Hanna Hartnell poses for a portrait at Hartnell in Santa Monica. Hartnell… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
On any given day, in downtown lofts, Santa Monica ateliers and dozens of studios across Los Angeles, dressing rooms are filled with men and women who are slipping into suits, dresses and jeans that fit as if they were made just for them — because they were.
They are donning custom-made wedding gowns, dress shirts, even entire wardrobes. Whether they were propelled there by the frustrations of poorly fitting commercial clothes or by a sense of style that isn't part of the trend du jour, they've discovered the rewards of made-to-order clothing.
Before you pull out that credit card, however, it pays to learn the lingo, adjust your expectations and otherwise heed the advice of practitioners. We've asked experts in custom-made suits, wedding gowns and other garments to offer their guidance on the custom-clothing process.
Choose the right specialist. A tailor typically concentrates on menswear. A seamstress or dressmaker is usually trained to make clothes according to patterns you provide. A designer may have styles that can be adjusted to suit your preferences. A patternmaker may not be skilled at design but can create or alter patterns to achieve a perfect fit.
"If you came to me and asked me to make you a dress, I'd have to turn you away. It's a different pattern set," says Los Angeles custom tailor Art Lewin, who has three master tailors — one each for coats, trousers and shirts. "None of them touch each other's jobs."
Scrutinize styles and samples. Ask to see photos of previous work featuring real-life clients in the clothes, and finished garments to give you a sense of the tailor's or designer's style and capabilities. Some custom clothiers can also give you fabric swatches to test against your skin and color palette.
Check out the machinery. "You can't get professional results in a little shop that has an iron made for the home. It won't set the seams, stitches or finishes the same way," says Catina Ferraine, a custom designer in the Los Angeles Fashion District. Look for industrial steam irons and sewing machines, dress forms and tailor's dummies, a three-way mirror and good lighting. Only skilled operators can master professional machines that can create 5,000 stitches a minute, compared with 800 for top home machines, Ferraine says.
Talk the talk. Communicating visual ideas can require a precise vocabulary — or else lots of photos and trying on sorta-kinda-right garments. Karl Thoennessen, founder of Rouge Territory Denim Goods, gives his custom-jeans clients a glossary of denim and tailoring terms to help them more accurately describe the jeans of their dreams. He also explains the measurement process so that they better understand how to adjust the fit. For example, a waistband measurement won't correspond to the wearer's waist circumference if she's wearing jeans low on her hipbones.
Insist on detailed measurements. For a suit, Lewin takes 38 different measurements, a process that includes measuring each arm, thigh and outseam separately to accommodate variations across the body. For clients who wear a large wristwatch, Lewin's tailors will cut a cuff to hide or reveal it. Women should be sure to bring the shoes they'll wear with pants or even dresses to judge the most appealing hem length.
Familiarize yourself with the unfamiliar. If you've never worn an evening gown, wedding dress or satin vampire cape trimmed in ermine, you're probably going to need to try on a few approximations. "Carefully study what types of dresses look good on you," says Hanna Hartnell, a Santa Monica-based custom wedding gown designer. "Unless you're a fashionista, you often don't know what kinds of long gowns look good on you." Hartnell also suggests that you look at well-dressed people with your similar body type and copy their look — at least in the dressing room.
Have a fitting, or several. It is sometimes a leap between the imagination and the reality of wearing a custom-made garment. The fabric may not flow or feel right; the pockets, buttons, collars and hems may need adjustments. "Even the best pattern may not perform the same way on your body," says Thoennessen, who has developed samples of basic jeans styles to help clients visualize the fit.
Make your own sample garment. "If you're investing in a custom piece, it doesn't take very long to sew a quick mockup in a fabric that's similar weight or somewhat close to it," Ferraine says. The Los Angeles Fashion District is full of inexpensive polyesters that can approximate silk, muslin that can stand in for wovens and low-cost substitutes for your pricier stretch fabric or knit.
Set out terms of ownership. "It's good to ask if you are going to be charged separately for the patterns, and if so, do you own the patterns, in case you want to have those styles made by another dressmaker?" Ferraine says. "Also ask if you will have a discount for having additional versions of the same jacket made."
Be clear about additions or changes you don't want. "A lot of dressmakers try to play designer, which is OK to a degree, if they're just adding some creative flair," Ferraine says. "But if they want their stamp of artistic expression on everything they do, they may not be the person for you."