NYC’s couture dressmakers, tailors, and custom-fitters are on the rebound. A guide to the 10 best.
By Linda Dyett
African wax-print summer dress by Elizabeth Cannon and menswear-style suit by J. Mueser.
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We consumers—especially midlife and older Americans—are paring down our wardrobes and shopping less and less these days—but we’re also spending more for higher-quality wearables that express our individuality and suit us to a T. And after a decade of online point-and-click purchases, a lot of us are also eager to return to hands-on service in brick-and-mortar surroundings.
Enter custom-made—the artisanal antidote to fast fashion. Long the province of moneyed elites, celebrities, and mothers of the bride, custom dressmaking and tailoring are today also attracting regular women, who aren’t necessarily in the market for a dress to wear to a black-tie event. These new customers are ladies with style intuition, who know the cuts, fabrics, and colors they want when they see them. And with dozens of hours of pattern-making, cutting, sewing (sometimes by hand), and intricate multiple fittings, custom-made confers an optimal fit that disguises a bulging waist, out-of-shape hips, thighs, and arms, droopy breasts, posture slump, spinal curve, and other figure flaws.
Of course couture dressmakers and tailors come at a price. While I’ve located one who’ll work up one of her off-the-rack $100 to $400 dresses in a different size for no extra fee, most charge $240 and up for custom-made blouses and shirts; $500 and up for made-to-measure (a widely used industry term referring to garments derived from a standard pattern); and $1,500 and up for made-to-order dresses and suits. These are hardly bargains, but they compare so favorably with higher-end, A-list designer ready-to-wear that plenty of women, once they’ve tried New York couture, won’t switch back.
Here’s a rundown of some of the city’s most celebrated as well as off-the-beaten-track dressmakers and tailors who excel in couture and made-to-measure. Just keep in mind: what they offer isn’t seasonal fashion; it’s all about personal, individual style that you can hand down to your daughter or granddaughter, who’ll cherish it as much as you do. Appointments are essential almost everywhere, and finished garments take at least a month—sometimes several—to produce.
Ensconced in a ground floor London Terrace studio, Elizabeth Cannon is that impossible-to-find accessible couturière whom stylish, independent-minded New York women dream about. Having honed her trade making costumes for the Paris Opera Ballet, her inspirations ranging from the Commedia dell’arte to Cocteau, she’s been designing made-to-order one-offs with a lyrical urban edge (starting at $1,500 for dresses, $500 for blouses) since 1980. Her clients? “Very decisive” artists, musicians, gallery owners, and entertainment executives, as well as members of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. “Nothing has ever fit me so perfectly,” says one delighted customer. “It’s as if Elizabeth were channeling Schiaparelli,” says another.
Cannon does couture by the book, using custom-padded dressmaker forms, muslins (initial mock-ups in an inexpensive fabric), and sometimes interior boned corsets. She also offers a signature collection of off-the-rack casual day- and eveningwear ($500 and up, though prices can plummet to $100 at frequent sales) that can be altered to fit. Outstanding items: A New Look-style silk shantung dress and jacket for a mother of the bride ($3,500); a silk-cotton blouse and heavy silk floral-print skirt with reinforced corseted yoke for a mother of the groom ($2,800); an African wax-print summer dress ($750); a belted, striped men’s shirting chemise, ($575, readymade; $750, made-to-order) that riffs on the frock Francoise Gilot wore in an iconic 1948 photo strolling along a French beach with an umbrella-wielding Pablo Picasso. Elizabeth Cannon Couture, 460 West 24th St., 212 929-8552.
Open the door of Kelima K, hidden in a massive office building at the intersection of Noho and Soho, and you’re in for a white-on-white treat: Floating white chiffon, white shantung, white lace are everywhere as a sewing machine whirrs away unseen behind a billowing white curtain. This is crystal chandelier-lit bridal, mother-of-the-bride, and all-around gala-outfitting turf, that has attracted international destination clients as well as Metropolitan Opera performers since 1998. Sharing the racks with pre-designed bridal gowns are wispy, mostly pastel mother-of-the-bride house models designed by the softspoken, FIT-trained owner-designer, Kelima, who will also make from-scratch designs based on the client’s specifications. Specialties are Kelima’s body-hugging qupaos—traditional Chinese dresses with upright Mandarin collars, offering the combined benefits of satin ultra-elegance and (for those who don’t want to show too much skin) full neck-to-toe coverage. If you prefer off-the-shoulder, floaty or lacy designs, they are likely to come with built-in bra cups, a slip, and lace or chiffon sleeves. Price range: $2,200 to $3,000. Kelima K, 611 Broadway, Suite 538, 212 334-6546.
