These tailors show that custom suiting is no longer just for men

With these forward-thinking tailors breaking up the bespoke boys’ club, women no longer have to settle for off the rack.
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A basted garment, loosely sewn with white thread, is a hallmark of the bespoke suiting process. Photograph by Harry Mitchell for Fortune
Photograph by Harry Mitchell for Fortune
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Luxury is not one size fits all. One person’s lifetime dream of an Antarctic cruise is another’s frozen nightmare. Your storybook 18th-century villa is my creaky old dump. So while some fashionistas thrill to personal shoppers’ ferrying flutes of Veuve Clicquot, my most indulgent shopping experience involves the revelation that my left leg is almost an inch—an inch!—shorter than my right. 

That news, delivered by New York City–based designer Shao Yang, is followed by a running commentary on my apparent grab bag of a physique: shoulders (right about a quarter inch higher than left), hips (slightly askew), and posture (the word “concave” was used). A bit disconcerting, yes, but there is luxury in being so precisely seen after years of frustration about why I could never find pants or jackets that fit just so. And the real delight was still to come: Yang’s assessment is a first step in building a luxurious scaffolding designed to bring symmetry to my stubbornly asymmetric frame—a custom-made suit. 

Men have known the airbrushing power of custom tailoring for centuries. But there was something new about what was transpiring in Yang’s Flatiron studio that afternoon: She and I—as well as the vast majority of her clients—are women. Yang’s business, The Tailory, is part of a small but growing cadre of tailors and custom-suiting companies catering to women who want their own spin on what has long been the official uniform of the old boys’ club.

Today, the universe of women’s custom attire echoes the options available to men, though on a far more modest scale. There’s the traditional bespoke, an elite strata that includes tailors like Kathryn Sargent, the first woman to rise to the title of head cutter on London’s Savile Row, and New York’s Dara Lamb, who’s dressed some of the most recognizable female chiefs of the Fortune 500. Bespoke, like many tailoring terms, tends to vary slightly depending on who’s wielding it but is generally agreed to include the process of making a hand-cut-from-scratch pattern and creating a basted (loosely sewed) garment for the first of multiple fittings to make sure the details are perfect.

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Tools of the cutter’s trade. No lasers or CAD here.
Photograph by Harry Mitchell for Fortune

More affordable is made-to-measure, which has experienced something of a boomlet in recent years. This more simplified—and e-­commerce friendly—method generally involves a standard pattern, which is adjusted based on an individual’s measurements and preferences. Women can now order customized suits from companies like SuitKits (where the process starts online with a “virtual stylist”), Bluesuits (which also offers bespoke), Sene (men’s and women’s options in stretchy athleisure fabrics), Gormley & Gamble (headquartered on Savile Row), and a handful of others.

Finally, there are those that exist somewhere in between—usually referred to by the catchall phrase “custom.” This group, which includes The Tailory, creates individual patterns rather than starting with an existing template but relies on technology to trim away some of the more time-consuming and technical aspects of the bespoke process.

As different as these approaches—and their starting price points, which range from a few hundred dollars to $5,000 or more—may be, they’re all trying to solve the same problem, one laid out neatly by professor Lynn M. Boorady, head of apparel design at Oklahoma State University: “As women, we’re all walking around wearing suits that don’t fit us.”

The Tailory is designed to put the uninitiated at ease. While the small office contains some of the clubby touches you’d expect from a menswear purveyor—stocked bar, mannequins draped in trenches and tweedy blazers—the velvety pink upholstery and a delicate china tea set nestled on the bottom shelf of the bar cart reject the cigar-chomping cliché. Noting that the majority of her customers come from the LGBTQ+ community, Yang says she wanted the space to feel familiar and welcoming to everyone in a way the hypermasculine world of suit tailoring often does not. And as we launch into the custom process, I begin to see another reason that creating a sense of comfort is essential—and, perhaps, a reason that cart is full of liquor: A head-spinning number of decisions are required to create a single garment. 

The process starts simply enough: Yang asks me about my personal style, and where and when I might wear the suit. Then out comes a towering stack of fabric books, each one packed with dozens of samples. (I’ve opted to stick to the house fabrics for a $995 suit, which limits my choices to just 500.) From there, we flip through a multitude of lining options (I admire, but do not choose, one silky sample covered in roaring lions), piping colors, buttons, embroidery threads, and monogram fonts. Then it’s time for the design of the suit itself. Jacket pockets, lapels, vents, and length all need to be considered. How should the legs be cut? Where should the waist hit? Do I want cuffs on ankles or cinches on the hips? Belt loops: yes or no? 

