Sartorial Sessions: a visit to Sultan’s Fine Fabrics
This photo essay is the second in a series of collaborative projects with Casa di Sartoria. We develop the concept together and then CdS art directs and takes the photographs while I write the text.
Building a wardrobe of custom clothing means finding the right tailors and craftspeople. It also means knowing yourself. Custom garments are made for your body but also for your mind, or at least how the two come together: your vision of yourself. It is simple enough to look at a piece of ready-made clothing and decide, on an emotional level, if it suits you. But if the piece hasn’t even been made where do you start? Well, you start with your personal sense of style. The custom process can be challenging and even frustrating, fraught with waiting, being unsure of the results, occasionally things not turning out how you wished. But in the end, a wardrobe of custom clothing is truly your own. In fact, it is the only true expression of individuality in clothing available today. And you can make this process even more indepth, even more personal if you choose the fabric yourself.
It used to be that many tailors and shirtmakers kept bolts and bolts of cloth on hand (they were known as “merchant tailors.”) Recently, it is becoming rarer and rarer to find such stocks because of sheer cost – tailors’ margins have become so tight, most cannot afford to stock fabrics. Instead, they offer bunches, books from mills containing samples in small squares of fabric.
However, small samples do not allow you to fully understand, on a visceral level, the cloth you are dealing with. And that is the best reason to visit Sultan’s Fine Fabrics in north Toronto: the chance to feel, with your own hands, untold types of fabric. The shop, which is fronted by a small and humble doorway, is the size of a small warehouse, containing row upon row, shelf upon shelf of every kind of suiting you can imagine. Not to mention, as owner Sultan Moosa says, “more shirting than anywhere in North America.”
This vast selection allows you to not only pick out a fabric but feel it between your fingers or drape it over your shoulder. You’ll be surprised how often a fabric might look good on the shelf or rolled in a bolt but once it is draped and you take it into the sunshine, it is not quite right for you. And looking is the key word here. A trip to Sultan’s will require patience, time and a keen eye. This is not to say that Sultan and his staff aren’t helpful: they have a remarkable ability to find what may seem like a needle in a haystack, remembering the exact location of a specific shade of oxford cloth or roll of Harris tweed.
Part of the reason you must be prepared to search is that Sultan’s is not a typical cloth merchant. Instead of placing specific orders from producers around the world, he sources from various sellers (including mills) stock that is surplus. Perhaps it is the end of a production run or simply excess from the previous season. This means that his stock is well priced and thanks to his experience, extremely varied. However, you cannot expect to find exactly one cloth or another. Instead, be prepared for, and embrace, the process of searching and finding something unique and unusual (like the above Toronto-themed silk, printed in Como, Italy, to be used as jacket lining).
All that said, with a specific vision in mind, you should be able to find the fabric you want and of an excellent quality. The entire outfit I’m wearing in these photographs, in fact, is custom made of fabric I found at Sultan’s. In each case, I knew what I wanted in terms of colour and texture and was able to fulfil my vision.
The shirting did take some searching, however. I wanted white fabric with a dark blue check. Sultan’s shirting excerpt, Leroy, knew they had some, he just had to find it. Purple and black checks quickly materialised from overhead rows, but I stuck to my vision. Blue is a very versatile colour and I knew that blue checks would go with almost any colour jacket or tie. When Leroy did eventually find the blue check, I was pleased that the fabric was a simple broadcloth, not too heavy nor too thin. I don’t worry myself too much on thread count and instead trust how the fabric feels and looks, the advantage of seeing a roll instead of a sample.
For the jacket, I had something very specific in mind. I wanted a cross between the traditional safari jacket and the more contemporary overshirt – all the features of the former (four pockets, cinched waist, epaulettes) but unstructured like the latter. But instead of the usual military green or stone white, I wanted a deep, dusty blue that, again, would be very versatile without looking too safari-ish. And I needed the jacket to be as light as possible. I found this fabric in Sultan’s linen section and was immediately drawn to the colour and texture. It is actually a blend of linen and silk which means it doesn’t wrinkle as easily as pure linen. Also, the silk blend means it wears light in the heat and warmer when it starts to cool down.
Again, I had a very specific vision of what I wanted for the trousers but that had more do with design than material. High rise, flat front and thin in the leg, they are my homage to the Ivy League style of the 1950s. When it came to fabric, I was faced with many choices of khaki cotton at Sultan’s. I was able to narrow down my options to three or four fabrics based on colour but then had to consider the weight and weave of the fabric. I found an excellent balance, I think, as these pants are made in a traditional cotton twill that isn’t too heavy, so I can wear them almost all year round.
For this outing, I combined all the elements with tassel loafers (worn without socks because of Toronto’s insane heat this summer) and my twenty year old leather satchel. I knew the blue jacket and khaki pants would combine well not only because of colour but also style: both have a slight air of vintage military wear to them. The tassel loafers dress up the outfit slightly and the bag, well, I just love the patina it’s developing.
A key part to all of this, of course, is finding the craftsperson who will make you custom garments from the cloth you bring them. I also understand that this process – conceptualising a garment, visiting Sultan’s for the fabric, then finding a tailor and embarking on a custom project – can be daunting. (Sultan can help you with some of that as he will personally recommend various makers at various price points. I should state for clarity that I cannot necessarily vouch for his recommendations.)
So I would encourage you to start even smaller. Pay a visit to Sultan’s as purely an exercise in education. Touch, feel and look at as much fabric as you can, weaves and materials you’ve maybe only read about. Use a visit to start developing a sense of what different fabrics and weights feel like, their “hand.” And that may get your creative juices flowing as you envision your first, or next, custom creation.