Situated in a no-nonsense Midtown studio just west of Fifth Avenue, complete with copies of The Wall Street Journal, an oak armoire, and a resident Lakeland Terrier, Dara Lamb is a true women’s custom tailor whose curved sleeve seams, buttonholes, and even linings are sewn by hand. The aim? Comfortable, breathable signature attire with a perfect fit and perfect pitch for CEOs, senior partners, celebrity businesswomen, politicians, and newscasters.
Lamb specializes in seasonal daywear collections that evoke the Modernist postwar era—“years with authority,” she calls them, “when women, comfortable in their femininity, adopted a strong, finished, polished look.” Think Jackie Kennedy, Doris Day, and Grace Kelly in their curvy, fitted sheaths with matching jackets, often made of menswear fabrics. Custom prices are $800 to $3,000; made-to-measure, $500 to $1,495. Lamb also offers ingenious extensive archives of custom-made blouses in silk and cotton shirting solids, stripes, and prints, buttoning front or back, in myriad style combinations ($500 and up) and luxury silk jersey tops in your choice of eight necklines, four sleeve lengths, and 60 colors ($395 to $495). Dara Lamb Couture, 37 West 57th St., Suite 1001, 212 935-2344.
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Located in the East Village, Elliot Mann is another charming surprise: a bastion of chic off-the-rack comfort clothes—every item customizable. Seam or hem adjustments? Whipping up one of the off-the-rack dresses in a different size or fabric? There’s no surcharge for these alterations. This in essence is virtual made-to-measure, thanks to the cordial owner-designer, Louise Paul, who studied dressmaking first in her native Denmark, then at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The shop’s staples are all-forgiving pull-on casual and going-out dresses, flowing shirts and tunics, and easygoing pants, all with pockets, all in natural fibers, priced at $109 to $409. Several standouts: a striped cotton on-or-off-the-shoulder pull-on dress ($139); a jumpsuit with striped top and wide-leg denim pants ($169); jeans in a variety of styles and all-cotton denim of varying weights ($169 to $209)—imagine, customized comfort jeans!
Paul also designs a collection of summer change-purse-to-voluminous-satchel-size bags covered with handmade macramé, crochet, and fishnet ($109 to $609). Many display embroidered Afghan, Middle Eastern, or North African trim and/or fringes. Like the clothing, they’re also customizable. Elliot Mann, 324 E 9th St., 212 260-0658.
Visiting Savile Row Tailors
For those who have spent decades longing to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime Marlene Dietrich-esque ’30s menswear-style custom-made tweed suit with a nipped-in waist and wide trousers, a couple of Savile Row tailors, steeped in technique and tradition, will soon be in town, doing fittings for women as well as men. Norton & Sons, known for its lush English and Scottish suiting fabrics—including tweeds, diamond twills, and houndstooth plaids from an obscure sheep farm in the Inner Hebrides—will be at the Affinia 50 Hotel May 12-14. Suits start at $5,050 (a bargain compared with a Hermès Birkin bag), shirts at $285. Kathryn Sargent, the first woman tailor to open her own Savile Row shop, is taking orders at The London NYC, June 13-15. Her suit prices start at $6,050.
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New York has its own diminishing number of custom suit makers, who aren’t quite as doctrinaire as the British (but are a lot less expensive). Probably the longest operating tailor still manufacturing here in the city is Saint Laurie, founded in 1913 by a Polish-Jewish immigrant. Today the operation occupies an entire floor of a Koreatown office and factory building. The workroom is out back, the showroom-fitting area up front, exuding ad hoc workaday charm.
Run by Andrew Kozinn, the founder’s plucky lawyer-turned-clothier grandson, Saint Laurie does women’s as well as men’s business suits ($1,895 to $2,795) with a dash of panache. It’s no surprise that Saint Laurie did the costumes for Jersey Boys and also supplies suits to Stephen Colbert. Custom business shirts in Swiss and Italian cottons ($240 to $495, 5-shirt minimum) produced by Portuguese-trained Brazilian artisans in Newark are another specialty. (The Portuguese have a longstanding reputation as world-class shirt makers.) Placket closures may be suggested for well-endowed women. Saint Laurie, 22 West 32 St., 5th floor, 212 643-1916.
