"What is Bespoke?" My reply from Tourrettes-sur-Loup

"What is Bespoke?" My reply from Tourrettes-sur-Loup

In menswear, June through August is the buying season for the following spring. This is normally a busy time, but it’s made busier by the fact that it is the first spring or even the first season in general with the brands that I’ll have in Old House Provisions. That means all the purchase orders have to be created from scratch and traveling to see the collections in person is extra crucial. This is mostly a blessing since it gives me an excuse to travel to beautiful places and make new friends, but the blog frequency suffers. Alas, new content is added to the mental queue.

Of course, I’m just being dramatic, but there’s much I’d like to share about my recent trip to the Pitti Uomo trade show in Florence and the family/personal trips that bookended it.

After hearing that I was going to Europe for Pitti, my family planned an impromptu trip to the south of France. The Cote d'Azur (French Riviera to English speakers) is one of the most incredible regions I’ve ever seen. The highlight for me was the many medieval villages perched right up to the edges of cliffs. The one that stood out to me was a small artisans village called Tourrettes-sur-Loup, which continues to have a number of artisans selling the products that they make on premises - such a rarity these days and naturally something a bespoke shoemaker is drawn to. The town also has a few Michelin starred restaurants, one of which, Cinq, is now my favorite restaurant and the inspiration for this post.

While the food and atmosphere were incredible, the reason I want to share this is because it highlights what I think is the most compelling aspect of bespoke. Let me explain.

Walking up to Cinq leads you to one of the most striking views in the town, where the walls of the age-old buildings transition seamlessly into the cliff’s edge juxtaposed with the vast Riviera valley. The restaurant is easily missed if not for the two-seaters placed outside for dinner service. The entire staff consists of maybe 4 people, the chef, his girlfriend, a runner, and a dishwasher. In our case, the chef also served as the host and gave us the run-down upon seating. The menu changes day to day based on what he finds in the market, the wine pairings chosen by his girlfriend adjust accordingly, we get whatever he serves, and we say yes to everything.

He then headed back to the kitchen, which is clearly visible from the seating area, and proceeded to prepare everyone’s meals while casually keeping multiple conversations going.

So why do I consider this bespoke? The normal, obvious selling points of bespoke, customizability and fit don’t apply. You could say that the food was artisanal and high-end in a similar sense to a handmade shoe, but that alone would be a stretch.

Those are all benefits of bespoke, but my conception is deeper and harder to put on paper. To me, the benefit of bespoke shoes, as with bespoke clothes and cinq, is that you’re getting the most unadulterated manifestation of the artisan's creativity. You’re bringing yourself closer to the origin of your favorite products and contributing to it in a meaningful way. You’re going back in time to when the products you saw in the local community came from the local community. And the artisan, befitting of his low to mid-range socioeconomic position and high-profile clientele, has a charming, genuine mix of gentility and casual, almost populist friendliness.

Of course, there’s more than one flavor to bespoke. Cinq represents the individual artisan, like me, that I find to be the most genuine manifestation of bespoke because of the close relationship with the craftsman. A fancier Michelin starred restaurant would represent the other variety of bespoke, like John Lobb, where the selling point is the high brow luxury experience from a well known brand, potentially even to the point where the creativity of the artisan is suppressed in favor of the brand identity. At Lobb, you’re sure to get the VIP experience, but you may not even get to meet the maker of your shoes. This isn’t a knock against John Lobb, in fact, I’ll probably sell John Lobb RTW in store. It’s just a different offering for a slightly different clientele.

This is part of the reason I don’t try to sell my bespoke shoes. People unfamiliar with my type of bespoke don’t tend to see good fit, handmade, or customization as justifying the order of magnitude price difference from other options out there that can provide one or multiple of those things in a cruder form at a much lower price. At OHP, I can’t offer the most luxurious experience either. This leaves me only with the emotional argument. I do think this is more convincing in the long term, but it takes time to set in, is harder to quantify, and fulfills a much lower rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. To people that understand bespoke, it’s not a hard sell at all. To everyone else, it’s an utter outrage. Even the Lobb customers may find it odd when their bespoke maker doesn’t greet them at the door with a warm towel and caviar (I’m exaggerating).

It turns out the elevator pitch for bespoke doesn’t really work. All the better, because if you do know, you can take a little extra pride that you know about something others don't. And now you’ve got someone in your neighborhood that you can go talk to about it (me). That’s really what bespoke is all about.

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