“When we say by hand, that’s exactly what we mean” — Interview about Oxxford Clothes with Ben Mayer

The first time I heard of Oxxford Clothes was about 30 years ago. When I first visited New York City in 1993 I visited a couple of shops, one of them was Oxxford Clothes. This was a couple of years before I started writing about menswear for a living. Since then I always wanted to portray this company, which is the most legendary maker of handmade suits in the US and one of the best on a worldwide scale. Now I got the chance to interview Ben Mayer, then man who represents Oxxford Clothes in Germany. 

Feine Herr: Would you object if I described Oxxford Clothes as the Brioni of the USA? Or maybe more accurately as the Chester Barrie of the USA? The Chester Barrie of the 90s of course.

Ben Mayer: It’s difficult to compare Oxxford Clothes to other clothing. Oxxford’s original mission over 104 years ago was to make clothing “by which all others would compare”. This is still the case. To this day, most makers compare Oxxford features to theirs. We still do things that no one else does, like precise pattern matching and distinctive trouser construction & details.

I believe it is fair to say that a Brioni suit has a good deal less hand work. Is their lapel and collar both 100% hand padded? Is their top collar put on separately from the under collar? They do not have the chain stitched armhole. Their trouser, unless changed, is more like one of the lower tier garments we offer, with a traditional waistband and does not have the hand-tailored, one piece pocketing-waistband. I have seen some with plastic zippers rather than nickel-plated. 

My understanding, is that a Chester Barrie is more akin to our second tier make, which we call “Ventura”. Perhaps, as you say, the classic Chester Barrie of the 90s might be close. Worldwide, there are few RTW garments in this league. Kiton or Cesare Attolini would be closer than Brioni, although Attolini appears to be an unconstructed garment. I would be so bold as to say that Kiton is the “Oxxford of Italy”.

From the early 1900s up through to the late 1970s, RTW suits were graded by the amount of handwork. The scale went from 0 to 5+. An Oxxford was considered a 5+ garment. With all of its hand sewn details and the genuine horn buttons (old Oxxford buttons were 2 hole buttons – another way to spot one in an elevator) were sewn on by hand with waxed linen stems, even on a RTW garment. Garments from Hickey, H. Freeman, Baker, and Southwick were 4s. 

How is it possible that this gem of hand tailoring has survived? Some of the greatest names are gone or have changed beyond recognition. 

Tradition comes from upholding quality every day. At Oxxford there is no desire or plan to change the construction or “make” of the garments. The process is the same as it has always been. Cutting, sewing, & pressing by hand by skilled artisans. When we say by hand, that’s exactly what we mean – shears, chalk, a needle & thread, we still use the same tools tailors have used for generations. The people occasionally change, but the process is always the same.

The fact that Oxxford still exists and is going strong, is a testament to the love and passion of our Tom James Company founder, Spencer Hays, prodded by Stanley Marcus. Oxxford was in danger of closing, because of the potential loss of major customers. Spencer had made other attempts to acquire it, but had been rebuffed. When he did the deal, he told the retail Oxxford dealers that to continue to sell the label, they had to commit to specific levels of in-stock inventory orders. In return he committed to them that Tom James would not, initially, offer Oxxford to our clients. This was his bridge to allow Oxxford to reach a point where the company was stable enough to allow TJ to offer Oxxford to our clients on a custom basis, even at the risk of losing RTW retail doors. The first garment TJ sold was the old “Ventura”. Subsequently, we sold a garment with the “Prestige” label, which was, in fact, a true Oxxford garment with a different label. The Ventura garment was made at 1220 Van Buren, Chicago, but without the Oxxford trouser interior or full plaid / stripe matching on the lapel, collar and sleeve inseam.

As a lover of fine and beautiful things, Spencer was committed to keeping the Oxxford legacy alive and well. For him it was a critical part of building Tom James – a true mission of love and respect. His love for beauty was evident in his collection of French fine art, which he bequeathed to the Musée d’Orsay, including more than 600 masterworks worth in excess of €350 million. In recognition of this grand donation, President François Hollande named Spencer and his wife Marlene, commanders of the Legion of Honour.

I’ve never experienced having a suit made at Oxxford Clothes. What can you expect when you order something?

As I have learned from Bob Denton, one of the leading men at Oxxford, the classic retail presentation is to introduce it and when the price is mentioned, to respond, “Have you ever tried one on?” This is because of the fluidness, resulting from the hand padding. The armhole comfort, because of the chain stitch. The unbelievable “wearing air” feel of the trousers. All of these factors combine to provide an experience like no other RTW garment.

While in the strictest, narrowest sense, it is not a “bespoke” garment, our custom process for making an Oxxford is close to a true “bespoke” experience. Each garment is cut from an individual pattern created specifically from the client’s 36 + measurements. The cloth, linings, model, buttons and multitude of other features are chosen by the customer. Just as a Savile Row custom garment requires multiple fittings for the final result, your order may require more than one. Most clients are well satisfied with one preliminary fitting and the finishing. Others may require another or possibly two subsequent fittings. Final adjustments can be made as needed.

