Dress Your Best, an Interview with Bespoke Tailor Extraordinaire Julian Craker

As you may know, I’ve shared my thoughts on topics ranging from hair care to workouts to the perfect pair of boots. While I write from my perspective as a woman, the “FO40” core themes (Fashion, Fitness, Fun, Finds, Fierce) cut across gender lines. Whether you’re Jane or Tom, who doesn’t want to look and feel their best, enjoy unique and fulfilling experiences, or just find a neighborhood coffee shop, restaurant, or bar that suits your personal style?

To wit, an FO40 first article for men featuring the incomparable Julian Craker. Julian is a bespoke tailor with whom my husband has worked for a number of years. From suits to blazers to a killer winter overcoat, Julian has produced some great wardrobe staples for Dave. A Londoner by background, Julian parlayed an early career producing costumes for an impressive roster of “glam rock” bands into NYC/Hamptons-based bespoke tailoring business of his own. Ever affable, entertaining, and dapper, Julian leads a collaborative process that produces updated classics with plenty of opportunity for the “right” amount of flair as befits the particular client.  Our interview with Julian is our longest to date, spanning his colorful beginning in post hippie/pre-punk London to helping his clients build a classic wardrobe with personal flair.

Read on to learn about the Bespoke client process, one item every man should own, trends in men’s fashion and more!

img_3140
Julian Craker

 

Here is the Bespoke client process:

FO40: Julian- you’re a Brit living in the Hamptons with a NYC clientele. Tell us about your journey.

JULIAN CRAKER:  In the early 70s I was in high fashion retail in London.  This was during the second resurgence of British Fashion.   Through my association with Ruskin in Kenny Market and a friendship with Peter Watts (Pink Floyd’s road manager) I got into making custom stage and street wear for a bunch of musicians including members of Pink Floyd, Slade, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Santana, Wings, Yes and Humble Pie. I also was a close friend with Freddie Burretti, David Bowie’s costumier. I like to think all had a good time but it all seems a bit hazy!

img_3063
Julian, circa 1976. The jacket is a Freddie Burretti creation for David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” Tour. Photo courtesy of Julian Craker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early 80s I was given the opportunity to come to the USA and work in mass-produced garments.  My first home in the US was Miami, bit of a culture shock but very timely.   After a year I moved to New York and worked in domestic and locally produced (IE. in the 5 boroughs) wear until that industry imploded under the dual threat of cheap imports and department/chain store sourcing habits. I was then approached by an English tailoring firm to be their US rep-, which I happily accepted.  As I was building a client list it became obvious that many customers wanted a level of service, quality and sophistication that my bosses could not supply. So I was back to doing what I knew best, catering to the needs of the few at a level that requires a lot more knowledge than how a tape measure works. 

New York is, for me, the center of that business in the US.  It still has a great number of well-heeled professionals who demand the best in everything. There is an esoteric vibrancy that is constantly fueling creativity in all avenues of endeavor and a competitive element that prevents the temptation to rest on one’s laurels here. If you’re going to live in a city why not live in THE city? I have been fortunate and have accumulated a loyal following here who I visit regularly while enjoying a quieter personal life out in the Hamptons.  

FO40:  You’ve worked with some music luminaries. What’s the craziest piece or wardrobe you’ve helped create?

JC: The surgeon’s jacket that Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer wore for their “Brain Salad Surgery” album tour. Also the stage wears for Slade- of note, Noddy Holder’s tartan suits (His idea, not mine!!!)

 

FO40: When you first meet with a client, how does the process work? What are you trying to learn and what are the most common needs of the modern man?

JC: When I first meet a potential customer I am trying to ascertain their needs, the degree of involvement they want (ex. Do they view this as a uniform that they are required to furnish for their job or an opportunity to express something more of themselves and to have some fun?), their previous shopping habits, strong likes or dislikes and, of course, how much they want to spend.

In my field the most common needs are suits (blue and grey), shirts to go with them and sport coats and trousers for more relaxed environments.  The business suit as we know it came into being over a century ago and has not changed essentially in that time, so while textile manufacturing has evolved significantly and the machine age has changed the assembly process of clothing the end product is still a jacket and trousers made to be comfortable, durable and, where possible, flattering. It is the same with clothing as it is with cars, you can buy a Chevy or a Bentley, they will both get you to your destination but one with a good deal more style, comfort and panache. The better (read: more expensive} the materials used to make a product, the better the product will be.

 FO40:  I assume most of your clientele are men. Do their partners ever get involved in the process or try to buy for their man? 

JC: That’s a loaded question!  My clients fall into two categories- bachelors and married men, and into two sub-categories, the ones I see at their office or club and those I see at their homes.

Bachelors in their offices will occasionally ask an associate (male or female) for an opinion but generally are fairly decisive. Bachelors at their home might reference a magazine or website but, again, generally know what they want.

