What’s coming between women and their Calvins, Donnas and Ralphs? A big fat pincushion. In an age of global brands, when the windows of Madison Avenue increasingly mirror those on Rodeo Drive and Avenue Montaigne, personally tailored clothes-or “custom,” as it is known, as if Edith Wharton had suddenly wandered into Starbucks-are becoming the quiet status symbol of choice for those who can afford them.
With demand accelerating for clothes that fit just so-clothes that no one else has -tailors from Milan to Savile Row are flying in from their overseas showrooms and whipping out their tape measures in Park Avenue parlors and Hollywood haciendas. Not only do the clothes look great, the client also gets to fancy herself as muse, recalling the days when Audrey Hepburn inspired Givenchy.
Patricia Ward Kelly, the widow of entertainer Gene, is one reveling in the return of that era. Ms. Kelly fondly remembered what her husband used to call “a conceit”: a special detail, like the satin peek-a-boo amethyst lining in a garnet gown she commissioned. She recently switched loyalties from high-end ready-to-wear to a private dressmaker on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, around the corner from her house. “The results are magical,” she said.
Young society babes on this coast are also eagerly taking part. Nadja Swarovski’s family company sells crystals to Versace and other major labels, but Ms. Swarovski recently consulted Princess Diana’s former private dressmaker, Catherine Walker, for her own private wardrobe. “You can always spot a woman who does custom,” she said, “because it always looks best.”
Naturally, name-brand design houses want a piece of what might be dubbed the New Couture. Witness Helmut Lang, who began offering made-to-measure tailoring last autumn (the appointments are booked solid for several months); Gucci, now offering “made-to-order” handbags and shoes; and Isaac Mizrahi, who is offsetting his foray into mass-market retail at Target with a custom business. At the end of July, Mr. Mizrahi sent 100 private invitations to ladies around town, which made clear that the recipients of these cards were his personal choices as custom clients. Socialite Helen Lee Schifter said she was looking forward to her fitting. “It’s more about supporting the designer,” she said. “It’s a creative process, and you can be clued in. The end product is unique.”
Ms. Schifter demurred when asked to name some of Mr. Mizrahi’s other secret clients. “I know they didn’t send these cards to too many people. It’s very quiet,” she said. ( Shhh .) Introducing the latest breed of urban outfitters:
“I create luxury door-to-door,” said Raffaella Curiel.
Ms. Curiel, a 60-year-old designer based in Milan, felt the pull of a legacy to fulfill. Her late mother, Gigliola Curiel, was the first Italian designer to be carried “exclusively” at Bergdorf Goodman in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Gigliola’s daughter explained how she introduced her own demi-couture line of classically cut suits and dresses to America. “The moment I realized that people didn’t want to go out and meet each other wearing the same Chanel suit or dress, I put my samples in a suitcase and came to Manhattan,” she said in a raspy lilt. That was 11 years ago, when she had two clients. Now she’s got 200, including society dames Susan Soros, Brooke Astor, Lee Thaw, Catherine Cahill and Michelle Herbert. They keep her so busy that she flies from Italy to a suite in the Surrey Hotel every three weeks.
“I think she’s fabulous,” said Bea Guthrie, a board member of Save Venice Inc. and a client for a decade. “The materials are real haute couture fabrics. By and large, the fabrics you see in the stores-with the exception of Armani-are not high-quality. Raffaella designs the classic clothes that people used to wear 20, 30 years ago. The couture-which can run at $45,000 a dress-is expensive, but not as expensive as Valentino or Givenchy. And you can get a nice suit from the ready-to-wear line for $2,500. Women are not used to having clothes that fit. Raffaella will take a piece apart and put the seams back in. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown out anything she’s ever made for me.”
“Look,” Ms. Curiel said. “I think the Italian labels are the best, but there is an imbalance between price and quality. These women don’t want to spend as much money on something that is not as good or exclusive as it used to be. They want a personal designer-someone to say, ‘This is good for you.'”
