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The Making of Luxury

  • Meg Lukens Noonan is the author of "The Coat Route," a book about what it takes to make a $50,000 coat. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Meg Lukens Noonan is the author of "The Coat Route," a book about what it takes to make a $50,000 coat. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Meg Lukens Noonan is the author of "The Coat Route," a book about what it takes to make a $50,000 coat. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

T here are a few ways you could wear a $50,000 coat. You could staple together bills of various denominations totaling $50K into the shape of a coat. You could shop at Neiman Marcus, the plush emporium that caters to the 1 percent. Or you could ask John Cutler, a men’s tailor in Sydney, Australia to make you one.

The firm J.H. Cutler has been making bespoke clothing, or clothes that are tailor-made, in Sydney since 1884. John Cutler, now in his 60s, is in the fourth generation of the family to go into the business. He’s also one of a vanishing species: the craftsman who creates what is essentially wearable art using only the finest materials. And when a client named Kevin Lambert, of the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” school, told Cutler he wanted the most luxurious coat his money could buy, Cutler leaped to the challenge.

The story of the the tailor, the coat and the materials that went into it is told in journalist Meg Lukens Noonan’s book The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury, & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat , published by Spiegel and Grau. A magazine writer who has lived in Hanover for 20 years with her family, Noonan stumbled onto Cutler when, on impulse, she sat down at her computer and did a Google search for the Best in the World coat.

So when Cutler’s name popped up in the Google search window, she looked at his website, and the photographs of his inventory, including his coats. She contacted him saying she was interested in writing a book about the $50,000 coat; he wrote back saying he thought that was a good idea.

The idea didn’t come out of thin air, Noonan explained over coffee in downtown Hanover. She’d been on assignment for The Atlantic, researching a story on the eider duck down that goes into top-of-the-line comforters. The story wasn’t published, due to a change of editors at the magazine. But the notion of following, from beginning to end, the sequence of making something unique and beautiful that requires days and weeks of labor stayed with her.

And then there was the obvious question that needed answering: Why would you spend $50,000 on a coat? How could one coat cost as much as a BMW sedan? The coat, which in photographs was unremarkable in appearance, “looked so boring. I couldn’t fathom how it cost $50,000,” Noonan said. Noonan went into the research a neophyte. “It’s a world, a sub-culture that I didn’t know anything about.”

She schooled herself in the history of the South American vicuna, which was almost extirpated for its fleece, but is now conserved by the Peruvian government. In Peru she witnessed a round-up of vicunas, from which comes the prized fleece that is spun into cloth, which can fetch $6,000 per yard. She traveled north of London to Yorkshire, to a factory that weaves the short, delicate vicuna fibers into wool. In Paris she met the scion of Dormeuil, a famous firm which sells cashmere, mohair, vicuna and other cloth, in scores of patterns, to the tailors.

She went to London’s Savile Row, the Mecca of bespoke tailoring, where such clients as Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Jackson and Prince Charles were assured of the utmost in quality and discretion when they ordered their suits. In Florence she met the Italian designer Stefano Ricci, whose hand-made, hand-printed, very expensive silks would line Lambert’s coat. Back in England she visited the factory where the coat’s unique buttons, fashioned from the horn of water buffalo, were made. And, of course, she went to Cutler’s shop in Sydney to see him and his staff at work.

“People who get this custom-made clothing are so passionate about what they wear,” Noonan said. Cutler himself is something of a dandy, prone to wearing suits and coats in a rainbow of colors, and he doesn’t quite understand why the rest of the world chooses to walk around dressed as if they’ve just rolled out of bed.

The book raises questions about the nature of luxury and craft, mass production and mass consumption, planned obsolescence and longevity. The output of fashion designers and couturiers is more visible than ever, thanks to the public’s interest in what stars wear which designer on which red carpet. Even the ittiest-bittiest teen awards show or soft drink product launch is guaranteed to draw stars or wannabes who pose in their designer duds for the paparazzi.

But that’s not the same thing as luxury, Noonan said. In the book she quotes the director of a Savile Row firm who insists there is no such thing as mass luxury, although Rolex and Coach would have you think otherwise. Luxury is scarcity. And it’s not always ostentatious; it doesn’t always call obvious attention to itself. The men who are Cutler’s clients were baffled by why anyone would want to pay top dollar for something that hundreds of other people could also buy and wear, and which screams, “I paid a lot of money for this.”

