Bespoke: Delusions of grandeur

It is not enough to buy designer – one has to order bespoke. But this 'Grand Designs' life of endless choice is just an ego-stroking sales pitch that lets us believe our cash makes us creative, argues Charlotte Raven.
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In her recent series, Mary Queen of Shops, Mary Portas blames one client's commercial failures on their inability to read the retail mood. The owners of the furniture shop Under the Moon were Seventies throwbacks with visibly little purchase on the zeitgeist.

Portas explained that today's consumers are driven to individuate, to set themselves apart, rather than keep up with the Joneses. To prove this, she set up interviews with several potential clients in their own homes. Every one confirmed that they would pay a premium for "one of a kind" pieces fashioned to their specific requirements. These bespoke items would give them an edge over people who bought their light fittings from the Conran Shop. And mark them out as people of discernment.

Every week, the FT's How to Spend It magazine quizzes a rich person on their personal style. They're always rather pleased with themselves. This week, the Earl of March talks excitedly about the "shortish overcoats" that have become his sartorial signature. Does he have more taste than someone in a normal-length off-the-peg overcoat or more money?

Those husband and wife teams featured on Grand Designs have the same misplaced pride. The programme always ends with a hymn of praise to the wife/project manager. This is forthcoming whether or not she stays within budget. She has convinced everyone, including the viewer, that she is an artist, not a shopper. The £3,000 customised hob and Italian blown glass windows are simply art materials. We never judge her, as we do the "shopaholic" fashion consumer, or think for one minute that she's simply splurging vast amounts of money on herself.

"Bespoke" is one of the few remaining ways the middle class has of distinguishing "us" from "them". One consequence of the democratisation of "style" is that designer branding has come to seem vulgar. Anyone with access to a credit card can land a Mulberry Alexa handbag. You have to be a fine person to acquire a bespoke Hindmarch Ebury. It is said that bespoke consumers are patient, with an appreciation of craftsmanship. Their ability to wait three weeks for an embossed travel folio from Hindmarch's bespoke shop advertises their savviness. Those who order custom-leather Hermes Birkin have the same experience, albeit with an even longer wait – up to six months. According to the fashion writer Lisa Armstrong, the bespoke consumer understands that "anticipation is half the pleasure of acquisition".

The unsavvy, off-the-peg consumer, on the other hand, seeks immediate gratification. She is driven by ignoble impulses, like the urge to look like a common celebrity. Bespoke consumers wouldn't let these impulses get the better of them. They are connoisseurs, interested in the thing itself rather than what it does for their image. Ostensibly, their refusal to don designer bling exhibits distaste for showing off. But their rejection of the cult of celebrity is grandiose, not modest.

They appear less brazen than the average consumer. But you'd have to be brazen to countenance the arrogant substitution of the designer's branding with your own, and more of a show off than the office girl in her ASOS partywear. She wants to look like a celebrity. The bespoke consumer thinks she is one. (The quality kind of course.) She perceives herself as a unique, one-of-a-kind kind piece.

Bespoke reflects a decline in collective consciousness. There was no call for it when women thought of themselves as women. In those days, the urge to identify with others was stronger than the desire to individuate. Everything was much easier. Keeping up with the Joneses was less exhausting than keeping up with your own constantly shifting whims.

The house at the end of my street has been "made over" more times than I can count, inside and out. Like most of us, the lady occupant believes her interior look should reflect her personality. This would be a hard-enough proposition if identity was fixed and immutable. Our neighbour's is more fluid than most, and yet wants her décor to keep pace. She always looks harassed, like the female "project manager" on Grand Designs.

The fashion for bespoking makes yet another stress inducing demand on our already overstretched schedules. It takes time to design a cup of coffee to our specific requirements. And a lot more emotional energy than it did when the only decision was whether to add sugar. The pinched faces of the people waiting in line in Starbucks suggest that bespoking your beverage is more fraught than fun.

In the old days, we were free to daydream while standing in line. In every area of life there were fewer decisions to make. Standardisation meant you didn't have to obsess about every detail. That was someone else's job.