(Suits-wool and silk-from $3,000 to $6,000 apiece. Dresses range from $2,500 to $3,500. 011-39-02-76002872 )
Juanita Sabbadini, sister of Milanese jeweler Alberto Sabbadini, follows on Ms. Curiel’s well-cobbled heels. At the urging of her brother, she starting periodically packing up shop last year for Gotham, where she does fittings at a friend’s Park Avenue apartment.
Known predominantly for her Armani-esque suitings, she won’t reveal her uptown clients (nor her age), but claims she books appointments from morning until evening each time she visits for a week, in September, January and March.
Harriet Weintraub, the publicist for Burberry and Hollywould shoes, said she prefers Ms. Sabbadini’s suits to Prada, once a staple in her closet. Ms. Weintraub estimated that she’s accumulated three or four jackets and skirts, silk pants in different colors and sweaters. “There is something in women’s psyches that wants an original,” she said. “Juanita brings a new mid-range of custom design. We live in a cookie-cutter world. You find yourself with someone at the same occasion in the same dress. You don’t want to see yourself coming and going, where what you’re wearing is just a copy …. And I like something that fits me properly, that doesn’t have to be altered to death.”
(Dresses and suits start at $2,000. 011-39-027-602-0171 )
With her long, perfectly straight golden hair and white teeth, Tinsley Mortimer looks like Barbie and coordinates her wardrobe just as expertly. When she needed a dress to identically match her Kenneth Jay Lane turquoise, orange, green and violet chandelier earrings, she called Alvin Valley, a Cuban designer who moved to New York from Miami two and a half years ago.
Although his clothes sell in Bergdorf Goodman and Kirna Zabete, Mr. Valley’s custom clientele reads like a Social Register of both mothers and daughters: the Fanjul clan, the Hiltons-Kathy and daughters Nicky and Paris-Serena Boardman, Elizabeth Kieselstein-Cord, Natalie Leeds, with a dollop of Hollywood thrown in for good measure (Sharon Stone, Angela Bassett, Brittany Murphy).
Carolina Gutierrez, the stepdaughter of sugar baron Alfie Fanjul, was among the first of this clique to note the designer’s keen eye and Latino mothering instincts. She and her sister-in-law, Emilia Fanjul, discovered Mr. Valley’s personalized touch eight years ago when visiting his store in Coconut Grove. They told two friends, who then told two friends, and together the traveling Palm Beach set persuaded Mr. Valley to pack up his Southern locale for a New York showroom.
“If I have an event, I pretty much think I’ll go to Alvin as opposed to going to Valentino,” said Ms. Gutierrez. “Alvin knows what I Iike. He’ll make something for me, and it’s exactly what I’m looking for. I prefer getting something made through him, whether it’s evening wear, a little dress or a pair of pants. I go to him because he gets it right.”
Call him the modern-day Halston. Like the couturier prince of Studio 54, Mr. Valley, 29-who laughs easily and sports a consistent wide grin-often extends his personal attention to taking gals out on the town after fitting them.
He escorted Ms. Mortimer to so many events, her husband Topper got his dander up. “He is an amazing date,” Ms. Mortimer said. “An amazing dancer. Always the life of the party. Also, it’s nice to have the designer there with you. It makes you feel a little more special. Like a muse. But I know he has several.
“At first Topper was saying, ‘You’re spending a little too much time with him,'” Ms. Mortimer added. “But they had a long talk, and now Topper loves Alvin.”
(Alvin Valley, off the rack/samples: trousers, $300 to $700; jackets, $450 to $900. All can go up to $2,000 to $3,000 apiece when customized, depending on fabric and fittings. Custom dresses: $2,000 to $4,000. Couture: $4,000 to $8,000. 212-253-0095 )
The South African-born Gabrielle Carlson, with her short, shagged brown hair and wide grin, seems to have cornered the market for the over-40 and beyond-size-six set.
