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3 Tailors on How to Look Less Off-the-Rack

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I’ve read about the benefits of tailoring clothes for years (and have probably even preached about it myself), but I have honestly only gone to a tailor a handful of times, and only then to get my pants hemmed for $5. Somehow, all my zeal for finding a good one never translated into action. Instead, it sat on the neglected portion of my to-do list for years, right next to cutting out dairy and updating my computer’s software.

Part of my hesitation around tailoring is it just feels…inaccessible. (Just reading the word bespoke makes my bank account cry.) I know I’m only afraid, though, because I don’t understand what’s possible. So I spoke to three expert tailors in an attempt fix that.

Ashley Liemer is the founder of Dress Noble, a trend-minded tailor out of Miami who also specializes in designing and manufacturing corporate hospitality uniforms. Jeremy Miller is an operation partner from Alteration Specialists, a full-service tailor in New York that’s trying to break the cramped-in-a-dry-cleaner rep of the industry. Andy Kozinn is the President of Kozinn + Sons, a traditional high-end tailor in New York’s Flatiron District that specializes in made-to-order suits.

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Liemer, Miller and Kozinn all have slightly different approaches to tailoring, but this reflects the diverse range of opinions in the industry, and gives weight to the point around finding a tailor that suits you (pun obviously intended). Below are 10 things they taught me.

1. The right fit can makes things look expensive.

This point came up again and again, and seems to be the sun around which the whole industry rotates. “The better something fits, the more expensive it looks,” says Miller. “Clothes are not made to fit everyone, there is almost always something that can be fixed.”

Liemer agrees, adding that a big problem is most people don’t actually know their size. “I know this from distributing thousands of uniforms across the country,” she says. “People put too much focus on the size on the label instead of what actually fits them and makes them feel comfortable.”

2. Sleeve shortening, pant hemming and tapering are easy wins.

Liemer says she sees too-long sleeves all the time and that shortening them is the #1 way to make something look like it was made for you. “Whether you’re investing in a Zara jacket for $100 or a Theory jacket for $500, sleeves dragging on your thumb line are going to look ridiculous. Same goes for pants that puddle around the shoe — get them hemmed!”

Beyond hemming, Liemer says a lot of people don’t realize they can get their pants tapered. “Any expert tailor should be able to do that easily,” she says. “We hem and taper pants all the time.”

3. Bargain items can be made to look more expensive by replacing the details.

Kozinn is a traditionalist, and advises against tailoring inexpensive items. “They aren’t built to last,” he warns.

Miller, on the other hand, is a big believer in using your tailor to improve upon cost-conscious purchases. “If you buy a cheaper item and take it in to fit perfectly, it may not look like a bespoke garment under the hood, but we can make it appear that way from the outside,” says Miller.

Fit is step one, but he cites replacing zippers, buttons and linings as other easy ways to make something look high-end. A lot of times, the main difference between low- and high-quality items are those little details.

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4. But be aware that the cost of alterations has nothing to do with the cost of the item being altered.

Both Liemer and Miller, who work with budget-friendly items in addition to expensive ones, couldn’t stress this enough. “People think alteration price should be indicative of the cost of the garment, but that’s not the case,” says Miller.

Liemer agrees: “It doesn’t matter where you bought the garment or the original price of the piece. The cost of the alteration is based on how much labor it takes to fix it.”

5. Alter clothing you love that doesn’t fit right, not clothing you don’t even like.

“Decide how passionate you are about a garment before investing in having it altered,” advises Liemer. “Tailor clothing that you love and that you want to wear, regardless of the price point. If the emotion isn’t behind it, then it doesn’t make a difference what we do to the garment.”

That goes for everything! Even something you truly love that is wildly wrong for you in its current state. Liemer and Miller both encourage you to get creative. “Some of our clients will bring in two garments they want to combine and we’ll cut them up to make something new,” says Liemer.

6. Alterations are technically to adjust fit, not style. If you want to change the latter, be prepared to pay reconstruction costs.

“What I tell people is you can’t change the style of a garment with alterations,” says Kozinn. “But you can change the fit.”

Liemer says she’s willing to work with your radical ideas if you’re willing to pay. “If you’re bringing something in because you love the fabric but you have a completely different intention of how the garment should fit on you, cool! But be prepared to pay reconstruction prices,” warns Liemer.

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7. Learn the general rules of what can be taken in and what can be let out.

Liemer, Miller and Kozinn all agreed that taking clothes in a bit is easiest, and that anything beyond a few sizes will be more like reconstruction. “If you’ve lost 50 pounds, for instance, it might not be possible to revive a suit. Sometimes a garment is just too big.”

As for letting out, Kozinn says clothing used to be made alterable, but today it’s harder to find that kind of care and attention. To see if your garment can be let out, check to see if the side seam exceeds 3/8 of an inch (the minimum amount of fabric to make a seam).

If not, there are other solves: “We can easily take the top off tight pants and replace it with a softer band,” says Liemer. She says they often do this for pregnant woman. (You can even change the pants back afterward.)

8. Natural fibers (wool, specifically) are best to work with, but most fabrics are workable.

“Wool is the ideal fabric for alterations,” says Kozinn. “It’s crease-resistant and stain-resistant; you can get different weaves that make it cooler for summer or warmer for winter; and it’s naturally resilient and miraculous.”

Liemer agrees, but adds: “That doesn’t mean people can’t find a mass-market product with a mass-market fabric and still tailor it to look great on their body.” As a manufacturer of hospitality uniforms, Liemer says cheaper polyblend fabrics can be tailored to look good. Just ask your tailor what’s possible.

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9. Don’t be afraid to think big.

“I wish that people looked in their closets to see what they have,” says Liemer. “I think a lot of clothing can be reconstructed and repurposed.”

Liemer and Miller do frequent out-of-the-box alterations. They add and remove sleeves, subtract hoods, combine two items, take out or add pleats. They say all expert tailors should be able to repurpose items in this way.

Liemer says if you have an idea, just ask. “We have a client right now who brought in all his favorite pants that have pleats in them and we’ve been removing the pleats and making them into a straight-leg, fitted J.Crew Bowery Pant.”

10. Build a relationship with your tailor and respect their craft.

“A lot of tailors are more concerned with traditional rules than trends, so don’t be afraid to bring in photos to show them what you want,” Liemer advises.

One thing all three agreed on: be willing to pay. The art of tailoring is complex. Build trust and respect the art, but don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

“It’s definitely a craft,” says Liemer. “It’s complicated; it’s a special talent and service.”

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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