For married men at the office, it’s business as usual- their suit is a uniform but generally doesn’t exclude personal flair. Married men at home might consult their wife out of courtesy. She may or may not be interested, and her input will reflect her degree of enthusiasm for the process. I’ve personally found that when the wife gets overly involved in the process, it’s a red light for me.  The gents tend to have been dressed by Mom until they went away to college, then their girlfriends took over and now their wives are in charge.  They see me as an interloper diluting their ascendance in their realm and tend to be un-satisfiable- there’s always something not right in their opinion until they can go back to shopping for him at Saks or Barneys.  I bow out graciously in the certain knowledge that I know more about it than they do but that it will avail me nothing because it’s not about the clothes.

 In all the above circumstances I will be consulted and my suggestions considered. I have opinions on what works for the individual client and expect they want to hear my views- albeit in a gentle, suggestive manner so that the decisions feel like their own. 

img_3067

FO40:  Did you ever turn a client away due to a request for an item you just didn’t like/want to make? 

JC: Never refused a commission, after all I’m not the one who has to wear it. But I have on a few occasions omitted to put my label in!

Building a Stylish and Modern Wardrobe:

FO40:  Women have so many accessories from which to choose to make their outfits distinctive and fresh. What are some items or variations for men that can make a look “their own” and a little edgy?

JC: One of the great things about having one’s clothing made is that it eliminates compromise. If you know, for example, that you want a single-breasted navy chalk stripe suit with side vents, raked pockets with ticket pocket, peaked lapels, four button cuffs, flat front trousers with side strap adjusters instead of belt loops- which are just a few of the defining options you may have in mind- the chances of going to a retailer and finding all those boxes checked is almost nil. If you were fortunate enough to get close enough to those specifications to satisfy you the next challenge would be to find your size in a cut that pleased you.  

To me, it all comes down to not settling for “good enough”.  Once you have decided what you want in a suit, the next area for exploration is what you will wear with it and how you can make it even more unique, albeit subtly. One of the most useful ways I have developed of getting to read more about a new customer is to look at their shoes, watch (harder now that such single function devices are becoming rarer), and haircut. Gentlemen that pay attention to these details are at an immediate advantage.  It is surprisingly common to find men immaculately suited and the effect ruined by scruffy shoes, tasteless watches or sub par tonsorial care. Once all these basics have been taken care of one can start to add some touches of flair.

In my business I stay away from fad and fashion because they date a garment whereas true style is perennial. For me that means such things as no contrast color buttonholes on the cuff or lapel- but by all means a flamboyant lining. Always a handpicked stitch around the front edges and pocket flaps, hand-made buttonholes, never plastic buttons but always horn, no glue or man-made fibers. A shirt of a quality to compliment the suit and allow the tie and pocket square, if you wear one, to be bold. Belts, if worn, slim to not break up the line, suspenders if necessary but not as a fashion statement. In the end the sum of one’s choices should whisper power and confidence – rather than try to scream it.

 FO40:  What trends are you seeing- or do you like- in men’s business wear.

JC: One of the most pleasing trends I am seeing at the moment is the degree of enthusiasm that young professionals are showing in their appearance. I felt that we were in the style-wilderness for a while.  The “Casual Dress” pendulum has swung back and men are remembering both the pleasure to be had from clothing and the effect it has on the beholder. It may sound trite but you never get a second chance to make a first impression and that appearances do count.  

 I attribute a significant amount of this renewed interest to Thom Browne, whose uncompromising attitude to men’s’ clothing resulted in a quantum shift away from baggy Italian boxes to highly fitted and tailored garments.  While his silhouette may have been too extreme for many, the diluted versions that the rest of the industry was forced to offer made the whole thing fresh and fun again. So we have, for now, shorter jackets and trousers that fit tighter- vaguely reminiscent of the Mods in England in the ‘60s. We have narrower lapels and suits designed to be worn with an open-necked shirt, bright and sometimes mismatched socks (an effect I only ever managed accidentally!)

FO40:  What are some easy tips for guys when opening their closet and picking their clothes for the day?  

JC: The world is far less critical and more forgiving than you think- or possibly just not that interested in you- so it’s not necessary that everything color coordinate perfectly.  Some of the best looks I’ve seen are the result of being hurried: striped suit, check shirt and polka dot tie can look like pure flair and panache.  I tend to put comfort first and over the last few years have simplified. I’ve personally dispensed with cufflinks, belts, watches and to a great extent ties, most of my shirts are solid colors or small patterns so everything goes with everything.  My suits and jackets tend to be more bold patterns but still in blue and gray.  My hand tends to go to the same things over and over and generally that means that I should get rid of the things that I’m not wearing rather than pretending that I will go back to them or that they will fit me again.  Then the empty space in my wardrobe is the perfect excuse to go shopping.
img_3139

 

FO40:  What are the most common fashion faux pas you see?

JC: The things that I notice most are lengths: trousers too long or too short, ditto sleeves and jackets.  Specifically trousers that have too much break (in the front and the back; there should be no break in the back); if they are cuffed they should end 1/4″ above the shoe welt; if they are plain they should be cavalry hemmed, the back 1/4″ above shoe welt, front 1/2″ shorter.  Although it is the current style, trousers that don’t touch the shoe remind me of schoolboys who’ve suddenly had a growth spurt and just don’t look right to my eye.