With its mahogany furnishings and Persian rug, J. Mueser looks like an Edwardian men’s club improbably transported to a Greenwich Village storefront. Its wares are mostly custom and made-to-measure British and Italian-inspired trim-cut, slim-waisted men’s suits exuding a downtown New York vibe. The young FIT-trained tailor-proprietor, Jake Mueser, also designs womenswear: suits ($2,450 to $3,250) with wider than usual lapels and easygoing high-waisted flannel trousers; hand-cut, locally sewn broadcloth business shirts with the currently chic English spread collar ($325); capes ($1,250); and the occasional dress. The day I stopped by, Mueser was finishing a black and white tuxedo-style mother-of-the-bride dress, based on a Saint Laurent design ($2,200). Stunning. J. Mueser, 19 Christopher St., 347 982-4382.
I’ve yet to find made from scratch foundation garments, but bras custom-fitted in the privacy of your own home are now a reality. Peach, a two-year old internet-based bra specialty enterprise co-founded by Janet Kraus, a Harvard Business School professor, sends its affable and easygoing trained stylists (10 in the New York City area) on house calls. You put on a close-fitting tank top or a one-size-fits-most Peach T-shirt, and a stylist takes your measurements using a patented 10-point system that checks over-bust, under-bust, and even cross-cup measurements. Results are fed into an algorithm and within several days you receive several likely choices from an inventory of 500 style and size options, sized from 30A to 44H. Many are designed in-house, such as the popular full-coverage Captivating Everyday Bra, above left ($75). Others are culled from brands such as Wacoal, Chantelle, and Sophia Rose, whose wireless Mastectomy Bra, above right ($68) “makes patients feel beautiful,” says Peach’s Founding Stylist Faith Dejean. discoverpeach.com
The Lower East Side’s Orchard Corset is in a class by itself. Founded in 1968 by Isaiah Bergstein, a Holocaust survivor, and now run by his son Ralph and his wife, Peggy, who’s the shop’s lionized custom fitter, Orchard is one of the oldest underpinning emporiums in town. The front room, with cardboard boxes everywhere, is basically a ramshackle storage depot. But no one in the small seating area seems to mind waiting their turn with Peggy, who holds court in a succession of curtained areas in the back. With her eagle eye for sizing, Peggy—who designed all the goods with Ralph—is also adept at choosing the right underpinnings for specific outfits. The house specialties, having a resurgence today, are waist trainers (wear these midriff cinchers often enough, so they say, and hourglass curves will emerge), above left, and vintage-style corsets with hook-and-eye or lace closures, in stretch fabric or steel-boned—great for herniated discs), above right. They also stock back bulge minimizers. Just about everything comes in standard and plus sizes. Prices are modest: $50 to $85. Orchard Corset, 157 Orchard St., 212 674-0786.
I’ve saved an outlier for last: made-to-measure clothes for those with upward thrusting or floppy ears: dogs. Back in 2008, Dara Moss, a Jersey City advertising copywriter, adopted a French bulldog whose health problems necessitated an overcoat. The available coats and sweaters not only didn’t properly fit, but were expensive and cheaply made. Moss taught herself to sew and in 2014 she began designing distinctive Polartec fleece snoods with ear pockets (she calls them BatHats) for Frenchies, Dobermans, and Corgis, all of whom have large, hard-to-fit, stand-up ears. She followed with dog sweaters (BullOvers). Then Moss added BatHat Hoodies to her inventory and, with a little help from Kickstarter, turned her soft, but durable hound-wearables into a thriving alternate business that she named Snorf Industries (snorf being the breathing noise Frenchies make). Today Moss’s sales are global. Off-the-rack items are available for French and English Bulldogs, Pugs, and Boston Terriers; custom-mades are for other breeds. Snorfindustries.com (The website offers measuring instructions.)
Linda Dyett’s articles on fashion, beauty, health, home design, and architecture have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Monocle, Afar, New York magazine, Allure, Travel & Leisure, and many other publications.