Is there a more Sisyphean labour for a man than shopping for trousers? Perhaps one: doing it during the sweltering and distinctly un-British summer we’re having.
You know how it is. You walk into the shop, already hot and in a rush because you’re still suffering from the delusion that the task can be completed in a lunch hour, or squeezed in after work. You select a few pairs from the racks and go to try them on. Of course, there is a queue for the fitting rooms. And, of course, when you finally make it in, none of the pairs actually fit – too tight, too long, too loose or, maddeningly, sometimes all three.
So you bend down yet again (you’re becoming a slightly deeper shade of puce each time), put on your own trousers, lace up your shoes and return to the fray. You select different sizes, styles and repeat the whole drawn-out affair. Eventually, inevitably, you admit defeat.
At least, that’s my experience – more often than not. So when an antidote was waved in front of my nose recently, I had to put it to the test.
Spoke is a British brand which claims to have lifted this age-old curse by finding ‘a sweet spot between bespoke and “ready to wear”‘. How have they done it? The London-based company only sells its trousers online, directly from its own website, but offers eight waist sizes, three fits and will finish the legs to any length. Before making a selection you, the customer, are asked a total of 10 multiple choice questions. These cover your vital statistics – height, weight, build and so forth – but also include left-field enquiries such as ‘how do you fasten your wristwatch?’
The idea is that, from the comfort of wherever you happen to be clicking your mouse or tapping your phone screen, you can find perfectly-fitting trousers and avoid the usual vicious cycle. ‘If shopping is purgatory,’ Spoke’s website says, ‘then fitting rooms are the inner circle of hell.’ I couldn’t agree more.
It goes without saying that the ability to buy clothes online is nothing new. But a new wave of companies with ‘direct-to-consumer’ business models, which sell own-brand products exclusively online (or with a comparatively small bricks-and-mortar retail presence) are beginning to provide a wealth of options for those who would rather avoid trial by fitting room.
The model has proved successful in other arenas. The shaving brand Harry’s and mattress company Casper are notable examples, but in fashion, it is probably the New Zealander-founded US brand Allbirds that’s made the biggest noise. Its merino wool and recycled plastic shoes have become a huge hit among the cognoscenti of Silicon Valley and, last year, the company raised a further $17.5m in Venture Capital funding, valuing it at $385m – making it worth about twice as much as UK high street stalwart Debenhams.
Other American clothing brands such as Everlane and Bonobos have used a similar same model to great effect, but I decided to focus on the best of British. In addition to Spoke, I picked out Luca Faloni, a London-based purveyor of Italian-made menswear, and Thread, which sells its own clothes alongside garments from big-name brands, offering suggestions tailored to customers’ individual tastes.
A shirt from Luca Faloni was the first thing to arrive. By removing retailers from the equation (who would otherwise snatch a share of the sale price) and by using social media alongside targeted online advertising to snare potential customers more cheaply, the company aims to offer luxury garments at about a third of the price they fetch when sold by more famous high-end Italian marques. On the basis of the linen shirt that was delivered to me, it’s a roaring success. At £125, the shirts aren’t what you would call ‘cheap’ exactly, but they are cut beautifully and made from good-quality fabric; Disney CEO Bob Iger and the architect Sir Norman Foster are said to be fans. Mine arrived in the post along with 14 swatches of different coloured linen – to encourage male customers to do what they are generally wont to do: settle on something they like and then order it in several different hues.
Like Spoke, Thread asks its newly registered customers a number of questions before things really get going. Unlike Spoke, however, Thread assigns a ‘stylist’ to each online shopper, who’s on hand to offer advice and make suggestions by sending written messages through the site.
Once we got up and running I told my stylist, Toby, that I was in search of some items for a summer holiday to Italy. He made a raft of suggestions and when something I liked (a shirt from the brand Sunspel, with a ‘Talented Mr Ripley feel to it,’ to use Toby’s words) was out of stock, he quickly proffered an alternative from Orlebar Brown that was just as nice.
So far, so good. But I’d successfully shopped for shirts online before. My personal Holy Grail was still to procure a well-fitting pair of trousers without having to put myself through the wringer.
Having answered all of Spoke’s questions, I hedged my bets by ordering two pairs. When they arrived, not only did neither fit, but the style I had ordered – made from lightweight cotton, according to the label – turned out to look and feel more like nylon.
I returned the trousers and requested two more pairs – in different sizes and made from different material. But when the second package arrived a few days later, the contents were exactly the same as the first.
At the third time of asking, one of the pairs was, finally, a perfect fit – and was made from much nicer cotton, too. ‘Success!’ I thought… but it was short lived.
The following day, as I was on the way to a meeting, the popper at the front of the trousers pinged off when I sat down on the Tube. Not the kind of quality you’d expect from a 90-quid pair of trousers. What’s more, with no time to buy a belt or find a safety pin, I was forced to spend the duration of the meeting surreptitiously pulling up my fly and shielding my gape from view with a notebook.
The good news is I think I may have gotten away with it. The bad is that, sadly, my Sisyphean search for trousers continues.