Jacket sleeves should show 1/4-3/8″ of shirt cuff.  Off the peg they are usually too long and salesmen tell customers that they are fine because its cheaper and easier than altering them so we end up thinking that sleeves that come halfway down our hand are correct- it’s not. A rule of thumb is that for a 5′ 10″ gent the hem of the cuff should be 4 1/2″ above the tip of the thumb.

It’s unfortunate but true that our backside is not our most attractive feature so it’s a good idea for a jacket to cover it. 

FO40:  Any tips on shoes?

JC: Shoes are such a personal thing. My view- for business 7:3 black to brown ratio, same ratio for lace up versus slip on/loafers. Spend a little more and get quality, durability and comfort or, if you can, spend a lot and go to John Lobb and have them made bespoke.  Again, for me, no fads, no pointy or chisel toes particularly if you have big or long feet, as they make you look like you’re wearing canoes for shoes.

FO40:  Men’s shirts are changing. Many choices now are slimmer, and collar selections seem to be getting more numerous and complicated. Your thoughts on what works? 

JC:  Like clothing, shirts are currently enjoying a much more fitted incarnation- great if you’re slim, otherwise not so much. Also a bit of jazzing up with contrasting inner collar bands and inner cuffs, contrasting buttonhole colors.  Since their life expectancy is considerably shorter than a suit, there is much less likelihood of being dated by these fashions.  If you’re having your shirts made, look for 2 ply 140 Egyptian long staple cotton for feel and durability. There are a million patterns but I believe it’s good to stay based in blue, pink, lavender and of course white.  If you’re going without a tie, checks are preferable.  If you wear a tie, keep the shirt pattern muted so the two items don’t fight or clash, but with no tie be as bold as you are comfortable being.

The kind of collar is designated by the kind of knot you tie.  Windsor or “four-in-hand” knots require a cutaway collar to accommodate the bigger knot; conversely go for a regular spread style for a more basic knot.  Personally I’m not a big fan of button-down shirts- too “Brooks Brothers” for me.  Pockets are also a no-go, they are extraneous.  Leave the three button cuffs to Turnbull, I like a one or two button mitered cuff, button and buttonhole on the sleeve placquet, placquet front, two knife pleats in the back and no darts.

I must be starting to sound boring or, at least, like a traditionalist. Slimmer is fine if you’re slim but not so fitted that when you sit down the front gapes between the buttons,  Many of my clients are simplifying and eliminating cuff links in favor of buttons, no pockets, no button-downs and a collar band only wide enough to accommodate one button.  I like the contrast fabric look where the inside of the cuff and collar band are different to the body when the shirt is to be worn open-necked.  Ties too are becoming rarer but I still like an occasional natty bowtie as a sign of individuality.  

FO40: What’s a classic look you like?

JC: In my opinion men look their sartorial best in a dark solid navy or gray two or three piece suit over a white or pale blue shirt and dark tie, slimming, simple solid look.

FO40:  I love the details on the suits you make for Dave. The ticket pocket. The sleeve buttons that actually open. The jacket liner. These details and flair seem to make all the difference and make the suit feel truly bespoke. Thoughts? 

JC: The auto industry has figured out that customers like to have a say in the design and uniqueness of their purchase but in the end there is a limit to how much a mass produced item can be customized. With clothing the degree of flexibility is almost infinite.  The number of combinations between style, fit, fabric, and accessories is mind-boggling.  The trick is optimizing the silhouette without compromising the comfort or durability.  To make the garment unique to the customer without it being garish or faddish and to have it make a statement about the wearer.  When all this is achieved it reflects quiet confidence and style.

FO40:  Any trend in fabrics or patterns you are seeing and like? 

JC: The patterns tend to be constrained by the technology of weaving and I hope and pray that we will not return to the era of the double-knit leisure suit. The color palette is greater now as men feel more comfortable with pastels, though for me the biggest change is the fabric blends that are now possible.  New textures have been made possible by mixing wool/linen/silk, cotton/cashmere, wool/alpaca/cashmere- the combinations are infinite, offering new hands and drapes, new thermal efficiencies.  Holland & Sherry have a 6 1/2 oz. Super 160s/cashmere blend that’s water resistant. Loro Piana is adding man-made fibers for an even great range of texture and performance.  This is a revolution, in a quiet way, as great for men’s’ clothing as Spandex was for women.

FO40:  What’s a “must-have” wardrobe items every man should have?

JC: Every man should have an all-purpose, all season navy blazer. At the moment my favorite is a Harris Tweed field jacket (for shooting, which I don’t do, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dress as if I did) 

img_3202

 

FO40: What’s your favorite piece in your own wardrobe right now?

JC: A few years ago Harrison’s of Edinburgh bought H. Lesser and they closed out their old inventory. I was able to grab a cut of Lumb’s Golden Bale dark blue fabric with a Prince of Wales check and an ice-blue windowpane.  This cloth would normally be outside my pay grade.  It is a classic, ageless, substantial and in the hands of the right artisan was sculpted into my favorite suit.

img_3204

Well ladies and gents, there you have it.  For more on Julian, contact him directly at jsuits007@aol.com and tell him that the Stecks’ sent you!

 

 

 

Leave a Reply