no one is afraid to ask questions. There is NOTHING wrong with not knowing how to do something. But there is NO EXCUSE for not asking. Seriously, go ahead and make a fool of yourself. I do it all the time.
Asking obvious or naive sounding questions of expert craftsmen can be a bladder-emptying experience. Sure, none of us wants to look like an idiot. That is totally understandable, although if I can tempt you to come across the threshold of fear/embarrassment for a moment….when you ask someone about what they do, they are usually flattered. They are happy to explain their life’s calling to a genuinely interested person. Which is why today, I would like to delve into a topic that gets molested by marketing and advertising all the time. They do a huge disservice to craftsman and potential clients every day.
It is a discussion I have frequently with a friend of mine and a very respectable photographer in his own right, Mark Cho. For those of you who don’t know Mark, he started the gentlemen’s shop The Armory (which has boutiques in Hong Kong and New York City) and is co-owner of Drakes London (who recently produced the collaboration pocket square and scarf I designed for The Explorer’s Club). Mark lives in a world of artisanal clothing. Literally anything in your wardrobe can be furnished by the artisans that Mark works with daily. He is my clothing counterpart when it comes to loving craftsmanship.
Over lunch in Tribeca, Mark and I discussed the confusion that many of his customers have and how we can dispel some of the myths and marketing junk that muddies the very best with some of the very worst products in the world.
Made to Measure, Custom, and Bespoke
These terms get thrown around a lot. But all handmade things are not created equally and Made-to-Measure and Bespoke are worlds apart. What do I mean?
For those of you who are not familiar with how craftsmen use these terms, here is quick summary. This way, when you hear someone say “oh we offer a bespoke so and so…” you can tell whether they are the read deal or just blowing smoke up your nether region.
This term is for pre-templated items that are selectively adjusted along certain measurements.
Example: Shirts. Why shirts? Because this is a very easy example to understand. Cars and watches are much more complicated.
What you get: A made to measure shirt is based on an existing template. The main cuts and proportions are predetermined, but they will adjust the neck, sleeves, cuffs and you can pick some details like buttons, pockets and plaquettes.
What you don’t get: For example, if your shoulders do not fit the same template as the model, you are out of luck. This would require rebuilding the whole template and Made to Measure does not do that. Think of it like having an off the rack item altered in advance.
The Premium: Made to Measure is typically 25%-50% over retail. On average this translates into a $100 shirt costing anywhere from $125-$200. Not a bad markup if you fit the their template, but if you don’t then Made to Measure can be a complete loss.
This term is almost meaningless. It can be used as a cover for Made to Measure or can be improperly applied to Bespoke. In its best scenario this usually means choosing from a selection of pre-designed elements that are then woven together. But all in all, it is a very misleading term.
What you get: You never know, in terms of quality, but it is often marketed as more expensive than Made-To-Measure, even if it is actually the same thing. It very much depends on the maker. Some customized items can be great, but the term is too vague to know whether it will be really good or not. You can have a hand-made, custom piece that is absolute garbage. Research what you are buying because if they are selling “custom”, things can go really wrong really fast.
What you don’t get: You don’t get unlimited options. This is a big mistake I’ve seen frequently in custom architecture, cars, motorcycles, clothing, and shoes. Clients think it means anything they want, but this is rarely the case. If you want every little request met, you are actually asking for Bespoke.
The Premium: Inspite of the fact that custom things might only be nominally different than Made-To-Measure, the premiums are the Wild West in terms of pricing. Items can be anywhere from 2x to 10x as expensive as retail. Be aware of what you are really getting.
When this term first started gaining popular traction in everything from tailoring to travel, it was liberally applied. But it is a whole different ball game than Made-To-Measure. Real bespoke means it is made for you from beginning to end. To stick with the “shirt” example, they are not working off of a template, they are making you your very own. This is where One of a Kind comes from.
What you get: Whatever you want or can afford. As my building mentor used to say, “You want a bathtub on the ceiling?! Sure, as long as you pay for it.” Bespoke means they will more or less do anything you want or whatever they will tolerate. Some makers will turn away business that is not inline with how they like to do things. It is up to them.
What you don’t get: There is an old axiom in construction…Clients want Quality, Speed, and a Low Price. In reality you can only ever get 2 of the 3. In Bespoke you can only get 1, Quality. True Bespoke items are NEVER fast and NEVER cheap. But how expensive, might you ask?
The Premium: While I’ve heard many times, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” that is not exactly true. There are plenty of ways to research costs up front so your jaw does not hit the floor when they tell you the bottom line. BUT, the safest way to figure the cost for Bespoke is to add a zero. Yup it can be THAT expensive. Shoes from Allan Edmonds maybe $400, shoes from JG Cleverly try $4000. God forbid you stumble into John Lobb, there you are looking at closer to $10,000.
Say you want to buy a watch, and maybe you fancy a Rolex…you might be able to walk away for $7,000. If you have Roger Smith, Kari Voutilainen, or Fp Journe make you one, it could be $100,000-$650,000, and if your watchmaker is only making severely limited quantities like Philippe DuFour, you could be bidding against other collectors for over $1,000,000.
If you find yourself in the world of shirts, you might get a decent dress shirt for around $100 at a shop. But head over to Leonard Logsdail and you will find a 3 shirt minimum at $500 per shirt. If that doesn’t get you to where you want to be, try Luigi Borrelli for $800 per shirt.
The point is, when a high end craftsman starts from scratch for a client, it can come at an enormous premium. It is clearly not for everyone. But the amount of work that goes into making a template for a single client is fantastically time consuming.
The Artisans mentioned above
If you would like to look further at any of the artisans above, I wanted to include the links. And in full disclosure, I don’t get any money from these guys, I just think they make great things.
- The Armory-Hong Kong & New York City
- Tailor CAID-Japan
- Ring Jacket-Japan
- GJ Cleverly-London
- John Lobb-London
- Roger Smith-Isle of Man
- Kari Voutilainen-Switzerland
- Fp Journe-Switzerland
- Philippe DuFour-Switzerland (he does not have a website, this is the next best thing)
Enjoy the treasures you discover!