The women on Grand Designs always seem to sack their project manager and take on the job themselves. None are daunted by their lack of expertise. Other bespokers are guilty of overestimating their abilities, believing they can do better than the so-called experts. One bespoker of my acquaintance has set up her own charitable foundation rather than raise money for Oxfam. Another asserts that she will do a better job than nature as she sets about bespoking her face. You'd think the same if you'd spent the past decade being flattered by top people. To win her, both her husband and David Cameron allowed her to think that she was in charge of them.

All categories of business from coffee shops to cleaning agencies are busily bespoking their products and services. This uncomfortable coinage will catch on, I predict. The craze for bespoking already extends beyond retailing. Every spa treatment now contains some bespoke element – a moment where you are invited to select the music or the massage oil, giving you the sense that you are devising, not consuming.

Now even education is being bespoked. Toby Young's objections to his local secondary school had nothing to do with quality. They derived from the fact that the curriculum at Acton High School hadn't been fashioned to his personal taste. Like the Earl of March and all the other fans of bespoke styling, he wanted a solution that was uniquely him.

The motto "Dare to Learn" is more revealing of his ambitions than you might think. Young wants his new school to turn out mini iconoclasts, like him. On the BBC TV programme Start Your Own School he said he wouldn't be sorry if it produced Lenin or Trotsky "as long as they were able to argue their case".

The West London Free School is the educational equivalent of a bespoke Rolls-Royce Phantom with the extended wheel base, mother of pearl accents and monogrammed head restraints.

Bespoke is anti tradition. Its insistence on inventing things from scratch means bespoking isn't conservative. The fad for bespoking wedding vows illustrates this point. However much work they put into them, the couple's efforts won't match the originals, whose power is generated by their repetition in the same form since their publication in 1549. The authors of the vows in The Book of Common Prayer were better writers than the bespokers. Which raises the question – why not leave it to the experts?

In all areas, they generally know better than the bespoker. And yet today they have to pretend they don't. Architects, newspaper editors and web designers nurture their clients' belief that they that are the "creatives" even when the product or service is only minimally bespoked. Web designers generally offer website or intranet packages tailored to their client's specific requirements, but more often than not end up building from a standard template, just as they would if they hadn't been bespoke.

David Cameron flatteringly portrayed the electorate as creatives. The Big Society was a bespoke political solution. Before the election, we were given the impression that we'd be in the driving seat, with the freedom to bespoke everything. Local and national services would be Grand Designs, expressing our personality. I pictured my GP's surgery with my selection of artwork on the wall and a priority queue for members of my family – a bit like Toby Young's school. The medical service would be the same, inevitably, as long as its client base is still human.

The mendacious marketing of bespoke solutions makes capitalism look responsive, when it isn't of course. Even the Earl of March doesn't have as many options as he thinks. He can't add a train to his bespoke coat, or ruffles on the cuffs. He could. But he wouldn't. Like the off-the-peg consumer, he is circumscribed by convention. In most cases, bespoke "solutions" are not radical departures from the norm, but variations on it.

The advert that asks "What goes on in your kitchen?" plays to the illusion that our lives aren't standardised. But they are! A bespoke house cleaning service is 99.9 per cent standardised in practice, because 99.9 per cent of the tasks are the same in every house. Which means we are only 0.1 of a per cent different from everyone else, rather than 100 per cent, as we insist. Recognising this would lift the burden of bespoking.

Bespoking has damaged our quality of life. Ditching it would release us from the responsibility of micromanaging every element of our existence. An off-the-peg life is needn't be aesthetically impoverished. Nor should it mean compromising our core values.

An increased readiness to embrace standardised templates would be liberating. If Toby Young were able to accept the standardised school template, he'd had have more time to spend with his young family.

I'd rather they played Robbie Williams' "Angels" at my funeral than a bespoke song by David Martin, author of "Gina's Song" and other special songs for special people. The lyrics don't mention my achievements or hint at how I died. Like the thousands of UK mourners choose it every year, I just want something traditional, that sounds right.