Latest Information:
What's New?
8:52 am
Mon July 22, 2013

Unbuttoning Toils And Traditions Woven Into A $50,000 Coat

Originally published on Sun July 21, 2013 4:58 pm

Meg Lukens Noonan's adventure began with a simple curiosity. She happened across a website belonging to a renowned, fourth-generation tailor, John H. Cutler, and noticed a photograph of a $50,000 coat.

It looked "like any old blue overcoat that you might find in Macy's," she tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "I didn't recognize it as being special just by looking at it."

Baffled about why anyone would spend hundreds — let alone thousands — of dollars on a winter coat, Noonan's set out on an adventure to hunt its origins.

She discovers that the coat is made of vicuna, a fabric similar to cashmere, and it can cost about $6,000 a yard. "It's woven from the fleece of an animal that only lives at very high altitudes in South America in the Andes — an animal that was endangered until quite recently," Noonan says.

In her book, The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat, Noonan chronicles a web of button makers, pattern weavers, silkworm breeders and longing customers.

As Noonan explains to Lyden, her story is about more than just a pricey coat. It's about the fading tradition of tailoring and how one garment's life can span continents, tracing endangered animals in the highlands of Peru to silk weavers in Florence, Italy.


Interview Highlights

On the renowned tailor, John Cutler

"He has a very devoted clientele, but he finds himself in a position with no heirs coming along. His sons are not interested in taking up the trade. And so he's at a point in his life where he's very wistful about things. He knows that he's making sort of his last garments in the next few years, and he's sad about that."

On Cutler's sense of fashion, as showcased at the Australian Men's Club

"He was wearing a suit that I would describe as being the color of grape soda, a very intense purple, and it was edged with a bright orange stitching. And all of these clothes are clothes that he has designed and made himself. And with this purple coat, he had a bright, dark purple necktie and a pearl stickpin in the middle of it, and a beautiful handmade white shirt, and always a folded handkerchief in the pocket. .... And that's the way he dressed every time I was with him."

On the tradition of tailoring

"The tools that these craftsmen are using are the same tools that have been used for hundreds of years, and the techniques are the same. And it's needle, thread and tiny, little stitches to basically sculpt a garment that fits like a dream and enhances a person's physique. And from what I've heard from bespoke customers, it makes them feel fabulous."

On the viability of tailoring in an era of fast fashion

"I think that there's an argument to say, well, who cares, I mean these are obscure skills and crafts, and so what if they go away? But I think that there is still a place for something that takes time, for something that is hand-crafted, and using traditional techniques. And I would find it very sad to see those things go away. And what they're making is really art. It would be like saying, 'Why would we want to have paintings preserved in museum?' I mean, it's got value beyond being an article of clothing."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Meg Lukens Noonan's story is about a coat - not just any coat, not a Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat, but a coat that seems like something from a fairy tale. It's a coat that spans continent, the traditions of bespoke tailoring and history. The coat route begins with fleece found in the highlands of Peru, tracks through the silk weavers of Lake Como, a tailor in Sydney, cloth finishers in England and a story of sustainability. Its cost? $50,000.

Noonan writes about the garment in her new book, "The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat." Meg Lukens Noonan, welcome to the show.

MEG LUKENS NOONAN: Thank you, Jacki. I'm delighted to be here.

LYDEN: So in this book, you set off on an adventure that takes us really all over the world from your home in New Hampshire. Now, you are not a longtime fashion writer, not even especially, by your own account, a fashion lover. What inspired the pursuit?

NOONAN: No. I'm definitely not a fashion writer. I stumbled upon the website owned by John Cutler, who's the tailor who made this coat, and I was just fascinated, first of all, that someone would spend $50,000 for an overcoat. And when I saw the coat, it really didn't look like much. And so, as a journalist, it piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to know more about the people that made the coat and the person who bought it. And it sort of opened up this whole subculture to me that I had no idea existed.

LYDEN: Did it seem, initially, like an incredible, an inconceivable extravagance, $50,000 for a coat?

