Language Rant: Bespoke

I know that railing against inappropriate word usage might invite others to (correctly) point out my own language mistakes.  But, well, nobody’s perfect.  So why not offer yet one more imperfect opinion?  Currently, I have, shall we say, a discomfort with the widely misused word bespoke.

The word bespoke traditionally refers to the respected trade of master tailors.  It indicated the practice of making clothing by hand, carefully and skillfully, and to the quality standards, measurements and preferences of the wearer.  Sadly, today bespoke is misused in many instances simply to invoke the idea that a product is special, customized, or adaptable.  Such examples are: a “bespoke” safari vacation, a “bespoke” café latte, or “bespoke” investment strategies.  Let’s be clear.  The true meaning of bespoke should be reserved for something original that has been created for and in close consultation with the individual who will wear it or use it. 

Bespoke does not mean handmade, or even one-of-a-kind.  Anything that can be purchased from Etsy is not bespoke.  Handmade?  Probably.  Well-crafted?  Often.  The point is… it’s already made.  It wasn’t made for you.

Bespoke does not mean distinctive.  If you’re a Masterpiece junkie like I am, you’ve seen the ad that leads you to believe that Ralph Lauren personally handcrafted your new coat.  The shears, the embroidery thread, the carefully selected rhinestones… Imagery of the bespoke tailor is flaunted, but the truth lies in mass-production behind a posh brand.

Bespoke does not mean adaptable: a bike with an adjustable seat, a gluten-free entrée, maternity pants.  Nor does it mean customizable: choosing the carpet color in a new condo, monogrammed bed sheets, made-to-measure window shades.  These are items that were either engineered to fit a range of needs, or pre-manufactured up to a near-end point to be finished according to one small piece of client-provided input.

So, what is bespoke?  It’s an adjective that declares a process involving time, skill, and care:

A project begins with a consultation where questions are asked and answered regarding the intent, the significance, and the requirements of the piece to be made.

Original design options are generated based on those answers.

Materials are gathered specifically for the project, and chosen by (bespoken for) the client.

Design decisions are made with a high degree of client involvement, requiring multiple consultations and fittings.

A relationship develops between the client and the person who actually creates the item.  Any intermediary is highly trained and sensitive to translating the needs and recommendations of both.

The final piece, created over several weeks or months, is unique in the true sense that no other object in the world is like it.  It is perfectly fit to the wearer and embodies multiple aspects of his or her own aesthetic vision combined with the talent and skill of the maker.

That said, we at Fairbank and Perry are bespoke goldsmiths, but not everything we make is bespoke.

 “That’s crazy!  Who would do that?  It takes so much time!”

Of course it does.  That’s the point.  It’s about committing one’s energy, workspace and resources to the production of an extraordinary object for one person only.  It is necessarily relegated to the small, local shop.  It cannot be scaled up.  It cannot be streamlined.  Sometimes, it is not even very profitable.

One-of-a-kind Opal Bead Necklace: We made this necklace from an extraordinary strand of graduated beads, which we selected from our favorite opal dealer upon his return from abroad.  We interspersed round tiger-eye spacer beads to show each opal’s individual character.  We hand-fabricated the 18 karat gold toggle clasp in our studio, and used special texturing tools (also made in-house) to give the clasp its weathered-looking surface.  When finished, we placed the necklace in our gallery, where it was admired by many and eventually purchased by returning clients as an anniversary gift.

Bespoke Boulder Opal Collar:  This piece, however, originated with a client’s request for a custom-made, colored-stone necklace.  She was unsure of what the design and materials should be.  Together, we defined a color palette (blues and greens), an affinity for natural shapes and smooth texture (no glittery faceted stones), and a desire for the necklace to be suitable for casual as well as special occasion wear.

We assembled two collections of stones for her review, and created sketches of potential designs.  She chose a collection of eleven boulder opal doublets, but opted to change the largest one after seeing a more vibrant, heavier boulder opal.  We sketched a new design using these stones, which she approved.

The stones differed in thickness, but the client strongly preferred them all to appear at the same height.  We addressed this by creating elevated shelves under all but the center stone, thereby raising the others up to its level.

The rest of the necklace was made to fit this specific client by first creating a five-part silver model complete with hinges and a clasp.  Investing preliminary hours to make this model allowed us to fine-tune the shape to fit her perfectly.  Later, the actual gold elements were hand-forged and curved based on that model.  Several fittings later, with friends and family in tow, the finished necklace was delivered, and more than met expectations.

So, the next time you see “bespoke” used in a context that does not describe something uniquely and laboriously created for one individual, know that there all but certainly was a marketing team, not a craftsperson, behind it.