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Kathryn Sargent in her eponymous Mayfair atelier.
Photograph by Harry Mitchell for Fortune

When all the decisions are made, and Yang’s tape measure has been draped around 34 places along my arms, legs, and torso, it’s over—for today. A few taps to her iPad, and my measurements are fed into her proprietary pattern algorithm, then tucked into a “tech pack”—specifying the measurements and all materials—that will soon be winging its way to her partner factory in Qingdao. I’ll get my first look at the results in two and a half weeks when I return for my fitting.

So why, given the many “Women be shoppin’!” jokes we’ve all endured, has the world of custom suiting spent most of the past century giving women the cold—if impeccably tailored—shoulder? Sargent, whose clientele is about a third female, points to the history of tailoring in England, where many of our modern conceptions about suiting were formed. She says women’s bespoke has historically been viewed “as country attire—something you’d wear horseback riding or to a society event, which is quite … I’m going to use the word ‘frumpy’ in the nicest possible way.” Modern women wanted nothing to do with these looks (“a bit Mary Poppins,” notes Sargent), and traditional tailors have done little to attempt to woo them back to the atelier with more tempting garments.

The might of the Fashion Industrial Complex has also played a role. Women’s ready-to-wear sheds its skin twice a year, burying shoppers in a deluge of new fabrics, cuts, and hems. Newness is the nemesis of custom—­particularly on the bespoke side of the business, where it’s shockingly easy to drop $10,000 on a single suit—and which requires the buyer to believe she’s investing in a garment she’ll wear for years, even decades. 

But perhaps the biggest factor holding women’s tailoring back is less cultural—and more anatomical. “There’s a lot that happens in 10 inches on a woman from here to here,” says Lamb, gesturing at the expanse between her shoulder and bust. “And from here to here,” she continues, dropping her hands to her waist and hip. “It’s that simple.” The accumulated knowledge and skill set of master tailors is based on the relative simplicity of men’s bodies. Women’s physiques vary far more dramatically, making them a far “harder nut to crack,” says Lamb. For decades, the overwhelmingly male tailoring establishment didn’t bother to try.

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The author at her final fitting for a custom suit at The Tailory New York. Sharp.
Photograph by Rebecca Greenfield for Fortune

Ironically, the very curves that stump so many tailors are also one of the reasons custom tailoring can help professional women stand apart. Jamak Khazra, founder of Bluesuits, says her bespoke business revolves around women who because of their size ranges “just can’t buy off the rack”—e.g., her client Martine Rothblatt, founder of United Therapeutics, a transgender woman who stands a statuesque six-two. At The Tailory, Yang specializes in a different, if equally tricky, fit, creating a purposefully androgynous silhouette. 

The undeniably luxe materials of high-end custom have other advantages as well. A “powerful fabric” can help the wearer communicate, says Lamb as she reaches for a jacket made of a deep blue English wool shot through with silvery pinstripes. “For a senior woman, a large part of her audience may be men,” she says. “Most of them have gotten their suits custom made, most of them have seen fabrics like that.” Lamb believes this kind of visual familiarity can “take the walls down—it really does allow you a greater level of influence.”

Such messaging isn’t lost on Dr. Susan Nicholson, VP of Women’s Health at Johnson & Johnson, who purchased her first suit from Kathryn Sargent last year—a two-piece in “a classic Prince of Wales brown-and-black check with lavender lining.” She says, “For me, co-opting that male symbol of power and influence says, ‘Hey, I’m influential too.’ ” Nicholson made the decision to go bespoke after years of “getting clothes that didn’t quite fit and then spending a couple hundred dollars on tailoring. It just didn’t make sense.” Of her dream suit, she told Sargent: “I want to be able to walk into any meeting and feel absolutely confident … to feel like I belong there.” 

It’s the moment of sartorial truth. I step out from behind The Tailory’s dressing screen at my final fitting and peer into the mirror. Looking back, an elegant, if faintly rakish, figure. Her shoulders cut a smooth, crisp line. Her pants skim down her legs before ending neatly, with the slightest flare, just above the ankles. Something Sargent told me rings in my ears: “Men have had it good for so long.” Now, it seems, women do too. 

Ready to suit up? 

The world of custom tailoring can be overwhelming. Follow these three tips for getting the most out of your first appointment.

1. Find a good listener.

Personality matters. You will be leaning on your tailor for advice, so seek out someone you can be honest with, even when it comes to sensitive topics like insecurity about your physique. Your tailor should be engaged and curious about what you want—as opposed to telling you what you should want. 

2. Know your taste.

The number of decisions a shopper must make in custom tailoring can be gobsmacking to someone used to buying off the rack. The more focused you are going into the process, the more likely you are to come out of it with something you love. Yang encourages customers to create a Pinterest board.

3. Focus on fabrics.

Don’t fall into the trap of choosing the finest fabrics. Yes, they’ll be softer and more luxurious, but going too fine can make your suit less durable and more likely to wrinkle. 

A version of this article appears in the February 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “A Suit of One’s Own.”

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