My earliest memories of buying a suit were probably as disappointing as yours.
Dragged under the headache inducing fluorescent lights of a department store by well-meaning parents so that I could be a fitted for the junior suit needed for some occasion – be it a wedding, funeral, first communion, juvenile court appearance… etc. I don’t remember where we were going, but I do remember hating the way the ill-fitting jacket clung to me when I moved, the shoulders were too tight, the stiff dress shoes hurt, the waistband dug in, and the shirt – despite being massively oversized for my torso was so tight on my neck that the top button couldn’t be done up. Looking back I think that an old maxim from carpentry “If it doesn’t fit, force it” had been wrongly applied to children’s formal wear. This continued to be the driving philosophy behind most of the suits I wore through the 80’s and 90’s (And there were so many tragic examples from those decades, and by that I mean that we will under no circumstances, ever, discuss what I wore to any high school formals).
Even when I entered the corporate workforce (the dark days before I escaped to live the bountiful life of a freelancer) I occasionally had to wear a suit for meetings and business dinners that left me feeling lost in the garment and distinctly not myself. These off-the-rack aberrations were purchased out of a sense of duty rather than want – with little standard other than that they cost under $150.00 and not burst immediately into flame when worn.
It wasn’t until I didn’t have to wear suits anymore that I actually started to want to wear one.
Bureau is a custom menswear shop owned by Joseph Stocker and Jon Eisenberg thats seems gloriously out of step with the long-held ideas I had of the suit shopping experience. Most of my participation in the process involved dealing with the rushed and disinterested salesmen at off-the-rack menswear stores in the mall who were often preoccupied with how many suits they can sell me as opposed to selling me a decent one.
Described by Joe as Anti-Shopping – a trip to Bureau will pour gasoline all over your conception of what shopping for a suit should be and strike a match to it.
The first thing you’ll notice is the music, and so much of Bureau’s charm comes from that intersection of music, fashion, and art where well-dressed rockers like Bolan and Bowie are holy names. The store is saturated with the presence of good music (they even set up a little sidewalk market once a week, selling legendary records from crates of used vinyl) and so much of the store’s mentality is influenced by decades’ worth of iconic musicians adorned in striking suits gracing album covers, magazines, and stages from Detroit to Tokyo. Joe recounts how the genesis of the business was somewhat found in his own admiration of musical style and swagger “I started this business out of my own needs because I couldn’t find clothing in this particular stylistic mode, and that lead me to an obsessive five or six-year period of thrifting and pulling things apart to understand the looks and construction. It all came from music though, growing up and seeing the album covers of acts like Bowie and The Beatles and movies like Blowup and 8 1/2 – those were the types of silhouettes I liked but I didn’t know how to dictate that technically. I didn’t even know anyone who had a tailor. So I found a tailor who helped me understand the basics of form, structure, and pattern making. From there I was able to have some things made for myself, and eventually for friends of mine which is where I realized that I could apply everything I had learned to other’s body types.”
The second thing you perceive is the distinct lack of suits in the store – I’ve rarely seen more than five or six on display in the window or on forms, and maybe a few others hanging on a discretely small rack for customer pickups and fittings. Bureau isn’t about trying to push product on you and hustle you out the door, rather, the guys act more like consultants and trusted advisors who are just as happy to sit with you in the store’s simple lounge and have a drink while they talk with you about the finer points of style as they are to fit you for a new three-piece. It’s in this lounge that the process of every Bureau suit starts, usually with the customer having a long conversation with Jon and Joe. “It starts with occasion, because that dictates a lot of the overall style of the suit. Body type and proportion are the next elements because that gives us a guide on how to best accentuate the client’s body. Skin tone is also important in deciding what colors are best for that client. But it goes beyond that – when Jon or I sit down to consult with a client we want to know about who they are and where they’ve been, what sort of music they like, their tastes in art. This needs to be a living room experience and they need to feel comfortable. This is a custom business, we aren’t dictating averages that the client needs to fit, rather we are building something just for that client and they know I’m not going to put them in anything that won’t flatter them because they are our walking billboard, and I think that’s why we get so much word-of-mouth business. You don’t ever have to question what we are about because it lives and breathes in the shop and what we do.“ Instead of rack after rack of garments the space is filled with art and curios: the striking axe that hangs by a window, a pair of antique fabric shears sitting atop a display cabinet, a collection of photographs and posters cover another wall. All of this is interspersed with tastefully small reminders that you are indeed in a menswear store: reams of fabric swatches spread across the central table, a display of collar and cuff options next to a stack of LPs (T.Rex was playing at the time), and a neat and unobtrusive display of woven ties and cufflinks by the entrance serve as evidence that this is a place where style happens.
