I have a lot of clothes. I have a few suits, some expensive ties, too many socks—last Friday I got a dumb T-shirt from work that I have no plans to ever stick my head through. But I’ve never had a garment tailor-made to my body from the bolt of fabric of my choosing, not until now. The verdict: like Pappy Van Winkle and eight-handed massages, you really ought to try it.
It was my first time heading to a specialty garment shop. I made a Saturday morning appointment with Ryan Newman, the founder of Wilfred Newman Hand Tailored Apparel (River North, Chicago). My plan was to get a new sport coat, but I didn’t have expectations beyond that.
On entry, the first floor of Wilfred Newman is a small boutique where Ryan Newman sells the off-the-rack line that he’s been developing—for walk-ins and, at some point, online shoppers. Those garments are very nice, but they’re not the house specialty. For that, you head up a set of back stairs to the man-lair, a loft with skylights, decorated with a very clean set of accoutrements: an overstuffed leather sofa and chair, a full bar, a large mirror, a vintage Vespa, a flat panel television that seems to perpetually play English Premier League and, in one corner, a nondescript worktable with some tools of the trade and hundreds of fabric swatches.
We sat down with coffees and got to know each other. I wanted to know about the kind of people who buy clothes from Newman. There’s no one type, he explained, though they get a lot of professional athletes, for instance, who can’t buy anything off the rack. He showed me a pinstripe blazer that he’d soon deliver to an NBA player, which would have fit me like a trench coat. Or, he told me, “One Friday afternoon, a few months back, it was about three o’clock, and it was right when all the traders got done working. They must have had a good day or a good week or something. I look out the front door, and in front of my shop is a brand new Benz, Beamer and Range Rover, and all of the guys were in here getting clothes.”
Newman was interested in my wardrobe, my clothes, and I was surprised at how easily I opened up to him, offering up my checkered fashion history like he was my new fashion doctor (incidentally, Newman is significantly more sympathetic than my internist). He listened and was supportive. He virtually held my hand and told me that many of his clients also purchase garments at Brooks Brothers. He assured me that it was okay to explore within the framework of my existing wardrobe (mainly jeans and button-down collar shirts), and he also encouraged me to be open to new ideas.
I explained to Newman that I wanted a versatile sport coat, something I could wear with jeans or nicer. “Cool,” he said, “let’s look at some fabrics.” We thumbed through hundreds of swatches, really beautiful fabrics, some more traditional, others really funky. Newman showed me a new water-repellent fabric they’ve been using, “good for spring weather,” he said.
I was a little intimidated by selecting a fabric. Having these garments made by hand is a big deal. Wilfred Newman garments are hand-stitched, and each suit has 60 to 70 man-hours behind its construction. What if I picked a shitty fabric? What would my poor tailor think, tirelessly stitching the lapel of a sport coat that I would never take out of my closet? It’s a handsome investment, too, for these garments. A jacket like the one I’m getting can range from $750 to $1,500 typically, with more exclusive fabrics running up into the $3,500 range. Nevertheless, we narrowed it down to three swatches, then both landed on a bold blue checkered pattern, one of the first ones that’d caught my eye. “That’s going to look great,” he said.
Next Newman took my measurements. He was very casual, but I think also conscientious, as he moved me this way and that, reading the soft ruler. He used a tool to measure the slope of my shoulders, which I thought was cool. He got it from an 80-year-old tailor. The patent on it said 1934, and it looked about as old. It functioned like a level—an air bubble moving in a plastic tube—but instead of inches, depending on the degree of slope, it read: Extreme Slope, Very Sloping, Sloping, Regular, Square, High.
We discussed vent options, buttons, pockets, the lining—there were so many details and options, though Newman had recommendations for everything. We also decided to incorporate a built-in pocket square that can disappear into the pocket, which, well, I’ve never worn a pocket square, other than with a tacky rental tuxedo, but at Newman’s suggestion we went with a yellow pocket square that popped nicely against the blue check.
We shook hands and I hopped back on the train to head home. The whole transaction took about an hour, though we were chitchatting most of that time. Newman said that’s one of the things he enjoys most about the job: getting to know clients and establishing a real connection with them. I figure that’s a good business practice, too. That kind of thing leads to repeat customers, and, of course, once he’s got your measurements, expanding your wardrobe is just a matter of picking out fabrics and styles, maybe over coffee or a stiff drink, while you sit on that overstuffed leather couch and check out some English Premier League. The world offers much more harrowing predicaments.
But then I had to wait for my sport coat to be made. After all, somebody had to spend their days getting the right fabrics, cutting them to size and stitching them up. That takes time. I thought about something Newman told me when we were together. “When a guy puts on something that we’ve made, and I can tell he feels like a million bucks, and when he walks out the door happy, and I know he’s confident in our clothing, that’s what makes me feel the best, because I know what goes into it.”
I wanted my sport coat.
I returned to Wilfred Newman on another Saturday morning several weeks later. I headed back up to the man-lair, and there it was, hanging on a lone hook against a white background: my sport coat. Newman helped me slip it on. It fit like a glove. The inside pocket had my name stitched into it. I even dug the pocket square. In theory, I was there for a final fitting, but no additional alterations were needed.
The sport coat was awesome, and I walked out the door feeling like a million bucks.