Just what you want: custom products can fit your needs and your budget

Having clothes, furniture or other goods made to your precise specifications sounds like a luxurious indulgence. Actually, it's just common sense.

It started with curtains. Jacob Glick needed thick, dark drapes so he could use a home theatre video projector to watch television in his living room. Rather than head to the mall, he called his mother’s interior decorator, who designed curtains that matched his decor and fit the windows perfectly.

The custom curtains worked so well that Glick commissioned a carpenter to build him three made-to-order bookshelves. And when he needed a tuxedo, he hired a designer who visited his condominium, took his measurements and delivered a snappy, single-breasted tux with silk lapels a few weeks later. “It’s fantastic,” says Glick, a 28-year-old Toronto lawyer. “I just wore it to a wedding and I got a lot of compliments.”

Like Glick, many of us are turning our backs on mass-produced goods and indulging in custom furniture, clothing and jewelry that meets our specific needs and tastes. According to Paco Underhill, a “retail anthropologist” who studies shoppers’ habits, consumers are tired of settling for what big box stores offer. “People have traded down for too long,” says Underhill, founder and managing director of Envirosell Inc., a New York-based market research and consulting company. “They’ve bought with their eye on the ticket price, taken it home and realized they’re not very happy with it.”

The best news of all? Getting exactly what you want doesn’t have to be expensive. If you find the right artisan and select materials wisely, a handmade table or the ideal evening gown can cost the same (or less) than you would pay in stores. All it takes is some imagination, careful measurement‰??and the patience to find craftspeople who can deliver what you want.

Glick finds artisans through word of mouth instead of the Yellow Pages, and the personal connection works to his advantage by keeping prices low. His floor-length curtains, which cover windows in his living and dining rooms, cost $1,800. He paid around $2,000 for the bookshelves, which are made of solid pine. And the clothing designer, whom he met through a friend at a party, gave him such a good deal on his tuxedo that he won’t reveal the price.

Buying custom isn’t for everyone, Glick cautions. To enjoy the process, you must like making decisions. Choices will confront you at every turn, from how many drawers you want in a desk, to the width of the workspace, to the type of wood and the shade of stain.

But he believes the extra work is worth it. “It’s always better to buy custom,” says Glick, who once went so far as to have a perfume specially blended for a girlfriend. “It’s value for the money, and has the advantage of having things done precisely to suit my tastes.” If that sounds like a good idea, read on to find out how you can start customizing your own world.

Furniture that fits

Every millimetre was valuable when Jim and Elaine Cowan moved into a small condominium in downtown Toronto. The couple, who both run businesses from home, needed an office, but the only place to put it was their living room, which already contained a dining table, breakfast nook, china cabinet and wet bar. So they went out looking for a desk with doors to hide their clutter.

Easier said than done. After spending weekends scouring big box stores and specialty shops, they couldn’t turn up anything suitable within their $3,000 budget. Indeed, the best price they found was $6,000.

Rather than double their budget, the Cowans decided to go the custom route. They hired a woodworker who, for a mere $2,500, built exactly the desk they envisioned inside an elegant armoire. “I have almost a friendship with it because we watched it being born,” says Elaine, who named the armoire George after the builder. “Plus, we know the craftsman. When you look at it, it’s not like looking at a piece from Ikea.”

Like the Cowans, many homeowners are learning that commissioning a craftsman is often more rewarding than scouring every store in the city for something that will simply do. Not only do you get exactly what you want, built to the specific measurements of your space, but the total bill is often surprisingly reasonable.

Just ask Edmonton’s Joe and Paula Yurkovich. They needed a pair of natural cherry end tables to match their living room decor. During a trip to the Alberta Craft Council’s gallery shop, they found a piece that was almost right and jotted down the e-mail address of the local artisan, Gerry Russo of Gerrybuilt Original & Custom Design. The Yurkovichs hired Russo to build tables that exactly suit their decor and space. Total cost: about $800.

The Yurkovichs are now converts to custom furniture.When their daughter needed a desk, they asked Gerry to build her one. “There just wasn’t the room in her bedroom for the type of desk that would be built commercially, but Gerry was able to do it,” Joe says.

The key to ordering custom pieces is knowing what you need, says Martyn Armitage of Wood That You Could, a Toronto furniture business. “Decide what you want to do with the piece and how it’s going to be used before you start considering design and finishes,” he warns. If you need a television cabinet, for example, the builder needs to know the dimensions of the electronics that will go inside. An underestimate can inflate the bill by 25% if the piece needs to be modified. Even worse, sometimes a problem can’t be fixed at all.

If you want the ultimate in control — and you’re willing to get a little sawdust on your clothes — you may want to consider taking things a step further and become your own custom furniture maker. After enrolling in a woodworking class, Marnie Marshall and her boyfriend were happy to discover that they could build furniture they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford. The Mission-style-inspired dining room table they built at The Joint, a studio and fine furniture showroom in downtown Vancouver, will become an heirloom. Made of solid walnut, the top is about six feet long and two inches thick. The table’s four-inch-thick legs and crossbeams have a lighter stripe of walnut running through them. The entire project cost $2,900, including materials and class time. “It’s just incredible,” Marshall says of her table. “We couldn’t buy a table of this quality for under $5,000. Trust me, we’ve looked.”

Have it your way — these tips can help you get the custom product you want.

