From the book: The Coat Route – Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat by Meg Lukens Noonan
Why would someone pay that kind of money for a cloth coat that bore no luxury designer label?… Where was the fun in owning something that was so under the radar that no one but you and your tailor knew how special it was? Who had the patience to wait weeks, even months, for a coat or a suit when you wanted it today?
According to author Meg Lukens Noonan, the short answer to these questions lie in bespoke tailoring’s mantra: Those that know, know.
The Power of the Individual
“Knowing not showing”, in its most literal sense – with labels tucked discreetly inside inner pockets – implies that the power of bespoke clothing lies in how they make the wearer feel about themselves and defining one’s individuality in a world where mass luxury brands are regularly touted and flouted.
The $50,000 coat was commissioned by Vancouver businessman Keith Lambert and created by fourth generation Sydney tailor John H. Cutler and his two-person team. It was crafted entirely by hand, stitch by stitch, “as if machines did not exist.”
Although the word ‘bespoke’ has been highjacked to promote everything from insurance to ice cream, it has a very specific meaning: In the tailoring trade a customer would first select and reserve – bespeak – specific yards of fabric for use in the creation of his suit or coat. Once assigned, this fabric was “bespoken for,” used solely for clothing made from scratch and based on a pattern created for that singular client.
The quality and detail-conscious world of bespoke stands in marked contrast to the world of “fast fashion.” Vertical integration enables companies to translate runway looks into quick-turning merchandise in about two weeks, with little expectation that they will – physically – last much beyond the current season. And, while not everyone can afford to drop tens of thousands on a single article of clothing, the economics shift when one imagines a coat lasting a lifetime – and even beyond.
For her book, Noonan hit the road, tracing the coat’s complex, international evolution and meeting the many craftsmen, artisans and business men who had a hand in bringing it to life. It is the combination of specialized labour and the provenance, rarity and scarcity of materials that would dictate its final price.
The coat is made from the fleece of vicunas, a distant relatives of Arabian dromedaries and Bactrian camels, found only on the Andes altiplano stretching from southern Peru to northern Argentina. The landscape is desolate and the climate punishing, cold and dry enough to produce an extra-fine and fluffy cinnamon-colored fleece. At just 12 microns (1/25,000 of an inch) in diameter, it is finer than cashmere (19 microns) and human hair (40 to 120 microns). The fibers grow at just 1 inch per year and are short, making spinning difficult. Each animal produces less than one pound of fleece per shearing, which is traditionally done every three to four years to protect the supply. It is worth its weight in gold.
John Cutler wanted the finest silk lining that money could buy and he had two powerhouse options in mind: Hermes and Florentine designer Stefano Ricci. Ricci is considered by many necktie connoisseurs to be the best in the world, offering a price range from $200 to the over-the-top $35,000 for something limited-edition and diamond-studded. His other offerings include the finest Egyptian cotton shirts, crocodile belts, platinum cufflinks and silk robes.
I design my clothes for people who don’t need my clothes, Stefano says. They are attracted by the idea of having something special. They try once and they want more, because they feel good in what they are wearing. Thanks to God, they get addicted – they want to possess.
After months of deliberation Ricci did what he never does: He agreed to sell a measure of his hand-printed silk lining for a garment produced outside of his workshops.
French fabric house, Dormeuil, is simultaneously a purveyor of luxury yard goods and a keeper of history.
Almost all of the firm’s cloth is woven and finished in West Yorkshire, England – seat of the industrial revolution – and is stocked in rolls in their Paris warehouse. Tailors require only a few metres of fabric to create a suit or coat, and so they order by the cut length from Dormeuil. They are able to create short runs quickly to meet the particular needs of fashion houses like Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Prada. Their fabrics are encoded with a DNA that provides traceability, ensuring all end users receive the genuine article. They also work with individuals to design one-off fabrics, which may include precious metals or the weaving of one’s name into the fabric.
Once woven, the fabric undergoes a “…twelve-step process of being cleaned, softened, pressed and dried,” which takes two weeks and is likened to wine-tasting: the hands-on feeling of knowing something is just right.
The object, always, is to have the cloth feel like what it costs
Dormeuil sent three coat lengths of 100% vicuna cloth to John Cutler in each of navy blue, black and tan. This fabric would cost nearly $6,000 per yard.
Buttons and Gold Trimmings
Until early in the 13th century, clothes were more of a draped affair. The introduction of buttons with buttonholes in European fashion permitted garments to follow the shape of the human body – to create a silhouette – and provided a medium for differentiated decoration.
Buttons became important status symboles for the elite and an important new medium for artisans – enamal and precious gems, turned out stunnning miniatures works of art; the finest buttons were reserved for the aristocracy.
Earth tones replaced the sparkling and colourful in popularity and horn became the choice of material, as it would be for Keith Lambert’s coat.
Animal horn was a wonder material…it could be made pliable with heat and then pressed with designs or insignias, hammered into workable sheets and powdered and melted down into a moldable goo…leaves of it were used as panes for early lanterns.
Peter Groves, the button manufacture, is one of the last men in England with the knowledge and skill to produce horn buttons. It would take five weeks to turn, drill, tumble, dye, lacquer, dry, sort, and buff the coat’s buttons to a soft finish. By comparison, Quiaotou in southern China, produces synthetic knock-offs at a rate of 15 billion buttons per year.
The final touch is an engraved 18 carat gold plate, attached to a chain, which would serve as a hanger inside the collar. One of the best gold engravers in the world, John Thompson of Sydney created a design that incorporated Cutlers’ logo on one side and Keith Lambert’s initials on the other. This final flourish added several thousand dollars to the coat.
Lambert would end up commissioning a near-identical coat in tan from John Cutler, which would, this time, be lined with Hermes silk scarves. The third and final piece of vintage vicuna cloth would become a full-length cape to be worn over his recently-commissioned Scottish kilt ensemble.
Not only was Lambert enjoying the pleasure of handmade clothing made of the finest materials, he was staving off the threat to a bespoke tailor – and other highly-skilled and increasingly rare trades – from mass custom production.
If you wish to order an inscribed/signed copy of The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat, please contact Ms. Noonan directly at [email protected].
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