It’s a hotly debated question among bespoke enthusiasts: How many tailors still make a true bench-made suit? This means a jacket that’s sewn on a single bench, by a single tailor, who does almost everything by hand (shoulders, lapels, pockets, buttonholes...). The answer varies, but only slightly. It’s never more than five. Frequently it’s as low as two. If those discussing the subject are especially knowledgeable and place a premium on Ahab-like fanaticism, they’ll insist there’s only one guy left—Frank Shattuck. “Nobody does what I do,” says Shattuck. “Not on Savile Row, not in Italy, not anywhere. I’m a perfectionist in an imperfect profession.” Shattuck acquired his skills studying at the foot of Henry Stewart, one of the greatest tailors who ever put chalk to cloth. Stewart’s clientele, which ranged from CEOs to movie stars, appreciated Old World quality. Paul Newman was so pleased with Stewart’s attention to detail that he tipped $2,000 for one coat. That was back in the ’80s when $2,000 meant something. Newman’s long gone. So is Stewart, who died in 1993 at age 89, cutting patterns until the very end. Today, Shattuck carries on his mentor’s tradition: same 1930s English cut, same masculine shoulder, same six-week delivery time. If anything, critics insist Stewart’s protégé is even more obsessed with quality than the late master. Shattuck puts 80 hours into a bespoke suit, and sews everything by hand. Except the straight seams, for which he uses an ancient Singer. Just to make a lapel roll properly requires over 1,200 stitches. “I could use less,” admits Shattuck. “But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
No tailor will ever encourage a man to buy an off-the-rack suit. Still, Shattuck realizes not everyone can afford bespoke. He also knows there are those who can afford his services but prefer to wear Prada. His advice to these misguided souls? “At least make sure the damn thing fits.” Any jacket, handmade or bargain basement, must pass the “collar test.” Put on the jacket and raise your arms. The back of the jacket collar should hug the back of the shirt collar like Velcro. A particularly ill-fitting jacket will show a gap between collars even with the arms lowered. The key is a high armhole. You may have to try on 50 jackets before you find the right one. Shattuck advises customers to watch Robert De Niro in Goodfellas, specifically the scene in which Bobby D. kicks a rival’s head like a soccer ball. Arms flailing overhead, the collar doesn’t budge. That’s tailoring.
If you own a decent suit, avoid dry cleaners like the Spanish flu. The solvents and machinery will only shorten the garment’s lifespan. Ideally, a bespoke suit should never be sent to the cleaners. If it smells funky, hang it outside and allow the breeze to naturally fumigate the fabric. If it gets rumpled, hang it in the bathroom and take a hot shower; the steam will coax out the creases as gently as fairies tugging on gossamer. Shattuck also recommends an annual pressing. The secret to a beautifully pressed suit is to keep the iron in contact with the fabric long enough to get all the steam out. Damp fibers contract and result in puckering. You’ll need a press cloth—a damp tea towel placed between the iron and the suit. This will also prevent a hot iron from “shining” the delicate finish.
Tailors use genuine horn buttons. So do haute couture and high-end ready-to-wear designers. Why? Because they’re beautiful, durable, and still better than anything coming out of a plastics factory. The downside is they’re expensive and can lose their luster. To rejuvenate these precious little disks, remove and soak overnight in a cup of olive oil. Shattuck’s no beauty expert, but he says the old-school Italian tailors also rub a single drop of extra virgin in their hair every morning. Evidently you can cook with the stuff, too.
You’re sewing a hem on the trousers of the “lightly worn” Kiton suit you just got on eBay for 200 bucks. Suddenly the thread begins to kink and knot, like a rattlesnake going into convulsions. Could this calamity have been averted? Yes. But not by you, a bungler not fit to hold Frank Shattuck’s pincushion. However, Shattuck being Shattuck, benevolent monarch and all, will assist you in your time of need. One word: beeswax. Coat the thread with the yellow stuff and it will bend to your every whim. In a pinch, a candle will do. Bespoke suit inquiries can be made to F. Shattuck Tailor Co. at 315.882.4724.