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When off-the-rack won't cut it, try Tokyo's tailors on for size. Richard Smith has the story all sewn up.

Size matters, especially to foreigners who have to travel out of the country to find sleeves that reach their wrists, larger shoes or pants to fit the non-Japanese figure. If you think made-to-measure items are the prerogative of city fat cats and starlets with wardrobes chockablock with couture, think again. Dotted around the city are tailors and artisans waiting to whip out their measuring tapes to size up the man or woman on the street for a perfect fit.

Everything from a three-piece suit and handmade shoes to monogrammed baseball caps and accessories can be tailored to your personal style and shape. And although special-order items often have a price tag comparable to their fashion quotient, there are other affordable options you may not be aware of. Department stores offer made-to-order suits and shirts from top-notch designers and will make alterations on garments purchased in store, and some tailors have even gone high-tech, serving their customers from cyberspace. While your neighborhood needlepusher can handle hemming pants or letting out a waistband, nothing beats a well-cut suit from an experienced clothier.

Aoyama tailor Iwanaga poses with a work in progress
Photos by Mitchell Coster

Cut above the rest
"Five or ten years ago, Italian fashion was popular and people wanted easy-fitting, loose suits with very long sleeves," recalls Kaoru Sugata, owner of Smiley Tailor in Roppongi. "But recently, the British style is coming back and the suit is moving closer to the body."

Customer demand is equally divided between less expensive Japanese materials, and British materials. "After the customer chooses the material, Sugata takes the measurements and does the cutting and fitting himself. The suit is usually ready in one or two weeks. Catering mostly to office workers who want suits priced in the medium range - around JY120,000 to JY150,000 - the clothier is sometimes asked for more expensive suits at JY250,000, the cost is dependent on the style and choice of fabric.

Sugata started apprenticing at age 15 and set up shop at 21; at the time, the US military had its HQ in Roppongi and Smiley Tailor produced many military suits, uniforms and party suits for officers. Now, the shop makes about 20 suits a month, mostly for Japanese business people, although they still have a foreign clientele as well. "I have 44 years' experience," says Sugata, who has dressed Hollywood actors John Wayne and Bill Longan (Herman Munster of "The Munsters" TV series). "We can make a suit in any style, according to the tastes of the person."

Sugata also dresses female customers and has fitted Takarazuka performers - actresses in an all-female revue. "When I cut, I just follow the feminine form," he explains.

Sadao Iwanaga, who has served the tailoring needs of Aoyama for 27 years, stocks ready-to-wear suits, too. He believes you get your money's worth when it comes to made-to-measure wear. "If you take care of it and you don't put on weight, a tailored suit should last you ten years," says Iwanaga. But the advantages don't end there. "The advantage of having clothing made is that everything down to the smallest detail can suit your taste."

Although prÍt-a-porter rarely reaches the quality and fit of tailor-made clothes, Iwanaga has a few words of advice for those who are considering ordering a suit. "Each tailor has his own style of doing things. Be very specific and tell him or her exactly what you want." You want to be sure your new wardrobe is worth the price. He highly recommends you double-check the fit across the shoulders and sleeves, detailing and buttons, making sure they fasten properly, when you collect your new suit. He advises putting it on and fastening it up to be sure it hangs right, too. A suit from Iwanaga takes three weeks to make and can cost anywhere from JY150,000 to JY300,000. Tailor Iwanaga specializes in menswear, but they do make women's two-piece suits (but no dresses).

Tight fit
For those with shallow pockets, taka-Q has stepped in to the market. A mens' suit and sportswear chain with about 200 stores across Japan, taka-Q has pioneered the "style-order system." Not exactly tailor-made clothing, their system allows customers at around 130 stores to try an off-the-peg article and order a customized version from the manufacturer. The corrected version is usually ready within a week and the system covers suits, separate jackets and trousers, belts and shoes.

For suits, customers can choose the pattern, quality of fabric and style from the company's house line: either the three-button, tight-shouldered "British," the two-button, wide-shouldered "Basic" and the slim, three-button, narrow-lapeled "Mode." Nine kinds of cloth are available in the JY39,000 suit price range and 36 kinds for the JY49,000 range-all are Japanese fabrics. Two JY59,000 Italian fabrics are also available. According to Naoki Takeda, a salesman at taka-Q's Shinjuku Higashiguchi store, "The most popular suit is the pin-striped, navy blue British style."