That bling-bling thing

Custom jewelry has always been popular, especially wedding rings. But these days, people are commissioning artisans to make rings, necklaces, earrings and brooches to mark all types of major life events, even the passing of loved ones. “If somebody has an idea, they have to have it custom-made,” says James Morton, a designer in Toronto. “They want something one of a kind, something that really reflects them.”

In his 30 years as a metalsmith, Morton has filled his share of demanding requests. A few years ago, a man came to him with rope and asked him to replicate it in gold with a diamond nestled in a knot as an engagement ring for his mountain-climbing girlfriend. Another woman asked Morton to craft a six-inch silver paddle leaning against a rock. She had met her husband at summer camp, where she was accused of stealing his paddle. The commissioned piece was her way of giving her spouse back his paddle on their 50th anniversary.

Even if your needs aren’t quite so specific, buying custom can be a good deal. The markup on most mass-produced jewelry is easily 10 times the wholesale cost, says Morton, and by going to a custom jeweler, consumers can avoid the middleman and get more for their money. Morton has made rings for as little as $100; he’s also made pieces worth thousands of dollars. As with all jewelry, there’s no limit on how high you can go to get exactly what you want.

Especially at more expensive levels, an increasing number of the most eager customers are working women. They have the money and the urge to buy exactly what they want. While men once purchased most jewelry as gifts for wives and girlfriends, it’s now women who are powering the market.

Consider Karen Shatz, a family therapist living in Florida. About 15 years ago, she read a newspaper article about Gloria Bass, a jewelry maker in Westmount, Que. Shatz visited Bass’s boutique, fell in love with her unique designs, and has commissioned several pieces from her.

One of Bass’s signatures is jewelry with removable elements that allow for different looks. When Shatz brought her a long strand of pearls she had received as a gift years ago, Bass created the “Swiss army knife of necklaces.” She restrung the pearls into two strands that can be worn separately or together. They are fastened with a big gold clasp that is inset with diamonds and can be worn on its own as a brooch.

Shatz has also turned to Bass for a gold necklace and dangling earrings (the studs are pearls, and the detachable droplets contain diamonds that belonged to her late mother). In fact, her entire family has become so comfortable with Bass’s designs that her son called from Paris to order his engagement and wedding rings over the telephone, sight unseen.

You can begin your own search for a jeweler by trawling the Internet and looking at the designs of custom jewelers in your area. But before you place an order, meet the jeweler in person and inspect his or her work first-hand. You’re seeking someone who possesses not only the right design sense, but also a high level of craftsmanship that may not be apparent from a photograph. To gauge the level of craft, Shatz recommends picking up sample pieces and turning them over. The metal should feel smooth, and the back should be as beautiful as the front. “I’m stopped whenever I’m wearing a piece of Gloria’s jewelry, which is all the time,” says Shatz. “People are always asking me to see it, to touch it and to feel it, because her workmanship is so extraordinary.”

Have it your way — these tips can help you get the custom product you want.

Tailor made

In the living room of a hip Toronto apartment, a group of twenty- and thirty- something women try on flouncy tops and admire fabric swatches while they sip lychee martinis and nibble sushi. This is a fashion party: Laura Koot, a newspaper designer, has invited her friends over to meet a fashion designer who creates custom clothing.

After the women settle into their seats, designer Elizabeth Oliveira shows off her samples and explains her fashion philosophy. Clothes should be stylish, comfortable and made to fit your body. Oliveira says it’s rare you will find all three at the mall. “Customizing is just essential,” she says.

Oliveira launched her “clothes catering” company, labl, five years ago. These days, she hosts three fashion parties a month and can barely keep up with the orders. For prices starting at $550 and three fittings, she will design a suit that will emphasize a woman’s best features. Clients become co-designers, approving fabrics and alterations so their garments fit their lifestyles and their exact dimensions.

The approach works for Heidi Carter, a 30-year-old esthetician who met Oliveira through work four years ago. Today, about a third of Carter’s wardrobe is custom-made.

Because Carter is only 5’2″, Oliveira shortens inseams accordingly. “I’m addicted to custom stuff,” Carter says. “She can make pants that perfectly fit. They fit better at the waist, and I can pick out the fabric that I actually want, rather than going into a store and picking from whatever they have.”

Men are also seeking out custom-made business suits and tuxedos. Sam Abouhassan, widely known as Edmonton’s “tailor to the stars,” says the past two years have been the best of his 25-year career. With designer suits fetching more than $2,000, men are realizing they can order custom suits that hang perfectly without paying more. “If you are going to spend that kind of money for a suit off the rack, why wouldn’t you go custom?” Abouhassan says. “None of us is a perfect mannequin.” With classic styles becoming popular again, Abouhassan says his custom service is attracting younger men who recognize the value of hand-crafted finery.

It is wisdom that Vancouver lawyer Alan Schapiro has passed on to his 28-year-old son. When Schapiro was a student, he worked at an upscale clothing store and measured clients for custom suits, but he waited until he was in his fifties to order one of his own. One suit quickly became four, and Alan says he will never buy a pre-made suit again. “I wish I would have done it sooner.”

Schapiro stressed the importance of owning a well-made suit to his eldest son, who is embarking on his own career. He took the advice to heart and ordered his first custom suit in England last year. “I said to him, ‘Don’t be like your dad,'” Schapiro recalls. “‘Start young, set aside money and go get yourself a suit custom made.’ He did, and the suit looks terrific.”

There is no substitute for getting exactly what you want.

Have it your way — these tips can help you get the custom product you want.