How bespoke lost its 'bespoke-ness'

David Dowsey's bespoke shoe lasts at rest in their Paris workshop home. John Lobb Paris – owned by Hermès – insisted on using the author's middle name on the wooden lasts. Photo by David Wright from  A Le Mans Diary .

David Dowsey's bespoke shoe lasts at rest in their Paris workshop home. John Lobb Paris – owned by Hermès – insisted on using the author's middle name on the wooden lasts. Photo by David Wright from A Le Mans Diary.

Bespoke kitchens. Bespoke perfume. Bespoke events. Every day there is a new adaptation of the ancient and very prescriptive word: bespoke.

It originated at a time when it was very common, ubiquitous even, for a gentleman to visit his tailor and 'bespeak' his cloth. In other words, to have his desired material set aside to be made into a suit, coat, trousers, whatever he desired to commission.

It has then – until more recent times – always been associated with men's tailoring, and by extension shirt and shoe making. 

So why has it become a buzz word applied to everything from luxury holidays to bread loaves?

Well, it's a pleasant sounding word that imparts a certain cache on a product. Marketeers love it. The fact that most people don't understand what it means only assists in its misuse.

The home of bespoke is London's Savile Row. A small street in Mayfair lined with tailoring workshops, it has been home to high class men's tailoring for over 200 years. The stiff upper lip brigade that works up and down that street got so worked up about the misuse of the word bespoke that the Savile Row Bespoke Association took an upstart retailer, Sartoriani of 10 Savile Row – which passed off machine-made clothing as bespoke – to court.

In a landmark case the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Sartoriani was allowed to use the term bespoke because the word now meant to most people 'clothes that were made to a customer's measurements' – and no more.

So the tailors went ahead and created a firm definition. 

According to the Savile Row Bespoke Association, bespoke means: a suit made on or around Savile Row, bespoken to the customer’s specifications. A bespoke suit is cut by an individual and made by highly skilled individual craftsmen. The pattern is made specifically for the customer and the finished suit will take a minimum of 50 hours of hand work and require a series of fittings.

However, while the information about suit-making is accurate, this is a rather cosy and short sighted definition. It is nonsense that bespoke can only be made on one small patch of earth in central London. Beautiful bespoke pieces are made by talented craftspeople to the highest standards all over the world – sometimes in the most unexpected places. 

I have been a bespoke customer now for many years and have a particular love of handmade shoes, created specifically for me. I have often been asked why I take this route, to which I reply: "I want my own thing. I don't want to be stuffed into something that was not created for me."

Do you believe the word bespoke should be confined to clothing and footwear that is handmade to the specific measurements of the person 'bespeaking' the commission?

Philippe Atienza – who was, at the time, head of the Hermès-owned John Lobb Paris bespoke operations – inspecting David Dowsey's bespoke shoes in the Paris workshop in which they were made. Photo by David Wright from   A Le Mans Diary  .

Philippe Atienza – who was, at the time, head of the Hermès-owned John Lobb Paris bespoke operations – inspecting David Dowsey's bespoke shoes in the Paris workshop in which they were made. Photo by David Wright from A Le Mans Diary.