When we think of fashion rebels, Henry David Thoreau is hardly the first person who comes to mind. But in a journal entry from 1857, he enthusiastically describes shunning traditional black clothes for a pair of pants tailor-made for him in corduroy of a “peculiar clay color” worn by only “the Irish at home.”
“Most of my friends are disturbed by my wearing them,” he wrote, clearly pleased with himself.
In Walden, he bitterly recalls a “tailoress” who refused to make him the suit he wanted because, as she “gravely” told him, “They do not make them so now.” It was “as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates, and I find it difficult to get made what I want, simply because she cannot believe that I mean what I say, that I am so rash.”
While “the Fates” might still try to tell us what to do—”hair is the new makeup” (Vogue), “it’s all about boots” (Harper’s Bazaar), “get noticed in precious florals” (Elle)—there is nothing better than choosing for yourself what looks best. And if Thoreau were still alive today, he’d likely be delighted to know that it is still possible to have his whole wardrobe, shoes and all, custom-made to his liking.
For something akin to his Irish corduroys, he’d probably start at the 10,000-square-foot JEM Fabric Warehouse (355 Broadway, 212-925-4488, houseofjem.blogspot.com) in Tribeca. In the basement, past shelves and boxes overflowing with fabric, is the studio of in-store tailor Frankie Jeffrey, who has been sewing professionally for nearly three decades and is considered a kind of miracle worker by the staff. Choose your material from its vast selection of new and vintage fabrics, and she can either re-create anything you bring her (like that favorite shirt from 10 years ago you’ve nearly worn through) or help you design something completely new. The initial pattern fee is $80, so it’s more cost-effective to bring back the same pattern (it also comes in handy in case you are ever inspired to sign up for one of the store’s sewing classes).
But if the thought of having all those options is daunting, you might prefer a shop that offers only the finest materials to create your sartorial masterpiece with. For men (or the Katharine Hepburns and Marlene Dietrichs among the women), a bespoke suit from the Victorian-inspired Against Nature (159 Chrystie Street, 212-228-4552, againstnaturenyc.com) is a luxury you’ll want to keep forever. Two stuffed albino peacocks guard the entryway to the workshop in back, where expert tailors Amber Doyle and Jake Mueser hand-stitch your garment in your choice of patterns, colors, and fabrics from the best Italian and British mills. Bespoke suits are offered at two price levels: $3,250 gets you the full Savile Row treatment, while $1,500 is the starting point for a suit that is primarily constructed off-site but finished in the shop. They also offer bespoke shirts, ties, bags, jewelry (the shop’s jeweler Ryan Matthew has a penchant for skulls), and—for your day off—jeans (done by Simon P. Jacobs). Or for the hopelessly adventurous, what about a dress that’s a literal canvas? Each season, designer Caycee Black, who recently opened the Nolita boutique Black and Graze (239 Mulberry Street, cayceeblack.com) with stylist and vintage collector Jenny Volodarsky, creates a range of watercolor paintings and then turns them into eye-catching prints. Pick your favorite design (or you can choose a solid color—but where’s the fun in that?) and one of her flattering silhouettes (adored by musicians such as Regina Spektor and singer Peggy Wang of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart), and she’ll make you a dress to your measurements in her garment district factory.
Now you have your clothing designed to your taste, but what about your shoes? Close your eyes, imagine the kicks you want, and head to see the mad scientist of cobblers Boris Zuborev of the wonderfully grungy East Village Shoe Repair (1 St. Marks Place, 212-529-8339). A good starting point for your creation is to dig through the piles of sneakers and vintage heels and boots (look carefully, and you’ll unearth top-quality designers, such as Ferragamo and Miu Miu) spilling out of his shop. Let’s say you find a black shoe that fits, but what you really want are red platforms with a glittery gold heel (by the way, it helps to bring a photo or a sketch for him to work with). Zuborev will construct a new heel, change the color, and—presto!—your dream shoe is ready. Even more amazing is that many of his creations cost less than $100.
Hats, too, can be bent to your will. At Cha Cha’s House of Ill Repute (212 West 35th Street, 212-420-7450, chachashouse.com), milliner Dina Pisani, who has hand-sculpted hats for celebrities including Justin Timberlake and Rihanna, pooh-poohs anyone who says he or she is not a “hat person.” If a hat doesn’t look right, she says, it’s either because it’s the wrong shape for your face (for instance, an upturned brim does wonders for those not blessed with high cheekbones) or “you have it jammed down on your head at a bad angle, so of course it’s not going to look good.” At her studio in a hat factory in the garment district, she’ll have you try on everything from cloches to bowlers to top hats to help you find the correct shape for your face. Then, discuss materials—felt, straw, beaver—and choose from a wide array of trimmings—peacock feathers, antiquated brass chains, snake-print leather piping—to stand out from the crowd. Because regardless of what’s in style and what’s not, the best fashion is always your own—the one you create, the one that speaks for you, disturbs your friends, and whips the Fates into a frenzy.