Friday, July 15, 2016

The Suit That Couldn't Be Copied

About two years ago, I became interested in the garments of Davide Taub, the head cutter for Gieves & Hawkes, a house in London at which Alexander McQueen apprenticed, and which has a reputation for designs that are both elegant and daring. A cutter is the equivalent of a designer, and Taub is considered by some to be the finest cutter on Savile Row. I had come across his work on his blog, where he posts images of his more ambitious clothes and their construction. There are images of an alpaca-wool greatcoat whose collar, when upturned, evokes a tulip, and another called the Barrel-Back Overcoat, which, when Taub is shown wearing it, makes him appear large and mysterious and from a different era.

There is also a photograph of one of his most famous garments, a commission from Bentley, which asked four Savile Row houses to make a driving coat inspired by one of the carmaker’s current or historical sedans. You can see the garments on YouTube. Each is well made, but seeing them one after the other is a little like seeing a Golden Delicious apple, a Fuji apple, a McIntosh apple, and, at 3:55, when Taub’s jacket appears, a fighter jet.

His coat is made of a luxurious olive flannel that is obviously sturdy and obviously soft; the pockets are higher than one would expect, and slanted so that one can reach into them easily while sitting. His driving coat uses action pleats behind the sleeves, to ease mobility, and has a detachable bib, much more beautiful than the word implies, with a crosshatched pattern that suggests the days of open-top roadsters. This mixing and matching of historical styles is one of the reasons that his garments are distinctive. They suggest a controlling intelligence.

When I saw Taub’s clothes, I was struck with desire. I have always dressed like a schlub; to do otherwise feels like competing to make myself attractive, which feels like setting myself up for humiliation. But I had the sense that if I wore a garment by Taub, I would become a different person. It was this desire—combined with the fact that one of his overcoats starts at around six thousand dollars, and one of his suits at eight thousand—that made me wonder if I could get a tailor in some less expensive part of the world to copy one of his garments.

This idea did not seem outlandish to me, since I travel to Asia regularly. I was also aware that handmade clothing is not necessarily associated with luxury there, as it in the West. In fact, when I was growing up, in India, machine-made clothes were more expensive than handmade ones, and everybody preferred the former because the handmade ones always had strange problems—one pant leg being shorter than the other, or shirts with a saggy bag of cloth between the shoulder blades. Still, I’d had clothes made by Asian tailors before, and I thought I could find one who could make a sophisticated garment.

I was concerned, though, about copying Taub’s designs—in effect stealing his intellectual property. To me, this seemed cretinous; I’m bothered, after all, that people have posted PDFs of my novels on the Web, so why should I do the same to someone else? With the hope of getting Taub’s blessing, I e-mailed him and asked if he would be willing to comment on and perhaps advise a tailor who was trying to copy what he had done. I told him that I would write an article about this attempt at reproduction.

Among the interesting things about Savile Row is that the people who work there have complete confidence that what they do is genuinely different and better than what other people can do. They appear to invite scrutiny, arguing that when their work is examined, it will be found admirable. Not only did Taub say yes; he also offered to give me a garment, so that it could be taken apart and so that the tailor who was trying to reproduce it would have the best possible information. His reasoning was that something made by Gieves & Hawkes could be taken apart but not put back together again in as lovely a form. Many of the decisions that go into making a garment what it is—how tightly a piece of cloth is pinched when it is sewn, or what angle the needle enters at—leave no trace except in the result.

Gieves & Hawkes sends Taub to New York every February, June, and October to see clients. Last February, I met with him briefly, and we sat in a hotel-lobby restaurant. Taub is slender, dark-haired, bearded. He tends to be so quiet—not initiating conversations but instead waiting for the other person to speak—that he can seem aloof.

I had brought with me a jacket that I’d had made by a tailor in India, whom I thought I might hire to copy Taub’s work. I pulled the jacket from a plastic grocery bag, and he turned it inside out and spread it out over the table. A pained look appeared on his face. After a moment, he asked me how much the jacket had cost to construct. I said two hundred and fifty dollars. He nodded. “One of my pockets costs more than that.” He added, with kindness, “Every garment has its own story. I can’t tell what pressures the tailor was working under. We have customers who will pay a lot and who will give us time to make the best product possible.”

I asked him what faults he was finding in the jacket. He hesitated, but I pressed him. He then explained that the stitching around the buttonholes was very rough, and that this is such a basic mistake that it even has a name: the squashed bug. As Taub analyzed the jacket, I realized that there were also differences between what I had asked the tailor to do and what he had actually done. For instance, I had asked him to sew the canvas, which gives the jacket much of its shape, and not to fuse it, since the latter can cause the jacket to begin puckering after a few years. The tailor had told me that he had done as I requested, but Taub said that this was not the case. (Later, I called the tailor in India, because I’d been speaking with him about reproducing Taub’s work. He said that he had not expected I would find out about the fusing. He sounded angry at me, as if I had created a problem for myself.)

After looking at the jacket, Taub suggested that it might be best that I not try to have replicated one of the more challenging garments he had displayed on his blog. Maybe I should try to get a traditional suit made, instead. Most tailors can make some semblance of a suit, he explained.

In the months that followed, as we e-mailed back and forth about the article, Taub continued to offer me a jacket to take apart, but he ultimately convinced me that a tailor trying to copy Gieves & Hawkes’s work might only become befuddled. He suggested that the best way for a not-so-great tailor to show off his abilities would be by doing what he already does well.

I began to think that I should abandon my project. I no longer believed that a tailor in the developing world could make a Savile Row–level garment, and the essential unfairness of asking somebody in India to try to do so felt increasingly clear. I could, of course, experiment, but I didn’t have money to waste. A high-quality suit made with high-quality cloth, wherever it was made, was bound to cost at least six or seven hundred dollars.

Still, something had happened to me. I had become like a child who wants one particular toy and dreams of it all the time. I somehow knew, intellectually, that what I wanted was not going to happen, and yet I continued down the path I was on.

by Akhil Sharma, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Edward Lakeman