“For a lot of people the finest things means one-of-a-kind things,” Noonan said. And, she said, “because of these wealthy people these craftsmen will be able to continue.”

That may sound like a matter of little importance compared to whether the U.S. should bomb Syria. Does it really matter whether a man who drives two Porsches, has multiple homes and drinks Grand Cru French champagne, continues to have access to a coat or jacket made from the fleece of a vicuna?

In the grand scheme, probably not. But the tailors, sewers, weavers, button makers and dyers who toil away, with considerable pride, on the clothes that affluent shoppers covet, would be out of work if there weren’t a market for what they produce.

In fact, the button factory that Noonan visited in the English Midlands, which was already teetering on the brink of closing, has since gone out of business. For the small town in which it was located, to have a factory that’s employed people since the 19th century go under is devastating. Cheaper labor in Asia, for one thing, has contributed to the hemorrhaging of garment industry jobs in the U.S. and Europe.

Although some of the firms on Savile Row are trying to bring apprentices into the business through college programs, “there’s a sense of melancholy, that this is the end of an era,” Noonan said.

There are oth er ways in which such businesses are tied into the global marketplace. If the height of indulgence is a bespoke coat, hand-made by the most skilled craftsmen, then what can one say about mass-produced clothes made by people in developing countries who are paid next to nothing and work in often dangerous, deadly conditions? Who benefits, and who doesn’t, from being able to buy a skirt, shirt or pair of pants for less than $20? The old adage, “You get what you pay for,” still holds true, Noonan said.

Noonan said that the garment industry is due for the same kind of critical scrutiny that Americans have recently given to factory farming and agriculture. Not only are the clothes cheap and cheap-looking, but they “end up thrown in the trash. It’s disposable. I didn’t grow up buying clothes like that.”

“Built-in obsolescence keeps the wheels turning,” she said.

Cutler may charge top dollar for his work but that doesn’t mean, Noonan said, that he nets top dollar. “I just cover my costs and am satisfied with my lifestyle,” he wrote her in an email.

These days the clients seeking top-notch luxury goods come more and more from Asia, and China in particular. As the Chinese develop a wealthy upper class, they look for objects that confer status, which includes bespoke clothing. Because the Chinese haven’t yet refined the making of Western luxury goods, they still look to Europe. In a survey of Chinese tourists to Europe, the dominant complaint was that “they didn’t have enough time to spend all their money,” Noonan said.

As for the competition between the Europeans and the Chinese to make the finest clothing, said Noonan, “the mills I visited are very aware that they’re just a step or two ahead of China. They feel them at their heels.”

So, what does $50,000 feel like next to the skin? When Noonan finally saw the coat in person, felt it and tried it on, she understood why Lambert insisted on using Cutler. The coat was substantial but it felt soft and nearly weightless. The silk lining was “lustrous.” The attention to detail was at a microscopic level. The buttons made from Indian water buffalo horn (the horns are a byproduct of meat production: buffalo aren’t killed specifically for their horn) had an elegant sheen.

“It settled on my shoulders nicely. It wasn’t stiff, it was supple,” Noonan said.

And what did Noonan, writing about bespoke clothing, wear to interview the people involved in its production? After all, when you interview some one like Cutler or Ricci, both keenly aware of style and quality, there’s little chance of outdoing them.

“I realized early on that there was no way I would ever be at the level of some of the people I was interviewing — and they didn’t expect that from me. I didn’t have the budget or the fashion sense. I tried to blend in,” Noonan wrote in an email.

There is a considerable psychological element to wearing a handmade coat, Noonan said. Just as she felt a surge of pleasure and well-being trying on Lambert’s coat, one of Cutler’s clients spoke about what wearing Cutler’s clothes meant to him. This man, who was shy, told her that when he donned clothes made for him, he felt “equal to any man, he felt that it gave him power. It gave him that confidence.”

That is Cutler’s aim, in part. The intent is not to make clothes that transform you into somebody radically different, said Noonan, but to present to the public “an enhanced version of you which can erase your flaws or imperfections.” You, only better.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.