Joint Post- CJ Johnson, Josh Wulf, Lisa Sherwin Wulf
Perfect personalized custom-made clothing, jewelry, and furniture is bespoke.
Off the rack is so simple, easy and forgettable. I write this as someone whose wardrobe is 99% off the rack. But also as someone who has had suits, gowns, slacks, and shoes custom-made. There are times when off the rack simply won’t due. There are times when you can save thousands by having something custom-made. The flip side is true too! If you have a perfect off the rack body that never needs alterations, don’t worry we’ll cover you (get it?) in jewelry (not literally sorry/not sorry).
Some of the benefits of custom:
- Your preferences color, style, material, cut (It really is all about you!)
- The exact length of the sleeves, pants you need (Lisa -short, CJ -long!)
- Bring in a picture of something you like, then adjust as you want
- A functional reminder of the trip where you had it made
- Working directly with the tailor/family keeps money “local”
- A great conversation starter
- Transform a hand-me-down into a treasure
I have a gown (in storage at the moment =() made from fabric I bought in Islamabad, Pakistan, then made into a gown in Dubai. My next trip to Bangkok will likely result in a suit with a cropped jacket, a standard jacket, vest, trousers, capris, long skirt, pencil skirt, and a sleeveless dress. By buying all the pieces at the same time the fabrics will all be the same (likely a lightweight, medium charcoal pinstripe) and mix and match resulting in 19 combinations! I call it Garanimals for adults.
Custom-made isn’t only making something new
Sometimes it’s upcycling some parts into a new look. In 2009, I went to a friend’s wedding in Monterey, Mexico and while there I bought a necklace and bracelet set. The bracelet broke soon after. Fast forward to 2013 and another friend’s wedding in Delhi (where I met Jules, hi roomie!) and had the bracelet reworked into long dangly earrings w/the extra gemstone flower as a bonus pendant. The original necklace and bracelet were brushed/matte gold plate over silver. Part of the transformation included polishing the matte to shiny and was a huge improvement. I didn’t have time to bring the necklace back to have it polished. For various reasons, I never got around to having the necklace done until this June (2017). Again, a MASSIVE improvement. What do you think?
I’ve done a similar reset of a ruby and diamond ring and three blue topaz stones from silver earrings and necklace into a three-stone gold ring. I’ve bought many loose gemstones and had them set. Some classic, some fun, some funky. Nurturing a personal relationship with an artisan, will be a rewarding experience for a lifetime. My jeweler in Islamabad (Proprietor Ghulam Hassan Butt, Shop No. 2, Block No. 8 School Road, Super Marke, Islamabad Phone +92 51 287 3681) also became the go-to jeweler for another friend named, Lisa. The white and blue topaz pendant was intended to be earrings, but one of the blue stones broke, so I decided on a three stone pendant.
With my need for shiny, sparkly things comes a need for a jewelry box. The standard dresser top box is 7”x5”2.5” and with my collection, I’d need 8-9. On a trip to Damascus, Syria (2002, before the drama), I was supposed to deliver final payment for some rugs and custom furniture to Amin’s for coworkers. It turned into a daylong event (see How To Buy Anything Overseas, When To Haggle, When To Say No). I browsed through their jewelry boxes and they were all too small. I asked if they would make me a CJ sized one.
Of course, they would! Just like clothing or jewelry, I got to choose the size, style, colors. The default lining is red velvet, but I went with a royal blue. The box has two drawers with 2”x2” compartments and two drawers of 2”x8” compartments. There’s plenty of room to organize by type (earrings, rings, cufflinks) and by size (necklace, bracelet, costume, beads) as well as silver polishing cloths, spare earring backs, etc. I ended up having a friend pick up the box when it was completed and she stored it for me for two years while I was in Kabul. It may not be practical for you to have a large item custom made because it might be prohibitively expensive to get home, you should ask, because you never know. Lisa and Josh are currently caring for my jewelry chest for me. Thanks guys!
