Rise of the Female Suit
Fashionistas are known for their nit-picky shopping tastes. But the rise in personalized fashion services – Nike sneakers, Burberry scarves and Longchamp bags – is témoin to the success of custom fashion.
Fashionistas are known for their nit-picky shopping tastes. But the rise in personalized fashion services – Nike sneakers, Burberry scarves and Longchamp bags – is témoin to the success of custom fashion. Most consumers – not just the fashion forward, find this sense of control appealing. And strangely, personalized fashion as a market certainly hasn’t reached its full potential.
A report released by Bain & Co. reported just 10% of a 1,000-people survey had ever customized a product while shopping. However, 30% of respondents said they would like to - if given the opportunity.
When one thinks bespoke, tailoring first comes to mind. The suit – from jacket to coat – is the best representation of custom apparel and it’s been a category held largely by men. In 2013, women’s tailoring jumped considerably compared to overall female apparel sales. Suit separates were up 14%, said the separate Bain & Co. study, while blazers and jackets surged 19%.
Just as the demand for custom fashion is increasing, so too is women’s tailoring. But according to industry experts, women are only just starting to link the two – that is, customization and suits - together.
Walking down London’s Savile Row, the mecca of custom suits - it’s a man’s world. That’s until meeting Rebecca Devlin, one of the Row’s leading Cutters and female suit connoisseurs, at bespoke firm Richard Anderson Ltd.
Devlin, who is of Australian roots, cut her tailoring teeth during secondary school. On holidays, she would visit relatives in Melbourne, passing her days sewing in her aunt’s dressmaking studio. With a heart that ached for London’s design world, Devlin received a Bachelor of Visual Arts majoring in textiles at the Australian National University, and planned an exchange to Winchester School of Art (the closest she could get to London) at the end of 2002. It was the January of 2003, when walking up and down Savile Row, that Devlin approached Richard Anderson for work experience. She landed a six-week stint.
“I had no previous experience in tailoring, but took to it quickly, and loved every minute of it,” explains Devlin. “At that time I was the only woman in the shop, and when I returned a little over a year later to begin an apprenticeship, it was exactly the same story.”
Today, 12 years later, Devlin is master cutter of bespoke suits on the Row and has her own “book” of clients, some being women.
“It is a growing market, but it’s less than the demand for men’s tailoring. In the last couple of years, I’ve witnessed an increase in the amount of women ordering bespoke suits,” says Devlin. “The lack of demand I believe is largely due to women not being aware that women's bespoke tailoring is offered on Savile Row and elsewhere.”
Women have worn suits for decades. While the Eighties saw the rise in the power suit for women (and men), actor and style icon Katherine Hepburn was having her suits made at Huntsman on Savile Row decades before.
“She certainly pushed the boundaries, wearing suits which at the time were considered men's attire,” says Devlin. “ Hepburn wore them in a way that was both feminine and elegant.”
One modern day suit pioneer is Ellen DeGeneres. The television host has co-designed her own women’s collection this season – which features suit jackets, trousers and button-down shirts. Such celebrity endorsement is set to do good things for the female suit – one that is fashionable and practical (judging by Ellen’s very own styling) – but largely, mass-manufactured. Without proper tailoring etiquette and attention to feminine details, most off-the-rack suits simply don’t cut it, explains Devlin.
“There is exactly the same handwork involved in a woman's suit as there is with a man's bespoke. The only difference being that the method of cutting is different for anatomical reasons,” explains Devlin. “Women are more conscious of shape. So, the suit has to fit perfectly. I’ve learned that women’s jackets require less pockets too, where traditionally men want more places to stash personal belongings.”
Devlin herself is one London’s most avid bespoke suit fans. And she knows exactly what she likes – just like most luxury suit shoppers.
“I personally do not have an outbreast pocket on my suits, and have no pockets apart from a fob pocket on my trousers.”
Devlin’s latest bespoke is a blue Prince of Wales check with a pink overcheck. It’s made from wool fabric sourced from heritage mill, Holland and Sherry.
“The cloth is beautiful and has a feminine edge to it without veering away from my wardrobe of blue,” says Devlin. “I have a light blue herringbone cotton sports jacket made from Scabal cloth too, which boasts the softness of cashmere but it’s cotton - perfect for summer.”
Devlin also prefers to select her cloths based on going against the grain - no matter how impractical her fabric choice may be in the London weather.
“I have a white-and-silver grey Prince of Wales check woollen overcoat (Holland and Sherry cloth) that is incredibly impractical for showing the rain,” she adds. “But, the coat does stand out from the sea of charcoal grey and black overcoats.”
From fabric to lining to stitching color, Devlin’s job is to lavish the client in personalization options for a suit, she says.
“Some customers are very specific on the cloth and lining choice, which can take many months for a decision to be made; some customers are much more concerned about the fit of the garment; some wanting room to move around, and others wanting the suit to be like a second skin, compelling them to correct their posture and control their diet,” says Devlin.
As female suits continue to stitch up a loyal following, Devlin would like to see more emphasis placed on bespoke and made-to-measure services for women.
“I would love to see both the bespoke and the made to measure services increase for women, so that they too, can enjoy the experience of having a suit that fits not only your body, but fits in with your lifestyle and your personality,” she explains. “As more women come to see what bespoke tailoring can offer, I am certain that the market will grow, and that the quality of 'tailored' suits for women will be on the rise.”