Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bespoke molecules?

I am tempted sometimes to think of myself as a somewhat more educated tradesman (I have long described myself to laypeople as a "molecular carpenter", for example.) But it's interesting to see the life and finances of a tailor in New York City. From a "Planet Money" article in the New York Times Magazine by Adam Davidson:
A few years ago, Peter Frew came to New York with an important professional skill. He was one of maybe a few dozen people in the U.S. who could construct a true bespoke suit. Frew, who apprenticed with a Savile Row tailor, can — all by himself, and almost all by hand — create a pattern, cut fabric and expertly construct a suit that, for about $4,000, perfectly molds to its owner’s body. In a city filled with very rich people, he quickly had all the orders he could handle. 
When I learned about Frew, I assumed he was some rich designer in an atelier on Madison Avenue. That’s what Frew hopes to be one day, but for now the 33-year-old Jamaican immigrant works out of his ground-floor apartment near Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn, and makes around $50,000 a year. His former living room consists of one large table piled with bolts of cloth and a form with a half-made suit. As Frew sewed a jacket, he explained how he customizes every aspect of its design — the width of the lapel, the number and size of the pockets — for each client. What makes a bespoke suit unique, he said, is that it’s the result of skills that only a trained hand can perform. Modern technology cannot create anything comparable. 
As I watched Frew work, it became glaringly obvious why he is not rich. Like a 17th-century craftsman, he has no economy of scale. It takes Frew about 75 hours to make a suit — he averages about two per month — and he has no employees. A large part of his revenue is used to pay off his material expenses, and because his labor is so demanding, he relies on an outside salesman, who requires commissions. (Frew can’t even afford to make a suit for himself. When we met, he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.) While he hopes to one day hire full-time assistant tailors and rent a Manhattan showroom, he knows it will be a huge challenge to get there.
Davidson goes on to note the competition the men's suit industry faces from mass production, overseas manufacturers and the like. Somehow, I am comforted to know that he can make a living, if not a very lucrative one.

I certainly don't think the economics of Mr. Frew's tailoring match well to synthetic chemistry; I think it's relatively rare for a person (or a group of people) to need a quantity of a specific chemical, and for it to be produced in a unique, hand-caressed fashion. Even if it were the case, there are many, many people trained in synthetic chemistry (many more professors of chemistry than Savile Row tailors, I suspect!) and our field has already left Mr. Frew's economics long ago.

[P.S. After reading this article, I remembered the short story "Quality" by John Galsworthy, about a bootmaker who made excellent boots that would not wear out, but most certainly could not make any money doing so. As romantic as it sounds, I don't want to be that guy.]


  1. If you read about Savile Row (there is actually a blog) you find out that the taylor firms there are employing groups of specialists, each taking care of a particular aspect of making the bespoke suits. So there is a division of labor, much like between people who produce final compounds and those who scale up the common intermediates

  2. Gram for gram, total synthesis targets have to be some of the most expensive materials on earth. Consider the cost of a 5+ year synthesis project of involving multiple graduate students and postdocs that might end up with a 25+ step route to a few milligrams of material. I wonder what the cost/gram of synthetic palytoxin was?