Dressing Mr. Grey

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"Fifty Shades of Grey's" suave billionaire would not be caught dead in off-the-rack suit

Johnathan Behr worked with costume designers on suits for actor who plays Grey

Behr has been making suits for nearly 30 years

CNN  — 

It’s Anastasia Steele’s graduation day, but all she can think about is Christian Grey, the powerful billionaire who wants to make her his sexual submissive.

As he sits onstage, preparing to deliver a commencement speech, “Christian stands out in his bespoke suit, copper highlights glinting in his hair under the auditorium lights. He looks so serious and self-contained,” she thinks to herself.

“Ana,” as she’s known in E.L. James’ erotic bestselling novel, watches Grey unbutton his single-breasted jacket, revealing the silk tie he used to bind her wrists to her headboard a few nights prior, and nearly loses it.

Hot and bothered as she might be in her cap and gown, Ana does well to note that Grey, the title character from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” would never be caught dead in an off-the-rack suit. If clothes make the man, “this guy wouldn’t have a brand,” costume designer Mark Bridges said recently.

Instead, Bridges commissioned Los Angeles bespoke tailor Johnathan Behr to build custom suits for actor Jamie Dornan, who plays the successful CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings with a sexual appetite for bondage and discipline in the film adaptation of the book, opening Friday.

Behr’s job was to translate Bridges’ vision into suits befitting a young tycoon whose controlling demeanor imbues every aspect of his character. Behr knows the character well. Grey may be a fantasy, but he embodies the latest generation of men embracing the impeccably tailored suit as a status symbol.

Bespoke tailoring tends to appeal to the Christian Grey type: a “control freak,” in Ana’s words, who enjoys making personalized style choices with the help of a master tailor, creating a one-of-a-kind suit.

As a costume designer, “you’re helping to tell story of the character, visually,” said Hollywood costume designer Janie Bryant, who recommended Behr to Bridges for the “Fifty Shades” gig.

“You’re seeing the whole character come to life through their costume,” she said.

Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey dons one of many custom-made suits.

Modern yet timeless

Behr knew little about the character or the production going into the job; even the film’s title was kept secret before he met Dornan for the first time in November 2013.

Bridges showed Behr a Canali suit ad from a fashion magazine, and Behr instantly understood the look: subtle, dark and elegant with a fitted, slim cut to show off Grey’s sculpted physique, Behr said.

“No bold patterns, big shoulders or wide lapels. Just a very minimalist approach with a rich, dark, conservative color palette and timeless design,” Behr said.

Behind the covered windows of Behr’s Wilshire Boulevard workshop, Dornan tried on seven suits made from lightweight Italian wool in five shades of gray, one brown, one French blue. The evolving color palette reflects Grey’s softening attitude toward his young lover, Bridges told ELLE.

Bespoke tailoring takes a four-stage process to complete a suit.

While Behr went to work on the suits, Dornan worked with a trainer in Vancouver to physically prepare for the role of Grey, whose fitness obsession is another manifestation of his domineering character.

By the time they met again four weeks later, Dornan’s wiry frame had filled out, and things started to get tight, especially in the arms, Behr said.

“The look they were going for was very lean and tight, so it basically worked,” Behr said.

A tailor on location in Vancouver finished the seven suits, each of which bears characteristics of bespoke tailoring, a classic British style of suiting: a two-button, single-breasted, form-fitting coat with a 3-inch peak lapel, slanted lower flap pockets and side vents in back.

The sleeves of the jacket are slim and tapered with working sleeve buttonholes, with about an inch of French cuff showing below the end of the sleeve, Behr said.

“The armholes were quite high, and the jacket was nipped in at the waist to give suppression, which makes the shoulder and chest line appear powerful, yet natural. The jacket length was short, just long enough to cover his bum,” he said.

The pants were skinny-legged, slim cuts with a low rise and tapered bottoms – no cuffs, just a plain bottom with a touch of a break, he said.

“In short, the cut was modern yet timeless, elegant and quite conservative.”

A vibrant sewing machine in Johnathan Behr's Los Angeles tailoring shop.

An era of personalization

Behr was a natural choice to dress the stylish billionaire.

He has been making suits inspired by Savile Row for nearly 30 years. Well-heeled clients visit Behr’s showroom for the customary four-step process of building a bespoke suit.

Behr’s path to bespoke tailoring began in his teens with a visit to high-end haberdasheries in San Francisco’s Union Square. A light went off, and he vowed to one day own a store full of his own creations. At age 18, he commissioned his first bespoke suit and fell in love with the process. He undertook an apprenticeship with the Parisian-trained tailor who made his suit to learn the art of bespoke tailoring.

Johnathan Behr has been tailoring for nearly 30 years.

Behr broke into Hollywood costume design thanks to Bryant, who hired him to build suits and coats for “Mad Men” Don Draper and Roger Sterling: power players like Grey who wear their control over others on their sleeves.

Inspired in part by the sartorial elegance of “Mad Men,” the custom, tailored suit has been making a comeback in recent years on the red carpet and in the pages of fashion magazines. Classic suiting coincides with an era of personalization in which consumers can become “co-creators” of their own style, said Tom Julian, director of strategic business development for the Doneger Group, a fashion trend marketing group.

“There is a newfound appreciation of tailored clothing among millennials that brings in their point of view,” he said. “Especially for a guy who loves the technical aspect of how things are made, the more you engage them in the process, the more they like it, and they do it again.”

Behr knows the type well: a man with a “fanatical” interest in his personal style who has the means to step up his game through custom or bespoke suiting. The difference between the two is often reflected in the price tag. In bespoke suiting, which typically starts in the four-figure range, a master tailor creates a unique pattern based on the client’s preferences. Custom-made suits, which tend to start in the triple digits, are tailored to fit your body from an existing pattern.

What’s the appeal? The ability to steer the outcome, Behr said – a characteristic that fans of the trilogy will immediately identify with Grey in his pursuit of naive Ana.

“Once a client has experience choosing their own fabric, lining and buttons and goes through the process of the basted fittings and the delivery of the finished product, they never go back to the ready-to-wear world,” Behr said.

“The reason is control.”

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