by Grandin Donovan
Sitting in the Freemans Sporting Club showroom, a gritty LES loft full of old furniture and vintage ephemera, Taavo Somer cradles his toy Yorkshire, Georgie, in one arm; with watch cap and close beard he looks otherwise every bit the off-duty longshoreman. On the floor below, Taavo's restaurant, Freemans, is in the throes of an expansion. Well known for its distinctive back-alley access, taxidermied décor, and Anglo-American menu, Freemans has a feel that is at once folksy and a sort of old-world urban. Likewise, FSC's clothing, all of which is made from vintage wools, achieves a similar effect, arranging the rugged and sophisticated side by side.
Taavo always wanted to be an architect, but after starting at Steven Holl, he says, "My whole dreamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦was shattered before lunchtime." Within six months he quit and signed on as a busboy at one of Serge Becker's boîtes, where Taavo was tapped to do some design "as pickup work, for two weeks." Two weeks turned into two and a half years, much of it working on Lever House with designer Mark Newson. Meanwhile, Somer had started throwing parties above downtown's Pussycat Lounge. His restaurant and promotional experience eventually brought him to the end of Freeman Alley. Looking for a Halloween party venue, he was struck by visions of Poe's ghost, mingling with the Founding Fathers around a spread of mutton and game meat, and decided to open a restaurant.
Taavo made his first foray into clothing in 2001, when he started screen-printing T-shirts, which eventually found their way into Barneys New York. As millennial post-grunge got out of hand and the vintage market out-priced those who had fashioned it in the first place, Taavo became "interested in the opposite of clothes that make you look disheveled." The answer was tailored clothing. "The idea of wearing a suit and tie was such a bizarre concept to me, that I became more intrigued," says Taavo. "When you come from a punk-rock background, [often] doing the exact opposite makes sense, even if it offends your own sensibility."
Taavo found that traditional menswear spoke to him on a personal level. "The craftsmanship, the detailing and the way it's constructed—there's a lot of parallels with architecture." Once he had come to terms with wearing suits, he looked into having them custom made. Taavo found a stalwart Lower East Side textile supplier, bought some deadstock wool, and had several pieces made. A false start with an unreliable tailor and a difficult Hong Kong factory stymied the project until his fabric supplier referred him. With the help of to Brooklyn tailor, Martin Greenfield (who produces for Brooks Brothers and Neiman Marcus), FSC made-to-measure was born.
FSC melds Taavo's modern preference for honesty of form with his nostalgic appreciation of hand-made quality. "I don't like things for just fashion," says Taavo. "I like things that are simple, utilitarian...things that make sense." Durability of material and shape underpins his decision to use vintage deadstock, most of which dates to the '40s and '50s. Unlike Super 180s and other popular high-twist wools, FSC's vintage stock is often only 70 or 90 twist, and, therefore, much stronger. Greenfield's son, Jay, explains that "most suits today are designed to be made by machine and glued together," and the fabric is therefore very light. "Because we make it by hand," he says, "we can use fabric with more body and shape."
FSC's emphasis on durability translates into a crisp, structured suit body that will soften with age, but will always maintain its form. The suits are built around Swiss cotton and black horsehair canvas with black gossamer linings that reveal the basting and other remnants of construction. For Taavo, the finished product is peerless. "The integrity of how it holds its shape after months—you can't compare it with these super-flimsy pussy suits that everyone is obsessed with." Taking out one of his personal suits, he says, "Here's one I wear all the time, and I haven't had it steamed in six months."
Taavo comes up with the basic designs and then takes the drawings and ideas to Greenfield's, where a series of samples are made before they achieve a final design from which the made-to-measure is tweaked. So far, FSC has produced a "couple dozen" pieces for Taavo's friends and friends-of-friends. With plans to sell the line out of the showroom, Taavo is expecting a shipment of around 100 different types of vintage deadstock wools in a variety of weights and in classic herringbones, twills, pinstripes, and the like. They will be available in lengths from 4 to 40 yards, a far cry from the fabric swatch-books most tailors carry these days. "I can't stand it," says Taavo. "You look at a little book and try to imagine that swatch as a suit? I'd rather just pull it out so you can look at it, and you're like 'Yes, I want that to be my next three-piece suit.'"
FSC, 191 Chrystie Street, 212-420-4080, by appointment only
Photographs by Piera Gelardi
An erstwhile architect turned restaurateur and now—with his Freemans Sporting Club—a made-to-measure suit-maker, Taavo Somer takes references from his clandestine eatery and a background in punk to inform wares for a new kind of urban gentleman.