KATHRYN Sargent is the first female master cutter on Savile Row. This is the most senior role at any bespoke suit-maker, the person responsible for meeting the client, sizing them up and making the pattern for their suit. Better yet, Sargent holds it at Gieves and Hawkes, the Row’s biggest operation with its most sizeable international brand, including a show at London Fashion Week.
In short, with her top dog status in the world of top end suit making, she’s a woman among men.
Meeting her, though, in the palatial Gieves shop, one is tempted simply to respond to this fact with: “And what of it?” For Sargent, 35, is not in the least bit phased by being a woman who has made it in a traditionally macho environment. There’s nothing ferocious, steely or anything that smacks of glass ceiling -busting about her. She certainly lacks the fearsomeness of some female chefs. When I ask if she’s ever had any trouble from men in the business, she says: “No, not at all. In fact, I think tailors quite like having a woman telling them what to do. It works well.”
Sargent is blonde, with very intelligent, large eyes. She winds down after work by strolling around the National Portrait Gallery and claims to never “switch off”. The result isn’t a manic-seeming person, but one that is coolly sharp at all times, fired up by her trade and never without her notebook for jotting down ideas for patterns. Today she’s dressed in one of her own suits and exemplifies City-appropriate elegance – it’s grey with a subtle pattern if you look closely, worn with a white silk shirt with a tie at the neck, black heels and some very chic thick-rimmed glasses bought in Los Angeles.
Though she will happily make them, her passion isn’t women’s suits. “I didn’t want to do womenswear at first,” she says. “But then it was interesting being a woman in this environment, so I started to ask: ‘Could it be done? Could you apply the same techniques to womenswear?’ So I do it, as a quiet service on the side, but this is a menswear firm so that’s my main priority.” There’s not a huge difference in making a woman’s suit – it’s just that the bust requires a few extra measurements. But the options when it comes to single and double breasting and other jacket trimming options are more limited.
Sargent’s interest in bespoke clothing was born out her mother’s frustration at her sartorial options. Her father had his suits tailored in Leeds, where Sargent grew up, but her mother could never find anything that fit properly. “She used to say ‘it’s all well and good to have these fashions, but what’s the point if they don’t fit?’”
Sargent studied art at school, then went to fashion college, thinking she wanted to be a designer. “But the technical side was more interesting to me – the cutting and the textiles. I found this old cutting book from the Tailors Academy and thought it was fascinating and couldn’t believe that the technique and wisdom in it wasn’t being taught. I began to prefer tailoring to designing because bespoke suits are the ultimate in getting the perfect fit – you use the best resources to achieve it: fine cloth and skill. You find people still coming into the shop with suits they got here in the 1970s.”
Her eyes light up as she talks about fabric. “Nearly everything is from this country,” she says of the near 10,000 types of cloth stocked at Gieves and Hawkes, which include Scabal’s diamond-threaded Diamond Chip blend (one of the few non-British cloths) that can send the cost of a suit beyond £1m. “The challenge is always to have finer weaves, and we have some super-light fabric. If you’re a bit of a cloth freak like me,” she adds, “you make sure you get updates twice a year from merchants.”
Sargent fell in love with Gieves and Hawkes during a college visit and applied for an apprenticeship as soon as she finished. That was 14 years ago, and her rise to the top is what she calls “a quick process. Traditionally it would have taken longer but Savile Row had to adapt to a slightly different world.”
Her first job was to fetch coffee and run to and from cleaners. She was also the all-important intermediary between the cutters and the tailors, responsible for supplying all the bits and bobs needed to finish the suit – the correct thread, buttons, lining fabric and so on. “I was interested in what everyone else was doing. I came in on weekends, and used any free time for sewing.”
Now she rules the roost downstairs, where a young man in a waistcoat is cutting a pattern under her direction and a room full of tailors – from elderly ladies stitching the finery on military uniforms to an Italian master trouser sewer – are carrying out her vision.
It is deeply heartening to see such expertise, a world away from mass production, alive and well. And better yet, to know there is demand for it. Sargent points out that there were no redundancies on the Row during the recession and that all the tailors kicked off the year with a full order book. “We get a lot of regulars,” she says. “Once they’ve got a suit on Savile Row, people get addicted.”