If you blink you might just miss the J. Mueser storefront in NYC’s West Village. Stepping inside, however, reveals not only the depths of the location and the plentitude of fabrics and ready to wear clothing, but also the imagination of founder Jake Mueser. The boutique lets customers get hands on with made-to-measure shirts and suits (produced upstate) and also allows access to J. Mueser’s core business: bench-made bespoke items produced entirely in-house. From fabric portfolios to reference products and even Mueser’s brain itself, it’s a destination for knowledge on the ever-evolving art of suit-making. And in an industry where seasonal collections and brand launches garner the most eye-catching headlines, it’s equally as impressive that Mueser has been holding it all down for six years now. We joined him at the boutique to learn a little more about the process behind collaborating on a suit.
What’s the origin of this location? How did you end up here?
We opened this store in 2010. I started the brand a few years before that with a business partner. We were Doyle & Mueser. We were making clothing and had been offered a place in a pop-up shop in a cocktail bar in the East Village, Elsa. The idea was to have a tailor shop in the front. It wasn’t the best concept for a bar or a tailor shop but it helped substantially. This was the push to go out and start doing something on our own. We brought a jewelry designer friend of ours, Ryan Matthew. We all worked together for nine months before deciding the concept wasn’t working. We then opened Against Nature [a store in the Lower East Side] and brought in a custom denim-maker, and we were working together as a collective of craftsmen. We didn’t look back.
This location is more concentrated on suiting. There, our brands were working in harmony, but here we can focus on tailored clothing. Last year, my partner and I split ways and she’s doing a womenswear line. Here, it has become me focusing on what I love most: traditional, tailored menswear with contemporary twists.
Why are, or, why should people be interested in custom or bespoke suiting?
I think there are a few reasons. Part of that is fit. If you have trouble finding clothing that fits—and you may not even understand why your clothing isn’t fitting properly—then that’s something that often leads people down the road of getting articles made for themselves. The second is being able to know that you aren’t going to be able to see someone else wearing what you are wearing. A lot of logo suits, there’s a real strong chance you’ll run into someone on the street dressed exactly like you. That’s OK with some things. People do like to have those identifiers. But there’s a certain amount of personality you convey with your suit.
We all work between a set of rules regarding what a suit is and how we can wear it. People have been playing with these small details for a long while: proportions, textures, colors. The rest is something people really haven’t changed for a hundred years. Back in 1916, the suit was not all that different than it is now, ultimately. It comes down to the nuances. It’s like tasting wine. You have to understand what you’re getting into. One can develop a strong appreciation for suiting when you understand the impact of changing something small.
Say someone walks into this store. How do you help to guide them?
It depends on who the person is and how familiar they are with the process. We get guys coming in and it’s the first tailored suit they will ever have. They thought about it but haven’t done it yet. Some come in with an idea that they like a certain lapel or cut. I talk them through it. I teach the vocabulary. But then I’ve got guys who come in and have been buying Saville Row suits since 1975. I wasn’t even born yet. There’s something humbling about that. With them, we can just jump right into it, though. This is the canvas. This is the style. This is the inspiration.
How do you begin to lay out the vocabulary? Is it done in conjunction with showing options and building associations?
It’s a big part of it, explaining as we go. Some guys really do want to learn about it. I pull out sample suits and show them where it is pad-stitched and what a canvas looks like when it’s flat. We pull into it when we hand stitch it. I show them how we sculpt our fabrics and explain that this is something that can’t be done with a machine. There are details that do matter and details that don’t. We do it all by hand, though with a lot of this stuff you don’t need to do it by hand. We do it that way because we think it’s beautiful and if you’re paying attention, you do notice a difference. It’s more elegant. A buttonhole just stands up better if it is sown by hand.
How do you strike a balance with what are perceived aesthetic trends but keep that century of history that suits rely upon?
Ultimately, there’s what we do as a style and what we do as a house, but we try to be as adaptive as possible. Again, this depends on who the customer is. We are here to create something for someone. It’s not just directing them into our mold. It’s about taking what we do and making something only for that one person. It’s a different philosophy. Some people want to break rules and boundaries and we try to infuse it all with as much creativity as possible. Others don’t need that. They just want a suit that fits them as best as possible.
Let’s say, if I were asked to design a collection for another company how would I do that? When a creative director comes in they blend the existing design DNA with their own sensibilities. That’s what we try to do with each individual if the person is looking for that.
And you’ve observed suits getting slimmer and tighter?
It depends on if people are looking to build a wardrobe over a course of years or they’re coming in here seasonably for their whole closet. You get guys that come in with a clipping from GQ or something—and I personally feel that it’s almost become too tight, some suiting stuff—and what I’ve talked about in the past is that if you are familiar with suiting then you understand that that is not a suit you should wear if you work in an office. If it is an evening suit and it doesn’t matter to you how you feel, you just want to look as good as possible—immaculately tailored, being seen—then this is a different story. But those suits don’t work at a desk. They work when you are dancing or going to cocktail parties. What really matters is the fit.
And what else do we have around us here?
We have a seasonal collection that we do: ready to wear with shirting, suiting and ties. We also introduce products every four to six weeks and introduce new looks. That’s what you see around you in the store. We tailor them all to people and try to get as close as possible to what we do with our custom suiting side. It also gives us a style guide to show people what we can do. It shows them something more tangible than mentioning individual elements. All the detail work is done by hand right here. But it is the bench-made items, produced by our shirt makers and pant makers, that demonstrate what J. Mueser is about.
Custom suit appointment can be made online. The J. Mueser shop is located at 19 Christopher St, NYC.
Portrait by Johnny Fogg, all other images courtesy of J. Mueser