NOONAN: Absolutely, especially when I saw a picture of the coat because it looks like any old blue overcoat that you might find in Macy's. I didn't recognize it as being special just by looking at it.

LYDEN: So introduce us to this tailor. His name is John Cutler. He is based in Sydney. He's the fourth generation in his family to do this kind of work. I found him just to be an extraordinary character.

NOONAN: Yes. Character is the word for him. He has a very devoted clientele, but he finds himself in a position with no heirs coming along. His sons are not interested in taking up the trade. And so he's at a point in his life where he's very wistful about things. He knows that he's making sort of his last garments in the next few years, and he's sad about that.

But he takes great pride in what he does. He does beautiful work. He's been called one of the 10 best tailors in the world. And as I got to know him, I understood the incredible skills behind what he does, and it was really magical to see him at work.

LYDEN: Let's just take a moment to describe him. And that was page... my favorite part was where you have him in the Australian men's club, page 191.

NOONAN: Yes. He was wearing a suit that I would describe as being the color of grape soda, a very intense purple, and it was edged with a bright orange stitching. And all of these clothes are clothes that he has designed and made himself. And with this purple coat, he had a bright, dark purple necktie and a pearl stickpin in the middle of it, and a beautiful handmade white shirt. Oh, he had on shoes that were of black calf and purple suede, handmade shoes from Florence. And that's the way he dressed every time I was with him.

LYDEN: Now, you find him at his workshop in Sydney, and he offers the client for this coat a fabric that I had never heard of before. What is it?

NOONAN: It's called vicuna. It's fabric that is similar to cashmere but softer, springier, warmer. It's the ultimate cloth, and it's also the most expensive cloth. It goes for about $6,000 a yard. And it's woven from the fleece of an animal that only lives at very high altitudes in South America in the Andes - an animal that was endangered until quite recently. And so if you're a person looking for the ultimate cloth, this is what you would want.

LYDEN: This is all about trying to bring back what almost seems like a medieval tradition, making things by hand, the fabric, the buttons, the coat.

NOONAN: Yes, exactly. The tools that these craftsmen are using are the same tools that have been used for hundreds of years, and the techniques are the same. And it's needle and thread and tiny little stitches to basically sculpt a garment that fits like a dream and enhances a person's physique. And from what I have heard from bespoke customers, it makes them feel fabulous.

LYDEN: What does it mean for a tailor like Cutler to have something finished here? You quote a fellow who's working at this company, W.T. Johnson & Sons, four generations of people at this same company, and his name is Nigel Birch. He's looking at this fabric, and he says - maybe you'd like to read it, page 143. It probably would have been...

NOONAN: (Reading) It probably would have been scoured and milled, dried, raised and drawn probably on teasel gigs, dried, set by pot boiling, dyed if it wasn't woven from dyed yarn, dried, redrawn, cut, brushed and finely pressed, maybe cuttled and cramped, he explains.

LYDEN: What does that all mean?

NOONAN: I don't really know.

(LAUGHTER)

NOONAN: But I love the way it all sounded. I mean, it gave a very clear picture that there was a lot going on here. Some of the things - the teasel gigs, I know, are plants that have very sticky pointing pods, I believe, that the cloth is dragged across. I mean, there's just - some of the things they're doing are very ancient methods, but the reason I included this quote is because it lets you know that there is a lot of work that goes into making this beautiful cloth.

LYDEN: What does it matter, Meg Lukens Noonan, to have this kind of work available in an era of fast fashion? We have H&M on the Champs-Elysees, we have Abercrombie & Fitch coming onto Savile Row. Does it make any difference any longer?

NOONAN: You know, I think that there's an argument to say, who cares? I mean, these are obscure skills and crafts, and so what if they go away? But I think that there is still a place for something that takes time, for something that is handcrafted and using traditional techniques, and I would find it very sad to see those things go away. And what they're making is really art, and it would be like saying, you know, why would we want to have paintings preserved in the museum? I mean, it's got value beyond being an article of clothing.

LYDEN: Meg Lukens Noonan. She's the author of "The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat." Meg Lukens Noonan, thank you so much for being with us.

NOONAN: Thank you, Jacki. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.