Alex Byrum, 28, can tell immediately if a person getting fitted for a custom suit is an old pro or a first-timer.
When he breaks out the measuring tape, newbies stand tall and draw back their shoulders. Vets, on the other hand, stand in a relaxed pose so the measurements produce clothes that drape correctly over their natural posture.
"The way someone stands for a fitting is very telling about whether they've done it before or not," says Byrum, who has been sewing since he was 9 years old.
Byrum operates his tailoring business, Alexander Sebastian Bespoke, out of the former St. Andrews Methodist Church near the old campus of Tennessee Temple University in Highland Park. His fitting area is a 100-square-foot former coat room at the entrance to the church's sanctuary — in the back he also has a 500-square-foot room with his sewing machines, tailor's table and ironing board.
The Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native moved to Chattanooga a decade ago to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga but eventually decided to pursue a career making men's clothes. A mostly self-taught tailor, he worked at Men's Warehouse in East Brainerd and Yacoubian Tailors on Broad Street, among other retailers, before deciding to hang a shingle at the old church property.
Interestingly, Byrum says it was a period of isolation during the pandemic that convinced him to pursue the unconventional career for someone his age — the average age of a tailor in the United States is about 52, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"At my age, almost no one is doing it," Byrum said. "When work stopped (for COVID-19), I stayed at home and sewed all day. ... I basically altered all of my clothes over and over. It was like: Let them out, take them in, do it again."
Byrum said he learned to sew as a child making quilts with his grandmother. Working in clothing retailers, he got hand's-on experience fitting prom tuxes at Men's Warehouse and later learning more about the art of fine tailoring at Yacoubian Tailors. In the process of working for several retailers he realized he had accumulated a group of loyal customers who would become the core of his new business.
The universe of men in Chattanooga who buy $1,000-plus suits is small, maybe as few as 150 who wear custom clothes every day, Byrum said in an interview at his shop. His custom suits run from $850 to $2,000-plus; but Byrum offers other services, too, including alterations, mending, bridal dress adjustments and more. He also does commercial sewing making fabric items for a local van conversion company.
Some have predicted the demise of men's suits as fewer professions require formal office dress. But Byrum's niche is building custom suits for executives and customers who still need a more formal wardrobe for work and special occasions. He also caters to customers who just want to splurge on a one-off custom suit as a bucket list item. That's why he builds suits for as little as $850 using high quality (but not extravagant) fabrics and architecture.
"That's my value suit," he said. "Everybody can partake. I firmly believe everybody should have a custom suit."
After that, customers can climb the cost ladder: starting at $1,150 for Australian wool, $1,500 for Italian fabrics and $1,800 for Holland and Sherry fabrics (a favorite of Savile Row, London's famous tailoring district). Custom shirts are $175. Byrum also enjoys making custom sport coats and trousers, which he said are more versatile than suits and therefore offer a higher value proposition.
His goal, he says, is to grow his shop to the point that he has to turn away business; and at times, he has already reached that threshold. His marketing is basically word of mouth, and his clothes are literally walking advertisements, he said.
"It's very addictive (helping people dress for) the events and big moments in their lives," he said. "My best advertising is the way my clients looks when they go to these events."