Emily Meyer first noticed the power of a woman in a good suit watching the four coaches of the Stanford Cardinal women’s basketball team stride along the sidelines, screaming instructions to the players during the frenzied games. Impressed, Meyer began asking her parents for a suit whenever there was an occasion to dress up. Fast forward to 2018, and the rest of the world seems to have caught on. Pantsuit sales have grown 167 per cent since 1990, and women from the C-Suite to the front row now don them like professional armour.
It’s tough not to link this sartorial revival to Hillary Clinton’s run for office. In 2016, Googling ‘pantsuit’ kept you up with presidential race as well as NPR. Trump may have won, but women across the globe now wear Hillary’s taste on their sleeve. Though Meyer believes it’s not her style they’re wearing. It’s what she represents. “When Trump was elected I think a tidal wave of women put their feet down in a more radical and more vocal way. Women want to fill the vacuum and step into power. They want to stick both middle fingers in the air and look fabulous while doing it. They want to be a badass.”
The global badass phenomenon has been unexpectedly fortuitous for the bespoke women’s pantsuit designer. Her sartorial works of art now hang from the shoulders of women in power all over the globe and their followers have, well, followed suit. From The Wing’s co-founder Audrey Gelman to InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown, women in the public eye entrust Meyer to help them express their most confident selves.
This confidence, though, does not come from borrowing from the boys. Among many reasons, Meyer believes it is a utilitarian choice to be able to walk down the street handsfree – pockets holding whatever one might need. “I understand the historical context of menswear,” she says. “But I don’t think a woman wearing pants and a jacket should be gendered or radical. I don’t think pants necessarily make a woman more powerful, but I think it is powerful for a woman to choose what she wants to wear.”
Emily Meyer may have always been headstrong with her fashion choices, but her career was a little less decided. Still, she found herself in a world full of suits. Whether she realised it at the time or not, her subconscious was looking after her. A decade after she watched those Stanford basketball coaches hold court, Meyer watched an unusual visitor disappear into the large corner office of the corporate law firm she was working at in San Francisco. She was a paralegal, the corner office was owned by the most impeccably-dressed male partner at the firm, and the visitor was not a client or attorney, but a tailor. Meyer noticed the partners who took pride in their appearance were listened to and respected more than most.
It wasn’t long before she tried to get a custom suit made by one of her boss’s tailors, but he admittedly didn’t understand women’s bodies. She was told to find someone else. “I was frustrated,” says Meyer. “I thought, why is it so easy for men? They have beautiful suits that are creative and different and unique. Why couldn’t I get one?” The question went unanswered for the next three years as she immersed herself in law school and embraced dressing like a student again, albeit in a smart blazer and shorts. Then, upon graduation she diligently returned to the same law firm to finally work as a lawyer.
“Then I failed the bar exam,” she recalls with a smile. “I felt a huge weight fall off my shoulders. I’d never been thrilled with the work at the law firm. In fact, it was awful!” The firm offered to give her one more chance—they’d pay for her to take the exam again—but the prospect filled her with dread. “I’d invested seven years in becoming a lawyer and so much money,” she says. “I would never have had the guts to quit if I hadn’t failed the bar exam.”
“I don’t think pants necessarily make a woman more powerful, but I think it is powerful for a woman to choose what she wants to wear.”
Deciphering what you don’t want is an easier feat than deciphering what you do. Meyer discovered this the hard way. She spent four months out of law, in her head, going through the motions of figuring out her next step. She was lost. She was grumpy. She was brooding. She questioned everything. And then the question returned again; why was it so hard for women to find a great suit? She immersed herself in the fashion industry to learn all she could about bespoke suiting and found out. Reluctantly she went to work at a menswear company that did made-to-measure clothing. “I’d only ever worked in law, I needed to learn how to use a tape measure and how to be with clients,” she says. “The whole process was humbling because I was still trying to make sense of how I’d got there. My ego was bruised from failing and now I was going to tell people I was learning how to make suits?”
But learn she did and after nine months she went out on her own. Her first customers were all lawyers and removed friends of friends in the Bay area of San Francisco. Soon came requests from across the country. “On my first work trip to New York I flew over with my fabrics and only saw two women, but they each spent over $5000,” says Meyer. “It was an impactful day for me. I thought, you can’t fool New York, this could really be a business.” Meyer’s suits start at USD $1445, and you can buy shirts, pants and jackets separately. (Shirts start at $186. Incidentally, suits with shorts instead of long pants are very popular at the moment.)
Meyer typically sees new clients three times over a two or three-month period. At the initial appointment she’ll take measurements, look through books of fabrics with the client and together they’ll decide on a style. “Measuring women is personal,” says Meyer. “That’s been one of the surprising parts of the job—how much energy there is around each woman and her body. Generally, much more than I’ve experienced with men.” Meyer points out that there are no sizes in the bespoke experience. The suit is made to fit one body and is a manifestation of what makes one woman feel her best. “I don’t have a magic answer about how people can have fewer complex feelings about their bodies,” says Meyer. “I have insecurities too, but I try to assure whoever I’m with that this is a cool, luxurious experience, we are doing it together and they’re going to look beautiful.”
At the second meeting, the client tries on a muslin version of the suit. (Meyer’s tailoring shop will have made a pattern and from that pattern a muslin version of the suit.) She’ll adjust and pin the suit while it’s on the body. The third meeting is the delivery of the final product and she’ll make additional adjustments if need be, but that’s rare.
“In fashion and in life it’s important to have a point of view and know what you want,” says Meyer. “That’s confidence.” Her most high-profile clients – who also spend the most money – trust her and are almost always more hands off. “I adore all my clients, but the most frustrating ones are the ones who don’t know what they want and sometimes people think that once they get a bespoke suit they’re going to look like Angelina Jolie when in actuality it’s made for their body. So, I find if someone really doesn’t like their body at all, there’s a high probability they will hate the suit. So that’s tough.”
Conversations about body positivity and notions of femininity and masculinity are challenging gender roles across the globe, and Meyer has had countless debates with her clients about what a suit symbolizes. Ultimately she believes women should be able to walk through the world in whatever fashion they like—whether that’s yellow pants or pinstripe shorts. That’s the power move. “As for those basketball coaches,” she recalls. “I think an equal statement could have been made if they were standing there in dresses. It was their confidence that was captivating.”
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