Danny King asks me to button the top button of my sports coat, which I inherited several years ago from my father-in-law, a barrel-chested man approximately two inches shorter than I. I’m standing in the middle of the studio floor at King Brothers Clothiers, surrounded by racks of expensive-looking fabric, leather furniture, and a drink cart stocked with amber whiskey.
We could as easily be on London’s Savile Row as on Minneapolis’s Quincy Street. Except that Danny and Kenny King — one in bold woolen plaid, the other in a bright blue blazer paired with yellow pants — don’t resemble dour and disapproving English tailors so much as a pair of bouncy cherubs working cheerfully to save my fashion soul.
I look down at my hand-me-down sports coat to discover that I can’t button the top button. Because it has fallen off. “OK,” says Danny. “Well, just to reassure you, all our coats have buttons.”
Then he lifts the tailor’s tape from around his neck and starts wrapping it around various parts of my physique, calling out numbers to Kenny as he goes.
This is what “bespoke” means. It exists at one end of a spectrum that starts with ready-to-wear, off-the-rack clothing moves through fitted and made-to-measure and arrives at the true customization that occurs only when you make a suit from scratch based on the unique measurements of one individual client. That customer is said to speak for his specific suit, and that suit is in turn spoken for, or bespoke.
I have come to the King brothers out of a looming sense that a 52-year-old in his father-in-law’s sports coat is failing one of the tests of male adulthood in Western society — namely, the ability to wear a suit better than a 12-year-old at his first piano recital.
If that realization is a tentative step toward enlightenment, it’s still no sort of preparation for the stack of swatch books waiting for me across the room. For their hundreds of four-inch cloth pages. For their herringbones and tessellations, their paisleys and plaids. For the scores of decisions I need to make in the language of colors, patterns, buttons, stitching, collars, linings, pockets and pleats.
I am not fluent in this language. I couldn’t order a ham sandwich in this language. And yet, swatch by swatch, the brothers translate for me, asking a series of this-or-that questions that eliminates one option at a time until, in less than an hour, I’m gazing down at three squares of Italian fabric that represent one coat, one shirt and one pair of pants.
Six weeks later, I return to the studio. I disappear briefly behind a curtain and emerge in the comfortable embrace of the first clothes that have truly fit my 250-pound frame since it was a 190-pound frame some 25 years ago. The King brothers help me slip on my coat, brush some lint from my shoulder and gently push me in the direction of the mirror.
They say sometimes people laugh. Sometimes they gasp. Sometimes they stare in silence. Sometimes they cry — especially very big men — at being given themselves back in such a way that they can begin to feel proud again. What I did was look at myself straight on for a while. Then I turned sideways and smiled up and down at this guy who I thought I knew pretty well yet who suddenly looked so damned comfortable in a suit — and in his own skin.