I’ve seen two of your suits from Oxxford Clothes. They look like suits made in Savile Row, the handwork is extraordinary. How much handwork goes into these suits apart from the visible handwork like handmade buttonholes?

Upholding quality is a very painstaking process. It’s completely hand-made, with approximately twenty-five hours of handwork in a suit. An Oxxford garment is hand-cut from an individual pattern. All plaids and stripes are hand-matched, including not only the pockets, but the jetting on the flaps and even the unseen sleeve inseams. Other than long “straight” seams, such as the inseam, outseam and side seams, all sewing is done by hand, including the hems.

The interior trouser construction is a genuine work of art, done by hand, with waistband and pocketing being one piece. The buttonholes are handsewn. The patented “chain stitch” armhole can only be sewn by hand. All pressing is done by hand. The lapels are hand padded and require at least 1100 hand stitches each. Every one of those stitches helps to establish shape and memory, creating a full lapel with a natural roll and an impeccable line. The collar alone takes nine separate steps and is hand set in two separate operations. The under collar is attached first, then the top collar is set to better adjust to posture variations without as much alteration; but, more importantly, so that the pattern matches both the back of the garment and the lapels.

You can only grasp this when you see the finished product and compare it to a lesser make suit. Only by working by hand can we achieve the balance and symmetry that are the hallmark of an Oxxford suit.

I have always perceived Oxxford Clothes as the holy grail of East Coast elegance. How would you describe the style of Oxxford Clothes?

Oxxford style is understated, elegant, timeless, gentlemen’s clothing. We are influenced by our educated and savvy customers. Some are more fashion aware and want more contemporary looks, but our core customer is looking for classic yet updated style. It must be comfortable and it must perform over many, many years.

The historic Oxxford model, the two button “Onwentsia” was iconic. Once you knew it, you could spot someone wearing it on Film & TV instantly. That lapel gorge and hand sewn lapel buttonhole are timeless. When that model was available, you could see someone on the street, in a building, or on an elevator, and compliment them on wearing Oxxford. It is, to my thinking, the most elegant lapel shape ever created.

What is the starting price for a suit from Oxxford clothes?

Our starting price point for a two piece suit is €4999.

Everything is included in this price. It’s worth noting that right now I have a limited run of Holland & Sherry super 180s on sale for €3999. In the 11 years that I’ve been at Tom James, I’ve never known Oxxford to have anything discounted as it already represents such good value with the way we price it. The reason for this is simple. COVID-19 is unprecedented, so is the discount. An Oxxford suit takes 8-10 weeks to produce from taking the measurements to the completion of the 1 or 2 fittings for men. We also offer Oxxford for ladies but normally suggest an additional fitting, so 3 on average. We can offer a rush service for a small additional fee which will reduce the wait time to 4-6 weeks.

Even though you represent Oxxford clothes your card shows that you work for the Tom James company. Could you please give us a brief outline of the company?

Tom James was founded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1966, as a retail custom clothier. Several years in, Spencer Hays had an opportunity to acquire Individualized Shirts (1973) and English American (1976) from Grief Brothers, a division of the Genesco conglomerate. This is the origin of the Individualized Apparel Group that includes Tom James. Over time, he acquired three small neckwear companies, who supplied neckwear to TJ, all now combined into Gitman Neckwear. Later, he was able to acquire H. Freeman and Son, a Philadelphia based maker of the old line 3 button Trendaire (3 to show) coat – a traditional, padded canvas, natural shoulder garment. That shop was eventually closed, and they are now made at English American (EA). Spencer also acquired and incorporated several other shops and labels, including Corbin, Coppley, Gitman Shirts, Troy Guild shirts, and others into the Tom James / Individualized Apparel Group (IAG) family.Later, he pursued the jewel in the crown that he had always wanted, Oxxford, in order to save the label, the garment and the tradition, because he was a genuine clothing aficionado. It was a total labour of love for him. Not long afterward, he acquired Holland & Sherry, a long standing British luxury woolen merchant, based on Saville Row and Peebles, Scotland. Later, he acquired J.H. Clissold & Son, a premier textile company in Bradford, West Yorkshire. These along with the Crossville woolens facility in Tomé, Chile, enable Tom James to operate in a vertically integrated manner, controlling the entire process of providing garments to our clientele. We affectionately describe it as “From Sheep to Suit”. Spencer had bought into another of our Founders, Jim McEachern, and his dream of one Billion USD in sales and so he focused on the wholesale and tailoring side of our company to acquire and integrate the oldest and finest menswear labels in the world. This included the ill-fated attempt to buy Hickey-Freeman / Hartmarx. Were he still alive, I am certain he would have managed to save Southwick Clothing last spring.