With 50 different shirt fabrics and colors and 12 collar shapes, the choice in shirts is comprehensive. Currently the most popular shape is the buttoned-down high collar with a wide separation. Custom-altered shirts range from JY5900 to JY6900, while belts are JY6500, with a choice of five types of leather in black and brown, and 12 buckle shapes. "Japanese tend to prefer black belts to go with their black shoes, while foreigners seem to favor brown," Takeda says, adding square buckles are the highest sellers. Eight styles of Regal brand shoes are also available, with the laced ankle boots winning the highest favors. One restriction at taka-Q is height - they only fit men 160cm-195cm.

Deep pockets
For slightly fatter wallets, Eikokuya has 26 shops nationwide with six in Ginza. Custom-made shirts are priced JY15,000-JY50,000 and suit prices start at JY150,000. Luckily, the 60th anniversary JY85,000 special offer has been carried over from last year to celebrate the 21st century. Eikokuya has a selection of over 2000 fabrics and a suit in the most expensive cloth - a blend of vicuna (pronounced vicunya, a rare Peruvian llama) and cashmere in light green, grey and beige-will set you back JY2,300,000. The chain also carries pret-a-porter Lanvin, Austin Reed and Mila Schon suits, starting at JY100,000. "Our customers are politicians, doctors, lawyers, rich people," says Kiichiro Okubo of their planning division.

It takes about a month to order a suit from Eikokuya: there's one week before the first fitting and a second fitting is sometimes necessary. Depending on the season, it takes two or three weeks for the suit to be ready. Most of the high-priced suits are made of cashmere or very rich 150 worsted wool. The chain's name means "England Store" and originally, Eikokuya carried only British cloth. Now, 80 percent of its materials are from the UK, with the remainder being mostly Italian imports and a few a French and Spanish fabrics. Okubo explains that British cloth is very good and very tough, while Italian cloth is very light and very soft. "Many people have come to prefer Italian cloth because its more suited to modern life," Okubo says. "At the same time, English cloth has become lighter and softer."

Some wives of Eikokuya customers were so impressed by the store's products that were keen to get fitted themselves. In response, Eikokuya expanded to cover the women's market seven years ago and now employs a female designer Kimi Itoh. Assorted women's accessories are also available, such as Launer handbags (JY80,000) - a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II.

An experienced tailor can give you exactly what you want down to the smallest detail

Distant cut
Tailoring has embraced the Internet age and gone high-tech with remote tailoring online. At @croStyle, you choose your suit style and fabric, follow the self-measuring instructions and fill out you measurements and pay by credit card, all with a simple click of the mouse. Customer support is given by e-mail, phone.

Hong Kong based Vijay Wadhwani of NobleHouse questions the wisdom of long distance tailoring. "In custom tailoring it is advisable to meet the customer in person, so they can select the fabric from samples, be carefully measured and discuss the style," Wadhwani says, adding it is also most important for the tailor to see the body form of the individual. What shape are the shoulders? Is there a slight hump in the back? These and other questions are vital when crafting a suit and can only be answered by seeing the customer.

Wadhwani began tailoring for people in Toshiba's Hong Kong branch and through their introduction, started coming to measure-up their Tokyo colleagues in 1976. Word began to spread that there was this great tailor taking orders for customized suits at astonishingly low prices. Today, a man or woman's suit ordered from NobleHouse usually only costs between JY50,000-JY70,000, which compares very favorably with ready-to-wear, let alone tailor-made suits. After sizing up his Tokyo customers, Wadhwani heads back to Hong Kong and sends the suit in about a month and paper patterns are kept on file for future orders. If small alterations are necessary, NobleHouse will reimburse clients for any local alterations that are necessary.

Whether you opt for a local tailor or the long-distance approach the criteria for selecting a good tailor is service. Knowledge of the body form and how fabrics hang, attention to workmanship and detail, and access to the latest fabrics and styles are the key to finding the perfect tailor. And ultimately, it's the fit that counts.

Smiley Tailor, Smiley bldg, 7-4-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku. (Tel: 03-3408-5141)

taka-Q, Higashiguchi store, 3-29-12 Shinjuku. (Tel: 03-3352-3761 or call customer support toll free 0120-412-909) Branches nationwide.

