Who knew that Charles Dickens died owing money to his tailor?
Or that the vicuna, a distant relative of the Bactrian camel, has hair 1/25,000th of an inch in diameter that makes for sensational cloth?
Or that Hosni Mubarak, the ousted Egyptian president, had his name stitched in his pinstripes?
Meg Lukens Noonan’s slim yet encyclopedic “The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury and Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat” could’ve been subtitled “Everything You Wanted to Know about Clothes But Didn’t Think to Ask.”
Noonan crisscrossed the globe from Sydney to London’s Savile Row, from Lake Como, Italy, to Lima, Peru, in search of the top artisans and materials that conspired to create one over-the-top symbol of a bygone era.
A New Hampshire-based writer, she learned about the $50,000 overcoat from the website of John Cutler, who was commissioned to create it in 2006. He’s a fourth-generation tailor in Sydney, a clothes horse himself whose clients include Elton John and Boy George. The coat’s happy owner is Keith Lambert, former chief executive of winemaker Southcorp Ltd., which was swallowed by Foster’s Group Ltd. in 2005.
Made entirely by hand, the coat has wool woven from what Noonan calls the “gossamer fleece” of the vicuna, which is a llama-like creature found on South America’s Andes Mountains. The silk lining comes from Florentine designer Stefano Ricci, a charismatic gourmand who hunts crocodiles on vacation.
Noonan was too late to observe the birth of “the overcoat to end all overcoats” as it was already finished by the time she got on the case. She sets upon visiting almost everyone who had a hand in its making.
While magnificently researched, “The Coat Route” is more travelogue than investigative report. Readers with only a passing interest in threads may not be entirely hooked, but there’s no quibbling about Noonan’s energy or eye for detail.
It’s her explanations and asides that are most memorable. “Bespoke,” for example -- a widely abused term -- dates back to 17th-century tailoring, when a customer would reserve or “bespeak” a length of fabric. The cloth was then “bespoken” for.
Lambert’s coat wasn’t made on Savile Row, but Noonan takes a detour there. The famous tailors, who once had all the work they could handle, have formed a trade association and even hired public relations people to educate potential customers about how their handiwork differs from flashy pretenders. She notes that it doesn’t help that many tech moguls dress as if it’s casual Friday seven days a week.
She looks at the dark side of “fast fashion retailers” like Zara and Forever 21, which are behind an explosion of waste. Citing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she reports that Americans discard about 13 million tons of textiles annually. Most of it ends up in the trash and may contribute to climate change as it decomposes.
Ideally, ultra-luxury clothing lasts and is treasured. “They try once, and they want more, because they feel good in what they are wearing,” Ricci tells Noonan. “Thanks to God, they get addicted -- they want to possess.”
That’s true of Lambert. Noonan visits him in Vancouver and tries on his dark vicuna treasure.
“Beautiful,” she declares.
Turns out he’s ordered a second handmade vicuna overcoat from his uber-tailor -- in tan.
“The Coat Route” is published by Spiegel & Grau (244 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Philip Boroff is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Jeremy Gerard on theater.