Today, Tom James is 100% employee owned with approximately 600 partner clothiers like myself, working in around 100 locations worldwide. Because we are owners, our passion and commitment to giving our clients the best experience is always evident. We employ around 3400 highly skilled craftsmen and women (many of them owners too) and 16 manufacturing facilities predominantly in the USA, UK, Canada & Chile.

Is there a company in your portfolio that offers suits below the price level of Oxxford Clothes?

Indeed there is. Tom James offers a total of five distinct levels of tailoring with Oxxford being the pinnacle. Ventura is made in the same building as Oxxford, but with slightly less handwork in the jacket and with a more traditional waistband and pocketing system. These start at €3299. Our full canvased custom suits start from €1229. These are made in our English American tailoring shop, in Westminster, Maryland. We also make half canvased custom garments in our Coppley location in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Finally, we have fully custom suits, with a floating chest piece made in our Chile facility, starting at only €799.

We appreciate that not everyone is ready to invest in an Oxxford garment, although we often see clients work their way up our ranges as they progress in their career and as their confidence grows in the product and service they consistently receive and come to expect from us. When they reach the pinnacle of their career, they will most often mark the accomplishment by opting for our pinnacle of tailoring, Oxxford. Of course we have many clients who dress for the job they want, not necessarily the job they have, so they get started with Oxxford early!

As you make your way through our respective ranges the main two factors that determine the price are the level of luxury of the cloth and level of handwork, construction techniques and craftsmanship employed. We are proud to say that Tom James does not operate from expensive retail locations nor do we invest in multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. As a result, our pricing does not factor in such expenditures, unlike many of our competitors. Our professionals work out of modest corporate offices and our business has been built over time by word of mouth referrals which is and always will be our key source for new business. Tom James and it’s representatives are working on establishing a strong presence in modern marketing channels to extend our referral efforts. One such example is LinkedIn, where the greatest proportion of our prospective clients can be reached. It’s an unusual business model but one that works well for us, and, more importantly, for our clients. We have grown to become the largest custom menswear clothing company in the world and one that has proven that we can survive the ordeal of a pandemic when many of the traditional menswear specialists have perished. We also provide custom shirts, overcoats, jeans, knitwear and neckwear. We partner with the best of the best shoe makers such as Crockett & Jones and Allen Edmonds and luggage specialists like Tumi. As a full service clothier we can meet all of the needs of our clients. Our clients come from a truly diverse background but they all have one thing in common – they are short on time. As a result they enjoy high quality products combined with a world-class, truly convenient, service. Did I mention we can meet clients in their homes and offices and virtually over video calls?

Do the suit makers benefit from the fact that Holland & Sherry is part of the group?

Yes, because we are vertically integrated, our retail, tailoring, fabric design and weaving are able to work together to create cloths designed to meet the needs of our clientele. We are able to develop fabrics in response to market trends and also weave the timeless classics associated with the tradition of custom tailoring, in addition to short-lived trendy ones. During the start of the pandemic, one of the ways we pivoted as a company, was by being able to bring-to-market ten original products, mostly geared around smart-casual wear, that we had not produced before, in only a 6 month period. We would suggest this normally takes around 2 years for conventional menswear companies. This would not be possible if we did not own and control every stage of production. As an owner, I can speak directly with a client and give direct feedback to manufacturing to produce something completely new and innovative.

What are your plans on the German market?

We are still at the early stages of building our German operation. This is the start of our third year here. The good news is that we survived and thrived during the lockdowns of 2020/21 and the business is growing rapidly all over Germany thanks to satisfied repeat customers, who introduce us to their friends who want in turn, to be part of the growth story. Currently I reside in Berlin but travel every month to Frankfurt, Düsseldorf & Cologne and Hamburg. We have plans to open locations in every major German city and so we need to bring onboard new talented clothiers who can meet the demands of our ever expanding client base. I have a vision for at least 50 partner clothiers in Germany.

We already have offices in London, Amsterdam & Paris plus the Holland & Sherry offices all over Europe, including the Holland & Sherry Interior Design showrooms in London & Paris. Over the next 5 years we hope to open offices in every major European city.

What if someone wants to try Oxxford clothes. Could he contact you directly?

Yes. If you are based in Europe then men and women can get in touch with me by email (b.mayer@tomjameseurope.com). They can also message me on LinkedIn.

On my profile they can find more information on my company, the process and the many types of product we offer. I have close to 200 testimonials on there and so I’m rarely surprised these days when a prospective client knows someone who has been kind enough to leave a review, since the business community of Germany is so tight-knit. If you live outside of Europe we have offices all over the world so we should be able to serve you.

The other huge benefit of being a global clothier is that we often have clients who transfer to other parts of the world. We simply move their electronic file to a partner based in their new city and continue from where we left off. It’s seamless.

My mantra is to save the busiest executives time with their clothing – the result – more time to focus on the other important areas of your life, such as business and family. My main aim is to simplify the process in which my clients will always look their best, feel their most confident and as a result, achieve the best outcomes in their professional and social life.  

Thank you, this was most interesting!