“People who come for a tailored suit for the first time are surprised by all the details that go in,” says Olivier Bauwens, founder of Belize, at a promotional event in New York. A friend lent Belize use of a gallery for the event, where men could reserve a fitting. Racks of sample coats and trousers and shirts stood next to paintings and electric signs and a table with chilled Stella. Bauwens and two colleagues hold court on their philosophy while waiting for an appointment. “We want to show that you can have a great suit with great fabric at ungreat cost,” says Bauwens. “A European pattern with Italian looks.”
To demonstrate, he begins with me, a man who has not worn a proper suit since a high school graduation dinner in South America when his tie caught fire on a candle and all ties were off by dessert anyway. Fashion, like all art, is about taking on a challenge. Give credit to those who take on the impossible.
We stand by a mirror next to a painting that makes you look in the mirror with more imagination than usual, and while I imagine life in a suit, Bauwens explains Belize’s made-to-measure process. It starts with a book of fabric samples. Bauwens turns the pages like it was Shakespeare and Hamlet must choose what to wear to dinner.
“First you choose what you want your suit to be,” he says. This is the only part of the process that resembles buying off a rack because you choose a style: double or single breast, one or two or three buttons, and so on. “It depends what you need it for. There are suits for everyday. There are suits for ceremony. What really matters is the fabric.”
Fabric quality is measured in the business by the “s number”, the number of threads per centimetre in the fabric. It is like pixels in a screen or dots per inch with a printer: The higher the better. Wool that is uncorrupted by synthetics starts at 100s. Other categories involve pure wool blended with finer fabric like silk or cashmere, but their fragility makes them for ceremony and not daily use. Bauwens explains: “At the office all day with your elbows on the table, if the fabric is too fine, it gets shiny.”
Managing partner Kristof Dekeukelaere and the gallery’s owner play together in the local Flemish football team. When people on the team and off complimented his trimmings from Belize well before he was on board, he approached Bauwens with the idea of bringing Belize to New York. This was the first event. They plan to have a few more to gauge public opinion before deciding to open a New York store. “Our marketing is word of mouth and nothing else,” Dekeukelaere says.
But Bauwens wants to get back to suits. He takes his wallet from his inside coat pocket and you can see cream and henna patterns in blue in the lining. The next step is choosing a lining and a pocket square. Then the buttons. Last is the collar felt, which keeps the collar’s shape. All these are available in styles and colours ranging from the plain to the flashy. It's a shame you can’t choose more things in life like this.
Bauwens takes the tape measure round his shoulders and says, “And now the fit.” He shows how the sleeve is supposed to be close to the skin and the shoulder is supposed to be one finger away. How the hem should cover the seat but go no further than the knuckles. How the sleeve leaves one centimetre of shirt and the shirt must go to the base of the thumb, and how the shirt cuff can be made longer to accommodate a big watch. His colleagues nod throughout in silent approval. Being in front of a mirror creates insecurities and it is the tailor’s job to show what you are and what you can look like – if he is honest, you will look good.
“When we fit the client, we tell them everything we are doing. They know what the tradition is. Then they know what they can do to customise. You can customise anything, even tradition,” Bauwens says.
Every Belize suit shows that it is made to measure in small details. A fourth buttonhole on the sleeve can be embroidered in a different colour. The name of the owner is embroidered in the inner lining above the pocket. Likewise a wedding date, which some clients prefer stitched in the collar. The suit is made to last. “Since we started, the goal has always been to look at the final product and feel, this is what we’ve done,” Bauwens says.
Belize began 10 years ago but Bauwens has worn a suit since he was 16. After university he worked in textiles in Portugal and Italy before moving back to Ghent. He bought fabrics at fairs in Milan and sent them to manufacturers. There was no store yet and no clients, but he always knew what he wanted, and he recognised quality.
“Before you came, we went to look at shops in the neighbourhood, feeling the clothes, getting to know what is around,” he said. In 10 years Belize has become an authority. Nearly all the casinos in Belgium wear Belize. Restaurants ask them to fit dining rooms and kitchens. They dress CEOs and entire companies. They have also prepared women’s suits, to be launched in August.
A tie is a passport and a suit that fits is a visa and though man expires, a tailored suit hanging in the closet when he is gone does not. “A suit is not how you look,” Bauwens says. The day’s first client enters. His colleagues hand him a beer and speak to him in Flemish. “How you look is how you feel. A suit is there to support the feeling and change it when necessary.”