Ms. Carlson, who doesn’t reveal her age, was handing out champagne flutes recently at her small West Village shop to about 30 of her “ladies,” including Ronnie Eldridge, the former Upper West Side Councilwoman; Kathy Landau, vice president of Halston; and Grazia D’Annunzio, U.S. managing editor of Italian Vogue .
Wearing her own black taffeta hoop skirt, she was hosting one of her custom cocktail parties, where clients peruse samples that they will subsequently have fitted-through private appointments-to their bodies.
The event had the air of a high-class Tupperware party, with several suited women in pumps (some rather zaftig ) chatting in circles. They explained that Ms. Carlson’s reputation had spread fast because the designer encouraged clients to bring friends to witness fittings, like a private girls’ club.
The pieces themselves, which some of the guests compared to Jil Sander, include simple shifts, camisole tops, tuxedo jackets, scoop-neck blouses and wraps in various silks. Despite the individualized sewing, at only a few hundred dollars an item, they are much cheaper than Sander.
Ms. Eldridge, a neatly groomed CUNY-TV talk-show host, pointed to the violet silk chiffon jacket she was wearing. “As baby boomers age, the body doesn’t spring back. We need comfortable, beautiful clothes for changing bodies,” she said. “Now I don’t wear anything else.”
Ms. Landau and Ms. D’Annunzio were just as enthusiastic-even though, as slim, professional fashionistas, both can also get designer clothes on the cheap. Ms. D’Annunzio, a petite brown-eyed lady in a black Alberta Ferretti knee-length skirt and matching Prada T-strap shoes, enthused about the quality of the silk. She excitedly bum-rushed the racks, grabbing four pieces at once, including a black ruched shift. “I’ll wear this every day with ballet flats and a sweater,” she said, winking.
(Silk chiffon T’s: $225; jackets: $525 to $795. 212-929-0234)
Ms. McCartney, whose signature line is owned by Gucci Group, is not only a custom enthusiast but a fashion feminist. “I think women have been quite dictated to,” she told The Observer with brisk righteousness.
When opening her London store last spring, she mulled over how American women were always shopping for full looks- What ready-made top goes with these ready-made trousers? -and decided they had been brainwashed.
“I think women should put their own pieces together,” she said. “And I think bespoke is a way to do it.” Ms. McCartney, 31, has hired Henry Rose, a tailor from Savile Row with 43 years of experience, and is flying him first-class to Manhattan in the fall for fittings of 30 suitings she’s sketched. And she hopes to be present as often as possible.
“I really want to have a hands-on relationship with my clients,” she said. “If you’re going to spend x amount on a suit, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t get something especially for you.”
Ms. McCartney apprenticed three years herself with a Savile Row tailor. But an even bigger influence was the special three-piece bespoke suits commissioned by her parents, musicians Paul and Linda McCartney, in the 1960’s and 70’s.
“I remember, when I became a teenager, how it felt when I tried them on,” she said. “There was a quality of stiffness to them-fitted, tapered, structured. Very Helmut Newton.”
Don’t expect her to be completely traditional, especially in her choice of fabrics. She likes to scan antique shops and flea markets for colorful old curtains, gross grain, twilled silk, chenille and 19th-century cotton Union Jack flags.
Ms. McCartney is thinking about hosting her own private measurement party with pals Liv Tyler, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna so that Mr. Rose can keep their exact proportions on file. “I think Henry would really enjoy it,” she chuckled.
(Stella McCartney bespoke suits: Prices vary depending on the work and time
involved, averaging from £1,000 to £2,000. 011-44-207-518-3100)
About four years ago, Danielle Gisiger saw a sudden uptick of business at her eight-year-old Chelsea custom atelier. Soon after Nicole Kidman wore an ice-blue gown to an awards show-“I saw four actors in the same dress,” she said-she had to hire 15 additional seamstresses for what was once a one-woman shop.
