The Bespoke Unit team visited Benson & Clegg, a prestigious bespoke tailoring outfit, at their Jermyn Street showroom this past July. First, we spoke with Mark Gordon, the Director of Benson & Clegg, about the company’s robust history and plans for the future. You can read our conversation here. Next, Tony Martin took us on a tour of their storefront and workroom.
While Tony is the owner of Benson & Clegg, he is also the outfit’s Head Cutter. In this position, Tony lives and breathes bespoke tailoring. As he described his craft, we were again struck by the rare humility of B&C’s operation. It is run, managed, and owned by skilled craftsman, rather than business school graduates. Maintaining the company’s emphasis squarely on expert workmanship, Tony & Mark have aptly managed one of the most difficult tasks. Benson & Clegg’s influence continues to spread, well into the 21st century. And their products remain as stylistically relevant today as they did in 1937.
An Interview With Tony Martin, Benson & Clegg’s Head Cutter
BU: In broad terms, could you tell us about the suit-making process?
Tony: A bespoke suit is a hand cut, hand made garment that is made up of over 60 – 70 man hours.
The process starts when you meet the cutter to discuss cloth, style and the fit of the suit. The cutter will guide you in the right direction in terms of cloth weight and structure for the purpose of the suit. The cutter will also give you advice on the style and fit of suit that will work best for your figure.
The cutter then takes a full set of bespoke measurements that allow for the creation of a paper pattern unique to the particular client. The cutter will also note down the clients “figuration,” which is unique to each of us. Details like a shoulder lower than the other, round back, hips forward, and so on and so on. “Figuration” is how one holds oneself, how all the parts work together, apart from their isolated lengths and widths. All of this information helps to make the very best suit for that person. For me, each garment that I create is a piece of art.
Once the cutter has done that, he can create the paper pattern using a simple piece of chalk, maybe a pencil, a tailors’ set square with scale measurements, brown pattern paper, and paper shears. When the pattern is finished, the cutter will lay the pattern onto the client’s chosen cloth, mark it out using tailors chalk, and then “strike” it out using his trusty cutting shears. The cutter writes out an individual work ticket for each item, because the coat will go to the coat maker, the trousers will go to the trouser maker and, if the client is having a waistcoat made, that will go to the waistcoat maker.
Once each tailor has finished putting the garment together, the cutter will contact the client for a fitting. After the fitting, the cutter will make all manner of notes to change the initial pattern. He’ll then rip the fitting down, smooth it out on the iron, lay the altered pattern back onto the cloth, re-mark and re-cut. Then give the job back to each tailor for the whole thing to start again. This process usually repeats itself three or four times for each suit. The suit itself becomes more and more advanced, until the final product is ready.
Then, as we say in the trade, ‘the suit goes home.’
BU: How would you define the difference between made-to-measure and bespoke?
Tony: A bespoke garment is made from a set of unique individual measurements and figuration details. You would expect to have between 3-4 fittings as a new client and 2-3 as an existing client.
A made-to-measure garment is cut either by hand or machine, depending on the quality of work room. A made-to-measure work room will cut from an engineered block pattern, but use a similar set of measurements and figuration as would a bespoke cutter. Maybe the biggest difference is that a made-to-measure garment is made using different types of machine, albeit by skilled machinists, whereas a bespoke piece is made by hand and handled solely by the cutter and tailor.
BU: What attracted you personally to the trade?
Tony: I grew up in and around bespoke tailoring. My grandmother was a tailoress. She worked for her brothers, all tailors or cutters themselves, in the East End of London before and after the Second World War.
My father was a very smart man. In the 1960s (his early 20’s), he had his suits and overcoats made in Savile Row, his shirts and ties were from Jermyn street, and his shoes from St James. I guess you could say that I have inherited a passion for fine tailoring.
I have two older brothers who were also very smart and had their own sense of style. They had a tailor in London, so I followed them and commissioned my first bespoke suit at the age of 16. This only confirmed my passion for the trade. At that time in my life, I did not realise tailoring would become such a huge part of my being.
Tony: The reason that I became a bespoke tailor / cutter is simple: I have a passion for tailored clothes. At 21, during a suit fitting with my tailor, I asked if he thought tailoring was for me. He said, “give it a go!” So I wrote letters to every tailoring house in Savile Row for an apprenticeship. Luckily for me, only one company responded. That company was Gieves and Hawkes, the biggest tailoring house in Savile Row. I spent 6 wonderful years working as an under cutter to their only Master Tailor. Those six years gave me a great understanding of tailoring in general, but an even greater knowledge of pattern cutting and bespoke garment cutting.
BU: What is the one piece of advice you would give to young men and women out there who aspire to become tailors in the future?
Tony: Be humble, be patient, listen and work hard.
BU: What would be the one piece of advice to give someone who wants to acquire a bespoke suit but doesn’t quite know what to look for?
Tony: Choosing the right company and, more importantly, the right cutter is key to getting the suit that you desire. The relationship that you build with your cutter should last forever. The cutter should be able to understand your needs and wishes and give you advice to what colours, styles and details work for you. While you are choosing your tailor/cutter, ask to see their work room. It’s the only way of knowing that your garment is being made on-site, and that they are the genuine article.