1:23am

Fri September 7, 2012
Planet Money

This Man Makes Beautiful Suits, But He Can't Afford To Buy One

Originally published on Fri September 7, 2012 8:15 am

Peter Frew is one of a tiny number of people left in the United States who can — entirely on his own, using almost no machinery — make a classic bespoke suit. He can measure you, draw a pattern, cut the fabric and then hand-stitch a suit designed to fit your body perfectly.

Frew spent more than a decade as an apprentice for a remarkable tailor in his native Jamaica. He now sells his suits for about $4,000. Since New York is filled with very rich people who see their suits as an essential uniform, Frew has all the orders he can handle.

When I first heard about Frew and his remarkable skill, I thought: That guy must make a fortune. I was wrong.

It turns out, all the orders he can handle is not that many orders. It takes him 75 hours to make just one suit. He makes about two suits a month. And after expenses — fine English wool costs a lot — Frew takes home less than $50,000 a year.

That's not even enough for Frew to buy one of his own suits. In fact, Frew doesn't own a suit at all — he can't bring himself to buy a suit off the rack.

Most of us, though, are happy to buy mass-produced suits. They might not be perfect, but they're decent and they keep getting better. The big suit-making factories in China, Bangladesh and Pakistan use advanced sewing machines and chemical applications that are nowhere near as good as bespoke, but are a lot better than they used to be. And every year, they get better.

The traditional methods, on the other hand, don't change. And they cost a fortune. Frew hopes that someday, he'll have a store in Manhattan and a staff of tailors making suits. But he says he's fine if his big dreams don't come true.

He just loves what he does. He loves hand-making perfect suits.

For more, see Adam Davidson's column in The New York Times Magazine.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Of course, the number of unemployed is a huge focus in this presidential campaign. Still, with the jobless rate relatively high in many sectors of the economy, there is one area that has faired quite well throughout the recession and beyond: luxury products, which does not mean serving the rich is a path to riches yourself.

Adam Davidson from our Planet Money team met one man who is struggling, even as he makes a very pricey product.

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: When I first heard about Peter Frew and his remarkable skill, I thought: That guy must be making a fortune. He invited me to his place to show me what he can do.

PETER FREW: You can see the tiny stitches.

DAVIDSON: Yeah.

FREW: They're all done by hand. If you really want a perfect suit, then bespoke is the only way you can get that.

DAVIDSON: Peter Frew is one of a very tiny number of people left in the United States who can - entirely on his own, using almost no machinery - make a classic bespoke men's suit. He can measure you, draw a pattern, cut the fabric and then hand-stitch a suit designed to fit your body perfectly.

FREW: We don't just do it by hand in order to say that it's handmade. Suits that are made by hand are exceptionally comfortable.

DAVIDSON: Frew spent more than a decade as an apprentice for a remarkable tailor in his native Jamaica. He now sells his suits for about $4,000. Since New York is filled with very rich people who see their suits as an essential uniform, Frew has all the orders he can handle - which, it turns out, is not that many orders.

This one suit, how many hours will it take you?

FREW: Upwards of, let's say, 70, 75 hours, yeah.

DAVIDSON: So that's, like, about two suits a month.

FREW: Yeah. That's all one tailor could do, yeah, by himself.

DAVIDSON: It's $4,000 to the end customer.

FREW: Mm-hmm.

DAVIDSON: I'm guessing, at the most, you're keeping half of that.

FREW: Right.

DAVIDSON: Four thousand dollars...

FREW: It's not a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIDSON: Not a lot of money.

FREW: Not a lot, really.

DAVIDSON: After expenses, fine English wool costs a lot. Frew takes home less than $50,000 a year. That's not enough to own a fancy suit made by a bespoke tailor, even when you yourself are a bespoke tailor.

Do you have suits made for yourself, Peter?

FREW: Actually, no.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIDSON: No? Really? Why not?

(LAUGHTER)

FREW: It's the time. I'm always have to be working on something else for somebody else, you know?

DAVIDSON: Yeah.

FREW: And because I do know the difference, I cannot just get a suit somewhere else. I love luxury.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIDSON: You don't own any suits?

FREW: No.

DAVIDSON: You have no suits?

FREW: No. I have trousers and shirts, but no suits.

DAVIDSON: Most of us, though, are happy to buy mass-produced suits. They might not be perfect, but they're decent and they keep getting better. The big suit-making factories in China, Bangladesh and Pakistan use advanced sewing machines and chemical applications that are nowhere near as good as bespoke, but they're a lot better than they used to be. Every year, industrial suit-making technology improves. It's better quality for lower cost, while the traditional methods just don't change and cost more and more.

But Frew believes that eventually, more people will reject those automatically created suits.

If everything goes well, what is your life like in 10 years, 20 years?

FREW: Having a nice store up on - somewhere on Upper East Side in Manhattan and a factory with about, you know, 50 tailors or more...

DAVIDSON: Each doing the full suit.

FREW: ...doing a full suit.

DAVIDSON: But that's the problem. There aren't 50 bespoke tailors in the U.S. And there probably won't ever be. Why would anyone spend 15 years learning a skill that pays so little?

But Frew says he's fine, even if his big dreams don't come true. He just loves what he does. He loves hand-making perfect suits.

Adam Davidson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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