Editorial Comment: Trust is very common overseas.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “No problem, send me payment when you can.” “It’s ok, you take now, pay later.” You can also send the money with friends or coworkers at a later date. PayPal and other online payers haven’t completely replaced personal relationships. Don’t abuse it! An artisan has created something special for you, payment is expected.
Custom clothes are functional memories of your journeys. And let’s face it, a man or woman wearing a made to measure (bespoke) item of clothing just looks better. You may not have a red carpet experience but, people will notice, in a good way, and may ask “who are you wearing?”. Although my experience is limited to men’s suits and shirts, my suggestions apply equally to women. My introduction to custom clothes came in 2008 when I visited Ricky’s Fashion in Bangkok. It was a great experience (so was a subsequent visit in 2012), I still keep in touch with Ricky, and my suits and shirts wear just as well now as they did when I got them.
Research and ask your wandering friends
Research your vendor as best you can. Custom tailors in Thailand are a dime a dozen, and the storefronts don’t give you any idea about whether they carry good fabrics and do good work. Before I went to Bangkok, I contacted my friend Patrick, who works at Exxon Mobil. At the time he worked in Singapore, and he knew a lot of people in the Bangkok office. When he asked his contacts for recommendations, every single one of them mentioned Ricky. [CJ Note: Personal recommendations from people you trust are the best recommendations.]
You want to be able to wear these clothes for a long time, right? So, don’t rush! You’ll be picking designs, styles, colors, and fabrics. Good tailors will have a design book for you to look through. In addition, you’re going to get measured. My wife and I spent about two hours at Ricky’s making our choices and going through the initial fitting.
Twice is nice
Run, don’t walk, if the vendor says you don’t need a second fitting. A tailor who says that is either lazy, arrogant, or both. A good tailor will create an initial “shell” of the garment after the initial fitting, and then he or she will put it on you to see if there have to be any further modifications. The time between the fittings may not be very long. In my case, it only was an hour or so between the fittings (we killed time at a hotel bar) [CJ Note: Shocking! Wulf Cocktail Denizens in a hotel bar? Inconceivable!]. The initial fitting may be pretty good, but that’s not much different than buying something off the rack. [CJ Note: Disagree! It’ll be better than off the rack, but not quite bespoke.] If you’re content with buying off the rack clothes, you wouldn’t be reading this.
You want inexpensive, not cheap!
There’s a huge difference between the two. While in Thailand, I saw a number of signs that advertised two suits and two shirts for $200 (or three and three for $300, etc.). I’m pretty sure those clothes would fall apart if you wore them two times. Pay for high quality. Before I went to Ricky’s, I researched what a good made to measure suit and shirt would cost at home. That gave me a good baseline. While the price of the suits and shirts I purchased at Ricky’s wasn’t low, the value was fantastic.
Have fun with it! It’s cool to be treated like a king or queen. After all, the tailor is helping you make a personal visual statement. I still love my suits and shirts (obviously not as much as I love my wife), and I admit it’s pretty much impossible to go back to off the rack suits and shirts. I hope your experience with custom-made clothes will be just as great as mine. Maybe you decide you simply can’t live without a purple pinstripe suit or a bespoke Batman costume (I have neither, but I have some great light purple dress shirts). We won’t judge you, we’ll applaud! And trust me, the tailor has probably heard and seen stranger things.
Custom-made doesn’t always mean more expensive than off the rack. Want to get that perfect fit, transform something old into something new, give yourself a once in a lifetime experience, or preserve a memory? Shops around the world can create custom items for any budget. [Full disclosure: I’m petite and curvy and off the rack never fits without alterations.]
A good merchant will work within your budget. Agree on the price before work begins! If the price is way out of range, talk to them about how to make it work. Make sure they come to you for approval before making any price increases. Ask about splitting payments – an initial deposit, and the balance being paid upon completion. You should also find out if paying cash, check, or credit card changes the prices. [CJ Note: Overseas checks won’t work, most small shops will only accept cash.]