The biggest problems Jon sees with how people shop for suits today comes from the notion that shoppers are trying too hard to fit their suit, rather than having their suit fit them. “The two things I commonly notice when someone is telling me about an off-the-rack suit they bought and found they weren’t happy with are the fit and buying something too trendy or of the time that doesn’t age well, but fit is the big one. Often they will find their garments too boxy, too long, or any number of other problems because these garments are made for averages and not for people. Our suits are one of one, and made to fit their wearer, which isn’t to say that we only make skinny suits or garments for those with slimmer figures. I’m a bigger guy, I’m 6’2″ and 210 lbs and I can’t wear a skinny suit, but I can wear something that fits me right, and once we get a client into a garment they start to understand the difference between fit and size.”
Opening a high-end but accessible men’s shop in Buffalo, a city that magazines once listed amongst the worst dressed in the country (seriously, fuck those magazines) might seem like a risky business plan – but Bureau has embraced the wave of change happening in Buffalo and the city has embraced them in turn. “I’ve been in Buffalo for ten years. I’m not originally from here, but I can honestly say that this is the most welcoming city I have been to. People have been incredible friendly and willing to share. If you don’t know anything about the community or its history people will gladly show you, tell you, and hold your hand through transitions. When we opened, none of that changed. People were incredibly welcoming and on board immediately. They wanted to be part of this and help in every way that they could. It was incredible and amazing because for the longest time Buffalo didn’t have much of a menswear presence, if any at all, and we showed up, opened the doors, and people latched on instantly. It was immediate and overwhelming to be welcomed with such open arms. I think that the reason it was embraced so fully is because people of my generation can hop on a computer, click through a bunch of websites and photos and say to themselves ‘I’ve wanted this, I’ve wanted this for a really long time. this is happening in New York, Chicago and LA – why isn’t it happening here?’. We were able to create an outlet that made this kind of service available in their own backyards in a way that they could come into the shop, hang out, and get exactly what they’ve been wanting for so long.”
Jon continues, “The economy here in Buffalo is starting to shift. People are starting to stay here and the community is finally starting to experience growth, and with that growth come people who are putting their flag down and marking out their own territory – opening restaurants, shops, design firms, and more. With that people are more invested in putting back in the community, and they want to see it take off and be held in the same regard as Chicago and LA because they know they have just as much to offer, even though they are in Buffalo.”
Bureau’s basic two-piece suits at $700.00, and they have an abundance of fabrics to choose from. There is also a variety of accessories, specialty fabrics, patterns, and add-ons that one can build into their suit – the options are diverse and all exquisite – but where to start? Joe has some advice:
“I think if you don’t have a suit in navy or charcoal gray you are missing out on a workhorse piece of wardrobe that can be split up, worn with jeans, worn to dinner, dressed up, dressed down, and worn with sneakers, you can play with knit ties, and mix in pocket squares. We have people come in and want a pink suit for their first suit, and that’s awesome, but you can’t wear that pink suit five days a week, there’s something about navy that lets you wear it all week-long and no one will be the wiser – start with the basics. We also have a lot of customers who already have the basics. so they can have a lot of fun and get more dandy and colorful with it. Ultimately you need to assess the customer’s needs and wants and work with them because that’s what drives this kind of shop.”