Ms. Gisiger, 44, who looks to be in her 30’s despite an ingenue’s high brown ponytail, was born in Bern, Switzerland, and arrived here after winning a Swiss design contest that landed her a loft in the East Village.
She currently outfits first niece and former Tommy Hilfiger spokesmodel Lauren Bush; Tiffany Dubin, the founder of Sotheby’s fashion department; and Liya Kebede, Estee Lauder’s first African-American “face.” Ms. Gisiger also makes complete seasonal wardrobes for a variety of uptown ladies.
“It’s worth it,” said Ms. Dubin, who collaborates creatively with Ms. Gisiger on several candy-colored jumpsuits-$800 to $1,500 apiece-each season. “It fulfills my creative fantasy. A very 19th-century concept-the way women used to get new clothing before the rise of the dictatorial fashion designer.” Earlier in the summer, they were working on a black-and-white-striped Elvis Presley-themed ensemble.
Close to 600 muslin templates fill the back corner. A black-and-white photo of Diana Vreeland-fashion’s ultimate individualist, and the lady she calls “my hero”-sits on the wall above her aluminum desk.
“The people who come here have the Gucci, the Dolce in the closet.” Ms. Gisiger told The Observer . “And they want something that you can’t find anywhere else. We work around the clock.”
(Evening wear from $3,000 to $10,000; trousers and skirts range from $500 to $1,2000 an item. 212.352.0447)
Los Angeles interior designer Suzanne Rheinstein often visits New York City for a change of pace and to see her daughter, a recent New York University graduate. And sometimes she attends the same social gatherings as our local design talent.
At a recent wedding in Mississippi, Herve Pierre, the design director for Carolina Herrera, was so taken with Ms. Rheinstein’s skirt, in black lace silk gazar fabric, that he ran across the dance floor to tell her. “It’s Mon Atelier,” she whispered. She wasn’t being pretentiously French. Mon Atelier is the actual name of a custom shop in Los Angeles where Persian tailor Ali Rahimi anonymously toils. It’s a favorite with the aforementioned Ms. Kelly, as well as bicoastal stars like actress Reese Witherspoon.
Mr. Pierre was quite impressed by the rare fabric, since it originated from a French company called Abraham, which had once supplied silk gazar and chiffon to both Claude Montana and Yves St. Laurent couture a decade ago.
“It was gazar-very, very fun,” Mr. Pierre said, fairly gasping with the possibilities. “It’s very hard to weave. A bubbly, nervous fabric, like a jellyfish. It is a disaster to manipulate and a disaster to travel with. It is usually destroyed after 30 seconds. You can’t even sit in a Rolls Royce-you have to rent a van and stand in it, because it’s only troubles and beauty. But it is an extravaganza, if you can afford or understand it.”
Mr. Rahimi, 38, who opened his custom salon with partner John Barle seven years ago, was born in Iran, grew up in England and studied his craft at the Virginia Marti College of Fashion in Cleveland, Ohio. He finally landed in Los Angeles, following his parents’ move from London.
But inspiration for Mr. Rahimi-whose short dark hair is as sharply maintained as his fitted pastel shirts-came much earlier. His mother, a jewelry heiress, would take him on custom appointments from the moment he could walk.
“We went to Dior and Balenciaga in Paris, a lot of different ateliers,” he said. “She brought photos from magazines and had specific ideas of what she wanted. So I would see how she would accept or reject different materials.”
Ms. Rheinstein has commissioned grand frocks as well as more low-key jackets and trousers. “These things are timeless,” she said. “I love old Bill Blass, but I am now working on a uniform with Ali. At night I love to have these beautiful clothes, but I just need tailored, simple things every day. I say what I’m thinking, and he sketches.”
(Prices: day dresses, on average, $2,000 to $3,000; evening gowns from $1,800 to $40,000. 323-937-1189)