Eikokuya, South Wing Sumitomo Seimei Kachidoki bldg, 5-3-6 Kachidoki, Chuo-ku. (Tel: 03-3532-6833)

Tailor Iwanaga, 6-1-6 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku (Tel/Fax:03-3400-5540)

@croStyle website: (Japanese only)

NobleHouse (Fax: +852-2302-4477) Email:
Vijay Wadhwani's latest schedule is posted at 



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394: Sister act
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393: Reel time
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392: Lap it up
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391: Everything old is new
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390: Cooking the books
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389: Up from the underground
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388: First wave
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387: Water world
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386: Open house
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385: A moveable feast
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384: Hair
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383: Summer in the city
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382: Tokyo Tomorrow
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381: From zero to hero
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380: Island escapade
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379: Open-air fare
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378: Reel story
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377: Sonic relief
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376: All at sea
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375: Your cup of tea
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374: No time to waste
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373: Freetown
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372: Broken record
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371: Bottoms up
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370: Admit one
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369: After a fashion
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368: Bandwidth wagon
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367: Just for sports
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366: Life's a hitch
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365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
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363: Take two Tomatos
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362: Stage left
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361: The lowdown on TC
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360: A reversal of fortune
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359: Funny Valentine
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358: Two-faced
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357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
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355: Wash out
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354: Means to an end
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352/3: Last Laugh
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351: It's a wrap
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350: Cable ready
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Shoe in
42nd Royal Highland in Daikanyama affords you the luxury of having your next pair of dress shoes made to measure. Pattern order-made shoes start from
JY53,000, while custom made items begin at JY68,000. The shoes, made in Japan, take around three months to complete. If something a little funkier takes your fancy Ko Soda has six original designs on offer in his Asakusa store RLRL (it means right, left, right, left). Customers choose a design and a paper pattern of their feet is made. Using a paper pattern, rather than a wooden one, helps keep the price down-shoes and boots range from JY15,000 - JY35,000 (payment on ordering). Soda only completes 15 pairs a month so expect a wait of one to six months depending on is order book.
42nd Royal Highland: 1-34-29 Ebisu-Nishi (Tel: 03-3477-7498)
RLRL: 2-13-7 Higashi-Asakusa, Taito-ku (Tel: 03-5603-0063)

Hat trick
Head down to Mama's Parade for custom made hats. Perfect for spring and summer are straw, linen and organdy sun hats (around JY10,000). In the basement you'll find felt and wool if you're after something warmer and more formal, while leather, faux fur and animal print headgear is available for the brave (JY15,000 - JY30,000). With no order fees, the custom made hats cost the same as the ready-made models. Have the staff measure your bonce or bring your favorite bonnet as a sample. Orders take about two weeks to prepare, three weeks for intricate items such as wedding hats.

Homeboys might prefer to pick up a personalized baseball cap from Nash Corner in Ikebukuro. Stocking more than 1000 caps, Nash Corner also claims they can produce an original hat in mere hours, should you fail to find one fly enough. High quality caps are also available as T-fitted hats, enabling you to add your own logo to the back as well as the front-perfect for bad boys who like to wear them backwards.
Mama's Parade: 1-35-7 Yoyogiuehara, Shibuya-ku (Tel: 03-3469-8681)
Nash Corner: Ikebukuro Sunshine City Alpha B1 (Tel: 03-3987-5878; Fax:03-3550-3987);  

Bag it
Orthodoxee offers a wide range of custom-made leather accessories. Samples of various bags, wallets and pen cases are provided to make ordering easier, but you can have any of the items completely custom-made. In-house specialists illustrate your image and advise. Seven colors of tanned cowhide are on offer along with other leathers such as calfskin, lizard and seal. Time and the cost, of course, depend on the size and the complexity of each item. Production normally takes one to two months, and prices range from JY60,000 - JY90,000 for women's items and JY80,000 - JY150,000 for men's.
Shimokitaza store: 2-1-10 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku (Tel: 03-3414-4463)
Daikanyama store: 18-4 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku (Tel: 03-3780-5876) Closed on Mon.;

See this week's Looking Good for a profile of ring designer Kazan, who makes his famous lacquer jewelry to order.