How to Customize an Off-the-Rack Suit

Gay Talese, master of sartorial embellishment, explains his approach.
Photos: Art Tavee

He started with the red button-hole stitching. Scroll to find out what else he had done...

Editor’s Note: For most of us, a perfectly tailored suit or blazer is a destination reached only after a lengthy process of measurement, adjustment, and refinement. Then there are those, like legendary journalist and MANual contributor Gay Talese, for whom the perfect fit is but a jumping-off point. Talese has long been a fan of the aftermarket sartorial flourish—brightly colored button-hole stitching, say, or a charcoal stripe down the side of a pair of gray flannel trousers—but lately he’s discovered the power of a new technique: the strategic application of suede accents. I’ll let Gay take it from here…

Adding a piece of suede here and there can make a major impact on a suit, without much of an expenditure. Here are three of my jackets, with a little explanation on what I did to each.

Pierre Cardin for Bonwit Teller Suit [above]
Bought: Mid-1970s
Mid 1970s (buttons); 2010 (suede)

This was men’s fashion in the period of protest. You think of the ’70s, you think of blue jeans, and people in the street, and “make love, not war,” and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and Abbie Hoffman. During the same period, there were the classical men’s designers selling in [erstwhile NYC department store] Bonwit Teller. The rust-colored tweed is unusual in a suit to begin with; and the classic cut of the suit keeps it from veering into “country squire” territory. It’s a city suit, a “town tweed,” appropriate for having lunch in the Four Seasons if one’s publisher is picking up the check.

I had the red buttonhole put in by my tailor when I bought the suit, and after three plus decades I found that the suit needed a refresher course of sorts, a touch of color and attention-getting detail. I had those added by L&S tailors, on Lexington and 61st. The Cardin suit definitely looks different than it did before—attention-grabbing, yes, but still the same subtle town tweed with the high-cut and pointed lapel that I like and that makes it special.

As an aside, pocket handkerchiefs are essential at all times; I never wear a jacket or suit without one, and the colors of the handkerchiefs must be compatible with whatever else you’re wearing: shirt, tie, jacket, etc.

Next Page: Talese on what brown suede can do for olive green tweed >>

Brioni  Tweed Sport Coat
Bought: Late 1970s
Customized: Late 1970s (buttons); 2009 (suede)

This is the first jacket that I did. I’d say I added these cuffs about a year ago. The cuffs weren’t getting frayed: I just wanted a different look, within the jacket. And the tailor didn’t have a tough time doing it. The look is enhanced, in my opinion, by the additional touches in suede on the sleeves and elbows. To be sure, the elbows of all jackets (old as they are, and especially as I write at my desk when wearing jackets and therefore the elbows are hitting the desk) are vulnerable to wear and tear; and so the patches are practical in my case: they cover up the frayed fabric before it becomes an issue. (Weavers are very expensive, very rare, and very slow.)

This green jacket and vest, spruced up with suede appointments, becomes a candidate for what I call timeless stylishness; it is singular, it is different, it is in a one-of-a-kind category, and yet the look it is not very expensive to attain.  A tailor can do this job for about $150, and how wonderful the results!

When I wear this I wear green trousers, and I have green shoes. You don’t often get green shoes off the rack.

Next Page: Talese gives new life to a Brioni blazer bought in 1972 >>

Brioni for Giorgio of Beverly Hills Blazer
Bought: 1972
Customized: 2010

I think every well-dressed man should have something to wear when he does not particularly feel like being well-dressed, but still refuses to blend in with the ranks of men who clearly care little about what they look like. The tan fabric of this jacket clearly has much mileage on it. While it’s not worn through in any spot, I felt it needed something akin to a face-lift. I went to my neighborhood tailor, L&S, and had these touches added, which I think spruce-up the garment quite effectively. Doesn’t cost a lot (maybe $150 for the entire job: cuffs, pockets, elbows), and with that modest expenditure you have a restored jacket, one that—if you bought a new one off the racks  at Brioni—would cost you $3,000, and this would be a jacket that a dozen other men might be wearing around town. Not so with my ancient Brioni jacket. It’s one of a kind.

That said, this is really a knockaround jacket. It’s afternoon material; I don’t wear it at night. (I sometimes dress two or three times in a day.) If I’m going to the dentist, I might wear this, because I’ll keep the jacket on while I’m down in the chair. Now, if I’m going to have lunch with someone, I wouldn’t wear this. I’d wear a suit.

A final note of caution: you won’t wear this jacket under an overcoat if you can avoid it; it’s hard (because of the pull of the swede as you slip it into the overcoat) to get it on and off with ease. So finally, if wearing this tan jacket on cold days, I’ll wear a thick and heavy cashmere scarf. Also, to be sure, I’m wearing a fedora, as I always do.

So even though I say above that “a well-dressed man should have something to wear when he does not particularly feel like being well-dressed,” there is clearly a limit to how casual I ever want to be when appearing in public.

Especially as one gets older, one must dress well, even when in a casual mood. The saddest sight I see in New York is the shabby appearance of elderly people en route to doctor’s offices… these elderly men and women dressed like refugees from Slovenia waiting to arrested for violating some border rule established during the Cold War, and when I see these people my first reaction is: “Go home, hide, there’s no hope for you—you look like you’re doomed, you’re dressed for a dungeon!”

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  1. dimitri says:

    Anyone have suggestions for a good tailor in NYC?

  2. Justin says:

    Wilfred’s tailoring around 23rd and 5th ave.

  3. Paul says:

    Wilfred’s is awesome

  4. matthew says:

    Wow, the last paragraph is wholly unnecessary. it is well established in the prior paragraphs that the author is in the upper escheleon of sartorial society, but how degrading and offensive for him to state that elderly, presumably sick people on the way to see a doctor if not impeccably dressed should banish themselves to the confines of their home and be embarrassed for exposing such a slovenly look to the public. as far as i’m concerned this has nothing to do with the remainder of the article and should not have been included. as much as he is a dedicated follower of fashion, health comes first sir.

  5. Tom says:

    I agree with Matthew. I’m the first to sympathize with the author’s feelings on men who dress like wearing clothes is an annoyance to be tolerated, but the snide attitude toward elderly people who aren’t impeccably dressed is a little unnecessary, and frankly I’ve always afforded the elderly the right to not give a damn, and in fact envied them that right.

    The author’s sartorial approach might also be a little over-the-top for my taste (always in fedora and wearing his jacket in the dentist’s chair, for instance). An article I might find more interesting and useful would be how to customize the off-the-rack standard navy two-button. I’m always looking for ways to distinguish the indistinct with subtlety. That article will have my readership many times over.

  6. tobybot says:

    let them eat cake/let them wear tweed

  7. Alejandro says:

    Subtle touches makes the man– the devil is in the details (not the logo)…

  8. null says:

    Horrible last paragraph. Very ignorant. When fashion starts to dictate your life to such an extent, it is probably you who should stay home.

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