For Ajamian Jean-Jacques – head tailor at Elegante Tailors – good suiting is more than just a skill. It’s a craft that’s been handed down four generations
Tucked away downstairs in Dubai’s Oberoi hotel is Elegante Tailors. The petite tailor shop is home to Mr Jean-Jacques and his team, along with a full-sized cutting and sewing room (not that you’d know it, access is through a fake wall in the side of the showroom). One of the newest to the UAE’s ever-growing roster of bespoke tailors, Jean-Jacques has a tendency to do things a little differently.
Unlike other tailors that champion proper, stuffy suits – although Jean-Jacques would certainly make one of those, if asked – Elegante celebrates the Italian style of bespoke suiting. Perhaps that’s down to his upbringing. “I’m a fourth-generation tailor,” says Jean-Jacques, “it all began with my great grandfather in Adana, which is in Turkey. We moved to Lebanon when I was quite young, and both he and my father were tailors. They opened their first factory in Lebanon in 1965. Because of the war, I was sent to boarding school in Venice, Italy. Then my family relocated to Canada.”
While his time in Venice certainly contributed to Jean-Jacques proclivity towards Italian styles, it was his family that thought him tailoring. “When I finished school and went to work for my father, he told me to forget 90 percent of what I had learned” admits Jean-Jorges. “Experience is really what this trade is about. Working with your hands. You learn the basics in school when they teach you, for example, colour charts. But it is not until you start working that you realise there are elements of tailoring that can’t be explained.”
You might say Jean-Jacques was born to do his job. “I’ve been a tailor all my life, except for three years. For those three years, I tried to do something different, but I wasn’t very good at anything. So I went back to being a tailor. Let’s just say; you always end up going back to what you love”.
Over recent years, much has been made about the skill of tailors. A new breed of tailor shops has sprung up, offering custom suits at rock-bottom prices. They will provide a suit that fits, but is it truly bespoke? “The word ‘bespoke’ means spoken – in essence; it is a suit that ‘has been ordered from someone’ versus off the rack. In Italian, they say ‘su misura’ which is a bit different. Real bespoke starts specifically for you and your body. Every small detail is taken into account” says Jean-Jacques.
The difference between what bespoke and made to measure is small but significant. “The difference with made-to-measure or custom-made suits is that the tailor uses a standard pattern to cut the fabric. However it’s altered slightly to fit you.” Bespoke, on the other hand, says Jean-Jacques, “is where the tailor builds patterns specifically for you. I take your measurements, make out a unique pattern and then use that to cut the fabric”. “There are a lot of places here where you see the word bespoke, but it’s not really. It’s just a pattern altered to fit you,” admits Jean-Jacques, shaking his head.
Dubai is one of the great shopping capitals of the world, with many designer stores from some of the finest suit makers in the business. Zegna, Armani, Brioni: with such choice in the market is a bespoke suit any better? “The difference between them and us,” says Jean-Jacques, “is more options. If you go to any shop, they will have eight or nine designs – usually in the most conservative colours and fabrics so they appeal to a broad audience. The reason they have so few is because they need to keep various sizes of those suits in stock.” A traditional tailor shop offers more choice, nearly an infinite combination of styles, colours and accents. “When you come to a tailor, the collection is much bigger. Not to mention, if you are a tall person with long arms you’ll never fit in those designer suits”.
Designer brands are keen to point out that it is not just the designs that make their clothes stand out, but the quality of the materials used. Brands like Zegna have their own wool mills, while others buy custom fabrics from the likes of Vitale Barberis Canonico – one of the oldest, and certainly most celebrated, cloth-making factories in the world. But while there’s no doubting the quality from top designers, one again it boils down to cost, says Jean-Jorges, “bigger brands have a problem when using the best fabrics. Ultimately, everything they make needs to sell. If they buy super premium materials – which cost thousands of dollars – and it doesn’t sell, that’s a huge problem. You can’t just take a suit apart and make it again in a different style. That’s why they won’t risk it”.
Fabric, it seems, is something of a specialist subject for Jean-Jorges who describes it as his “passion”. “I still believe that 70 percent of my job is done by the fabric. Tailoring is just the remaining 30 percent. I know I shouldn’t say that because I’m a tailor, and I’m supposed to say it is all about skill, but here’s the truth: if you choose a great fabric, any suit will come out nice. But if you want low-quality material, there’s not much I can do to make it feel comfortable”.
What’s the difference between a good and bad fabric? “It’s the difference between natural and synthetic. There are four natural fibres, wool, cotton, linen and silk. Everything else is synthetic, like polyester. When you are playing football and your shirt by Nike, synthetic is fine – it’s been made specifically for you. However, a vast majority of synthetic fabrics are not. Natural fabrics breathe better, they wear better, and ultimately, they look better”.
Traditionally, the home of bespoke suiting is London’s Savile Row. But there are benefits to staying away from the Row, not least for the prices, “European prices are almost triple ours. I don’t blame them; they have higher costs. But as long as the fabric comes from the same factories, and the tailor has the same skills like those on Savile Row, the suit will end up the same” says Jean-Jacques. Then there’s the hindrances of tradition, “Savile Row has been there for a long time, and tradition affects the style. They tailor a more British style, which is very conservative, more business-like. Here, I tailor in the Italian style.”
The trademarks of Italian-styled suits are a slimmer silhouette, with more flamboyant elements, high peaked-lapels, colourful linings, or contrast stitching. But there’s also more nuance to it, “I’m the only one in Dubai who does Neapolitan style. That’s when suits have a softer shoulder, slightly larger arms and wider lapels.”
When it comes to tailoring a bespoke suit, there are two camps. The first is highly structured. The suit holds your body, forcing it into the right position, and ensuring you always have the proper posture. The second type of suit drapes over the body and – over time – moulds to the contours of your body. “It’s true,” says Jean-Jacques, “but to me, a suit is not there to fix the form of your body. It’s there to emphasise the shape of your body. The suits I make fit your body, so that no matter what your posture is you look good.” The adage that a good suit can make you look slimmer is a tad off point, says Jean-Jacques. “Forms are not wrong. If someone is thin, a suit will show he is thin. If someone is, let’s say heavy, it will not hide that fact. To me, there is no bad or good looking person. Yes, there are different kinds of bodies, but who’s to say which one is the right one? Certainly not me”.
If there is one thing, Jean-Jacques is keen to mention more than anything when defending bespoke, its choice. It’s true, with thousands of fabrics to choose from multiplied by several different cuts, lapel shapes, cuffs, linings, pockets, and accents, the number of suit options to choose from is simply mind boggling. But vast choice isn’t always a good thing. What then is the tailor’s responsibility during this process? “I try to guide my clients in the ways a certain suit would fit them. Most of my clients heed my guidance, but there are some who know what they want. I won’t argue with them; it’s their choice,” says Jean-Jacques.
Ultimately, the relationship between man and tailor is that of trust. “I will say this: going to a tailor the first time and giving them a down payment on something they haven’t even seen is a bit difficult, especially for first-timers. It’s a challenging notion, to pay for something you haven’t even seen yet.”
That’s why to ensure customer satisfaction, Elegante Tailors offers a unique approach to a guarantee, “When I finish a suit if a client doesn’t like it then I get my scissors and cut it up right in front of them. At the end of the day, the customer is trusting me to make them a suit that they like, and if I can’t do that, then the way I see it I haven’t finished my job yet. So I cut it up, throw it away, and start making a new one…”