Brian Kisimba’s tailor shop in Nairobi could be looking like one on 19 Saville Row, London’s most famous tailoring street with knighted tailors. He has the skills of an ultra-bespoke tailor, having been trained in the UK by the acclaimed owner and creative director of Maurice Sedwell bespoke tailors Andrew Ramroop.
I walk into a glass panelled boardroom at The Werks, a beautiful woodsy workspace in Nairobi’s Lavington to meet him. On a whitewashed corner stands a floating canvas with a single-breasted two-buttoned jacket in blue with bullhorn buttons and a customised message on the felt.
“For bespoke suits, if it has your name or that of your wife or child on it,” Mr Kisimba says while lowering the collar, masking the felt written “Absolute” in fuscia.
On his table, he has over 500 top-of-the-range wool fabric swatches: half English, and the other Italian. These selections include fabrics meant for presidents, linings, buttons and zippers from heritage mills in Italy and England such as James Hardinge, Holland & Sherry, Georgia Gullini, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Milano Exclusive.
“When sourcing for fabric and lining we check their properties: Is it breathable? Can the fabric keep you cool when warm and vice versa? Everything is informed by the kind of person we are looking to serve,” Mr Kisimba says.
And this customer is the affluent man who wants their suit designed and stitched to give them the effect of soft-structured shoulders or they want it to have details, like unique side pockets.
“Our clientele is mostly mature wealth, between 30 to 80 years. Thirteen are now repeat customers,” he says.
Mr Kisimba started his company Caliber Bespoke five years ago with a focus on just one thing: bespoke suit.
“We don’t do shirts, ties, shoes, belts, or watches. We’re leaving a lot of money on the table because we choose to focus on one thing that we know we can deliver the most value,” he says.
So what is the difference between bespoke and made-to-measure? The Saville Row-trained tailor explains. “You select the fabric, and perhaps lining for made-to-measure suits. Then the tailor uses pre-existing patterns for the construction and adjusts according to the client. However, in bespoke, we do everything from scratch. The number of measurements informs the perfection of the fit.”
On average, it takes six to eight weeks to do a suit, depending on the details. Sometimes it can take up to 12 weeks for difficult body shapes, as they require more fittings.
Mr Kisimba explains body shapes like pear and apple as difficult to suit, “because you find men with barrel chests, very narrow legs, requiring much more skill to stitch their suits than it would triangular-shaped men, basically the gym guy.”
A meeting with the tailor starts with questions.
“We don’t jump into the fabrics. We sit and talk because it's an investment,” he says. “A person buying our suits isn’t looking for a suit for the next couple of business deals. It’s more of an object of pleasure than a necessity because they’re already wearing Brioni or Canali,” he adds.
The fabric goes through four coat-makers and buttonholers, each specialising in different parts of stitching the suit. Then one finisher works on the final piece. A client can do up to six fittings.
“These fabrics are quite precious. So we do draft fittings from sample fabrics with the measurements that you have taken, not the fabric you choose. The draft suit acts as a compass to guide us, enabling us see how the fabric adapts to your body. Then we have the second draft fitting, sometimes we redo the first draft entirely, other times we do minor adjustments. After this, we can tweak it, and in the third fitting, the suit is where it should be. By then, we can do the paper patterns of our clients (and this is common practice with expert tailors at Saville Row). We preserve them and do adjustments when the clients add or lose weight, for future,” he says.
A manual for the suit
The final suit, stitched in its actual fabric, is usually very different from the mock ones. “It drapes differently. The suit comes with a manual to give you pairing tips for accessories. And we call after six months to make sure the suit still fits right,” says the graduate of Strathmore University, where his love for suits started.
The manual is elaborate and big. It shows the craftsmanship of suit-making, the shoes, ties, bracelets and watches that will match the new suit.
There is a difference between British suits and Italian ones, he says.
“British style is a lot more discreet. Italians are all about flair. You can always tell an Italian suit. There’s a lot of accents in the suits, the exaggerated shoulders, really nipped waist, the whole suit is almost like an hourglass. For Brits, they say it’s the man that is to be presented by the suit, not the man to present the suit.”
For buttons, he says the best are Mother of Pearl, followed by the bullhorn, then, of course, the extremes of gold and diamonds, “which have no comparison.”
Mr Kisimba went through a seven-month apprenticeship in UK, starting as a trimmer, then a runner, basically the person who rushes the fabric from the fabric store to the tailors, and eventually learnt what he calls “the secret sauce” of British tailoring that he has brought to the Kenyan market: the Thompson Cutting system.
“I may have not spent so much time at Saville Row, but I learnt the basics of the craft; cut, pattern-making, basting, padding and trouser-making,” he says.
Well-fitting coats with skinny-legged pants seem to be in fashion currently, but the suit can be adjusted and handed from father to son, re-tailored to fit a younger silhouette, just as they do at Saville Row.
His best-sellers are the blues and the greys, never whites or seldom tan. “My clients are not so experimental,” he adds.
For coats, some choose a secondary pocket, jetted pockets on the side of the coat to fit small accessories.
When it comes to the trousers, given they are made to fit, they do not have belt loops. They have options for zippers if you want. “Bespoke is a blank piece of canvas, it’s up to you to decide what shape it takes,” he says.
A suit will set you back Sh350,000 depending on the fabrics, finishing, and embroidery.
“If we were in the watch-making space, we’re not the Rolex, we’re not Seiko, we’re not Casio, we’re Vacheron Constantin, we’re the Audemars Piguet. We’re the watch brands you never hear about,” he says.
Just like all other businesses, there are hurdles like high taxes and getting buyers.
“When you tell someone you’re making for them a suit worth Sh700,000, what comes to mind very first is how the money could buy land, a car, pay rent for several months,” he says, adding that this has motivated him to write a book, ‘Man Enough’ to create awareness.