The Anatomy of a Bespoke Suit

Marcel Ames photographed by Alston Thompson Photography. 

Lately, the term “bespoke” seems to have morphed into a marketing term, confusing its true meaning with something closer akin to “custom.” Marcel Ames, owner of the Richmond, Virginia-based bespoke suiting company X of Pentacles (XOP), is an ideal teacher for those interested in learning the distinction. “The term ‘bespoke’ means ‘spoken for,’ and that’s exactly what it is,” Ames explains. “There is no base pattern, and each piece is created from scratch to the customer’s exact measurements.” To learn more about this age old—and increasingly hard to come by—craft that is the pinnacle of haute couture, Ames took us through the process of creating a bespoke suit from start to finish, sharing the history of this type of tailoring and explaining every element along the way.

THE ORIGINS // Ames arrived at the founding of X of Pentacles through a set of unforeseen circumstances, but given his longtime interest in fashion, it seems a bit inevitable. As a child, he enjoyed dressing up in his father’s suits, marveling at the intricate tailoring. Later, he dabbled in fashion while working at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City as a rep for menswear brand Paul Stewart, but it wasn’t until a brain injury sidelined him from his chosen career path of policing, paired with the sudden loss of his father, that his boyhood passion came back into focus. “Sketching while recovering was a form of bereavement for me,” he says. “It gave me an outlet and an escape.”

With encouragement from his girlfriend, he began educating himself on the fundamentals of design, read everything he could about bespoke tailoring, and learned how to sew using his father’s sewing machine. Throughout, one thing was clear: Ames was not into fast fashion. He wanted to create something that was made to last, like his father’s suits. Today, X of Pentacles, named after the Tarot card that represents wealth and long-term success, is one of a few brands in America to offer real bespoke suiting.

THE NEAPOLITAN ROOTS // “Everything is rooted in tradition for me,” Ames says. “It all goes back to the foundations of luxury.” Not one to embrace fashion for fashion’s sake, Ames believes items need to be well-made first and foremost, like the Louis Vuitton steamer trunks from the luxury brand’s origins.

When he was trying to find a specific style of tailoring for his suits, he was drawn to the Neapolitan style that was developed in Naples, Italy—not only because it’s a unique style that would set his brand apart, but also because these suits are extremely lightweight, a necessity in warmer climates like his hometown of Richmond. They’re minimalistic, eschewing lining, to not only allow for more air circulation, but also to show off the intricate sewing that’s all done by hand.

Neapolitan suiting does not have shoulder pads, and follows a more natural silhouette, as opposed to the boxy, heavy look of American and Savile Row suiting. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of a Neapolitan suit are the spalla camicia, which translates to shirt shoulder, denoting the pleats or wrinkles where the sleeve is set by hand; an hourglass silhouette; and wider lapels. “And they’re so comfortable,” Ames extols. “It’s very liberating because you don’t feel like you’re weathering a suit of armor. You could literally fall asleep in them.”

THE PROCESS // Creating a bespoke suit for both men and women is the same process as haute couture. “Any idea that can be conceived for a garment can be made,” Ames explains. Like the suit being featured here, he can create things like a jacket that can be worn over the shoulders like a cape, incorporate different pockets, and even make skirts or bodysuits.

The pattern for each garment is created entirely from scratch, and completely sewn by hand, typically encompassing 70 man hours of sewing. There’s a minimum of three fittings before a client can take home the final product, usually taking three to six months. But it’s well worth the wait for a timeless piece of clothing that fits perfectly and cannot be replicated. He outlines the steps in detail:

Consultation: “It all starts with a conversation,” Ames says. He and his clients discuss the specific problems they need to solve, such as fit challenges, as well as preferences for style, color, and fabric. After some time in his studio, Ames sketches garment concepts, and he and his client choose a design and fabric. He then sends a document with all of this information, translated into Italian, to his sartoria, or workshop, in Naples to begin construction of the garment.

Photography by Alston Thompson Photography

Basted – First Fitting. During this fitting, the client is fitted with the shell of the garment, which is loosely sewn together by white stitches called basting stitches. “This is where the bulk of the adjustments occur,” Ames explains. “I can pull sleeves off and the entire garment apart to adjust to your body.”

Photography by Alston Thompson Photography

Forward – Second Fitting. In the forward fitting, the client tries the garment on again. This time, some of the pockets have been added, as well as the collar and front facings of the garment. Here, he continues to make adjustments as necessary, and then he and the client decide on final details such as buttons, decorative stitching, etc.

Photography by Alston Thompson Photography

Final – Third Fitting. At the last fitting, all of the final details have been added and the garment is tried on one last time to ensure proper fit. Provided all is to the client’s expectations, they can take their new suit home.

Ames notes that anything that does not use the aforementioned process is not considered real bespoke. So the next time you encounter the word, consider whether the context conjures up the type of painstaking detail, precision, and personalization outlined here; if not, the garments can still be beautiful, but they’re likely better defined as custom.

Photography by Alston Thompson Photography. Special thanks to Natalie Gordon of Avenue 42 Salon in Richmond, Virginia, for providing the photo shoot space. X of Pentacles is featured in The Scout Guide Richmond. All suiting is by appointment and can be booked through their website.