The New York look courtesy of Paul Stuart Custom
The phrase ‘custom program’ tends to arouse suspicion among disciples of fine clothing. Often, this is just code for a brand taking a stock model, throwing in a few made-to-measure tweaks and cutting some surgeon cuffs but for Paul Stuart Custom, this could not be further from the case. After working with its Director, Mark Rykken, over the past few months, I have been forced to set aside my prejudices, renounce my scepticism, and will now, in fact, declare (in no uncertain terms) that the custom tailoring found in Paul Stuart’s hallowed halls on Madison Avenue is truly world-class.
That Paul Stuart ‘New York’ Look
Now, before I am tarred, feathered and chased out of these august pages, allow me to explain. We’ll start with Rykken himself. He started at Washington, DC’s Britches of Georgetown in the ’70s, and even if you don’t know that store by name, you would have assuredly worn clothing from some of its other alumni, who have been scooped up by giants including Ralph Lauren. After a few years there (and having their top-selling suit model named in his honour), Rykken left to set up Alan Flusser’s DC outpost before making his first move to Paul Stuart in 1994 to open their enormous Chicago flagship. He flipped back to the Flusser side of things for a period, but in October 2010, came back to Paul Stuart to launch Custom.
Having spent time working with Flusser, Mark’s philosophy is similar in many ways. The same attention to a gentleman’s hair colour, skin colour and frame inform each and every choice of cloth and cut. “With your dark hair and high contrast, we need something a little bold,” he told me as we rifled through cloth books back in the spring.
Officially launched in the Autumn of 2011, Paul Stuart Custom represents the coming together of three very powerful forces: Mark Rykken’s taste and know-how, Paul Stuart’s iconic New York heritage and the legacy of soft, drape-cut tailoring— think the Duke of Windsor grabbing an icy martini at The Carlyle, and you’ll be on the right track.
Paul Stuart has done various types of custom clothing over the years, and still accommodates a wide range of made-to-measure/order options, but they have never undertaken something quite like this. The individual paper patterns, handstitched details like vent tacking, the edge stitching, the fly construction and a thorough fitting process all contribute to making these really serious clothes. “We have guys who have been buying all of their clothes here for years, but have maybe moved out of made-to-measure and have been getting their tailoring done on Savile Row or in Paris,” Rykken reflects. “They keep buying their furnishings and sportswear here, and the idea [with Custom] is to create a way for them to maybe start getting clothes made here again. And I’ve had tons of guys do just that.”
In fact, the day I took the plunge and had Mark wrap the tape around my shoulders, I met a customer and old friend of his who, after decades of having his clothes mostly made abroad, decided Paul Stuart Custom looked and sounded too good to pass up. It’s always encouraging as a new customer to see old ones excitedly returning — or in this case, being drawn to something new because the DNA they know and love is being reborn.
And that DNA is key for Rykken. “Really, all the stylish men of the last century wore these kinds of drape clothes in some form or another. So I started thinking about how we could make this type of clothing accessible and enticing to a new generation. There are just so many great things about the drape. So while I’ve raised the gorge, reduced a little in the chest and added a two-piece front for shape, we kept things like the point-to-point ratio, the high armhole and the suppressed waist. The DNA of that original drape cut is still all there.”
One thing is clear from the beginning: Mark has a distinctive point of view that informs Paul Stuart Custom’s house style, and that house style is what you’re going to get. “That’s what it’s for,” Rykken says. “I’m not going to show you four different shoulders and do it every way. I’ve worked hard to get this style nailed down, and it’s a style that I think flatters almost everyone.”
Keeping all this in mind, Mark and I thought it appropriate to make a suit that would display that combination of drape heritage, New York swagger and modernised fit. The result, we decided, should feature Rykken’s signature three-button coat with a little roll, and the wider-kneed trousers with pistol side-straps, all done up in a beautiful 11oz navy with white windowpane flannel from a cloth distributor beloved by American tailors, Drapers. As mentioned before, think Duke of Windsor.
“I am not a tailor,” Rykken explains, “and I make no claims of being a tailor. But I am a custom-clothing expert, and I know how to make sure a guy is wearing the clothes that flatter him best.” He and apprentice Paolo Martorano handle the measuring process and are joined by in-house tailors for the fitting process, which is every bit as involved as with any bespoke garment I’ve had made. Rykken works closely with the small team of New York artisans who draft paper patterns, cut cloth and stitch together Paul Stuart Custom’s garments, making sure nothing gets lost in translation.
No one likes to be told that their clothes need to be let out, and let’s not pretend vanity isn’t a part of the tailoring process.
As with any fitting process, there was work to be done on my suit: taking in the thighs a little here, adjusting the point width there, rotating a sleeve a little to keep it looking clean. The overall coat balance was spot-on from the beginning, and we only had to take things in, not let things out. (No one likes to be told that their clothes need to be let out, and let’s not pretend vanity isn’t a part of the tailoring process.)
While Rykken has certainly slimmed things down from the Oxford-bags days, these are not skinny clothes. The trouser drapes elegantly from the seat to the floor, with the wider knee and bottom lending some gravitas. This complements the barely extended shoulder points and ample chest drape. If you’re a devotee of this style of clothing, you’ll find yourself in love from the beginning; if you’re used to looking more like a whippet, this particular style may take some getting used to.
It doesn’t hurt that the clothes are just so comfortable. The coat shoulder looks athletic while staying light and cardigan-like, and the trousers feel more like pyjama pants than I thought proper legwear ever could. Importantly, though, the clothes still retain some shape while feeling weightless. We don’t want sloppy; we want easy-wearing.
A few months, three fittings and a move from Chicago to New York later, I sauntered excitedly up Madison Avenue from Grand Central to take delivery of my new suit of Gotham-ready armour. But I didn’t walk in to just a suit. Instead, Mark and I took a long walk around the expansive sales floors to seek out the perfect kit to finish the suit’s modern Deco look. I’m not usually one to buy whole outfits in one go, but I must say, the combination of blue check shirt, silver satin tie and suede half-brogues had me smitten.
“Some guys don’t really want to obsess over things,” says Rykken. “They just want to come in, pick a few things out to have made, buy the rest and leave looking their best.” With Rykken as your Virgil, you can be sure you’ll emerge looking stylish. But his ambitions go beyond mentoring customers over their style choices. “My goal is for Paul Stuart to become a world-class destination for bespoke clothing,” he says, “rivalling the best custom establishments from Savile Row to Milan to Paris and the like. And I think this is truly achievable.” Personally, I believe Mark’s even closer to his goal than he thinks.
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Manhattan, NY 10017
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