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Unbuttoning Toils And Traditions Woven Into A $50,000 Coat

Meg Lukens Noonan's adventure began with a simple curiosity. She happened across a website belonging to a renowned, fourth-generation tailor, John H. Cutler, and noticed a photograph of a $50,000 coat.

It looked "like any old blue overcoat that you might find in Macy's," she tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "I didn't recognize it as being special just by looking at it."

Baffled about why anyone would spend hundreds — let alone thousands — of dollars on a winter coat, Noonan's set out on an adventure to hunt its origins.

She discovers that the coat is made of vicuna, a fabric similar to cashmere, and it can cost about $6,000 a yard. "It's woven from the fleece of an animal that only lives at very high altitudes in South America in the Andes — an animal that was endangered until quite recently," Noonan says.

In her book, The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat, Noonan chronicles a web of button makers, pattern weavers, silkworm breeders and longing customers.

As Noonan explains to Lyden, her story is about more than just a pricey coat. It's about the fading tradition of tailoring and how one garment's life can span continents, tracing endangered animals in the highlands of Peru to silk weavers in Florence, Italy.

Interview Highlights

On the renowned tailor, John Cutler

"He has a very devoted clientele, but he finds himself in a position with no heirs coming along. His sons are not interested in taking up the trade. And so he's at a point in his life where he's very wistful about things. He knows that he's making sort of his last garments in the next few years, and he's sad about that."

On Cutler's sense of fashion, as showcased at the Australian Men's Club

Journalist Meg Lukens Noonan has previously written for <em>Outside</em> magazine<em><em> </em></em>and<em><em> National Geographic Adventure.</em></em> She is co-author of <em>Albatross: The True Story of a Woman'€™s Survival at Sea.</em>
Mark Bennington / Courtesy Spiegel & Grau
Courtesy Spiegel & Grau
Journalist Meg Lukens Noonan has previously written for Outside magazine and National Geographic Adventure. She is co-author of Albatross: The True Story of a Woman'€™s Survival at Sea.

"He was wearing a suit that I would describe as being the color of grape soda, a very intense purple, and it was edged with a bright orange stitching. And all of these clothes are clothes that he has designed and made himself. And with this purple coat, he had a bright, dark purple necktie and a pearl stickpin in the middle of it, and a beautiful handmade white shirt, and always a folded handkerchief in the pocket. .... And that's the way he dressed every time I was with him."

On the tradition of tailoring

"The tools that these craftsmen are using are the same tools that have been used for hundreds of years, and the techniques are the same. And it's needle, thread and tiny, little stitches to basically sculpt a garment that fits like a dream and enhances a person's physique. And from what I've heard from bespoke customers, it makes them feel fabulous."

On the viability of tailoring in an era of fast fashion

"I think that there's an argument to say, well, who cares, I mean these are obscure skills and crafts, and so what if they go away? But I think that there is still a place for something that takes time, for something that is hand-crafted, and using traditional techniques. And I would find it very sad to see those things go away. And what they're making is really art. It would be like saying, 'Why would we want to have paintings preserved in museum?' I mean, it's got value beyond being an article of clothing."

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