As Josh said, do your research. Look online, ask friends, contact your hotel’s concierge, and visit stores. You should gather up the background information you might need before visiting the vendor – sizes, measurements, what do I need to bring with me, etc. But planning isn’t everything! Be open to new opportunities you find along the way – not everything in life can be planned in advance. Just because someone came highly recommended doesn’t mean it’s the right fit (get it?) for you. If your gut says no, it’s ok to walk away. But at the same time, if you find a tailor or designer out of the blue and everything just seems to click, go ahead and give them a try. You may become the person everyone turns to for recommendations.
Create your own custom-made memories
Don’t walk away from custom because you don’t think you’re creative. I’m lucky to have enough of an artistic bent; I can sketch and visualize what I want my things to look like. My husband is the complete opposite. (He’s a lawyer, so visualization and artistry aren’t his forte, but I still love him.) That’s the beauty of working with a custom artisan – you can talk about ideas and they will work with you. Maybe start an album or Pinterest board of the things you like, so they can get a feel for your style and taste.
I’m lucky to have an amazing jeweler close to home, Achikian Goldsmiths in Vienna, VA (not Austria). They have created a number of lovely pieces for me including a custom wedding band, turning a ring into a pendant, and designed earrings and rings from loose stones. I even convinced my family to use them.
I found Kay Adams Jewelry at Anthill in Richmond, VA while exploring Carytown, and after seeing her beautiful creations I decided she would be perfect for a long-term project. For a few months, she worked with me to create a series of custom pieces transforming my grandmother’s old costume jewelry into beautiful works of art for me to wear.
What about when you can’t find what you want?
Touring Buenos Aires we saw beautiful leather jackets, but nothing that was quite the perfect fit. Then we encountered Silvia y Mario who not only altered off the rack for my husband, they were able to create perfectly tailored leather jackets for me in a variety of colors and styles, with custom selected linings.
A friend’s recommendation led me to Tricia & Verona in Ho Chi Minh and the perfect, budget-friendly black work pants, and A-line dresses in a variety of hues. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far for the perfect find. The colorful display of Diva Silk Boutique in the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon pulled me in to discover that they created custom silk dresses in vibrant colors thus ending my search for the perfect cocktail dress.
After watching my husband select custom suits and a new coat at Ricky’s Fashion in Bangkok I couldn’t resist stocking my own closet with the women’s styles they could create- a cashmere winter coat, button-down dress shirts, and business suits in gorgeous colors, perfectly tailored to my short, curvy frame.
TIP: Did you discover an artist you love but none of their pieces fit the space in your home? Ask if they do custom work – they might, but just not advertise it.
TIP: If you love something, consider getting the same item in different colors, or different materials.
TIP: When getting clothing, try to go the first full day of your trip so there’s time for a fitting and a second fitting.
TIP: If all your items can’t be done before you leave, ensure a few are fully fitted that can be used as patterns to finish the rest to ship to you.
TIP: Ordering a lot from one merchant? It never hurts to ask about discounts for getting multiple items.
TIP: Many established shops will ship you your finished items (sometimes for free). If you do get items shipped, be sure to confirm the shipment will be insured and trackable.
TIP: Ask the tailor to keep your measurements or specs so that the shipment can be replaced should it be lost (or so you can order more later).
- Ricky’s:– Bangkok, Thailand –http://rickysfashionhouse.com/
- Diva Silk Boutique –Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — http://www.divasilk.com/
- Tricia & Verona –Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — http://www.triciaandverona.com/
- Achikian — Vienna, Virginia, US — achikiangoldsmith.com
- Kay Adams Jewelry — Richmond, Virginia, US — https://www.facebook.com/kayadamsjewelry/
- Silvia y Mario — Buenos Aires, Argentina– https://www.silviaymario.com/
- Zaheen Kamran Designer Jewelry — Islamabad, Pakistan — https://www.facebook.com/ZaheenKamran/
- Ghulam Hassan Butt — Shop No. 2, Block No. 8 School Road, Super Marke, Islamabad, Pakistan — Phone +92 51 287 3681
- Amin’s Carpets — Damascus, Syria — (offline only, ask at your hotel for directions)
We aren’t telling you to plan a trip around having a bespoke wardrobe, but if Bangkok were already on your bucket list AND you need some new clothes, why not do both?