THIS time last year, a group of thirty men stood guard outside the Mayfair branch of American clothing shop Abercrombie and Fitch. As protests go, it was pretty civilised. Some wore fedora hats, others had waxed and twirled moustaches. All were clad in perfectly fitting suits. Above their heads they held placards emblazoned with the slogan, “Give Three-Piece a Chance.” Very droll.
The message was simple: out with the new, in with the old. The new, in this case, was a proposed Abercrombie and Fitch children’s store. The old: Savile Row, the spiritual home of bespoke tailoring.
“It would be like opening a casino in the middle of Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s ridiculous,” says Dylan Jones, head of London Collections: Men and life-long frequenter of the Row.
It’s not the first time the patrons of Savile Row have been up in arms about someone moving in. When the original Abercrombie and Fitch store opened on the southernmost end of the street in 2007, many of the tailors felt under threat. With its garish logos and scantily clad shop assistants, the American company represents a victory of branding over quality – an insubordinate reversal of the Savile Row ethos.
Four years on, the tailors needn’t have worried. Savile Row is back in style. Autumn Winter 13 was all about heritage and traditional tailoring. Tweeds, twills and all things gentlemanly featured in the collections of Tom Ford, Richard James, Agi+Sam and Alexander McQueen. The latter opened a new shop on the Row last month. Even Italian brands like Gucci and Armani explicitly referenced Englishness with woven fabrics and Prince of Wales checks. London Collections: Men – a British fashion week to rival Milan and Paris – has also helped London re-assert itself as the home of menswear.
An Olympic Games, a jubilee and a cracking new Bond movie made 2012 a confidence boosting year for us Brits. “I think there’s been a huge swing towards London,” says Jason Basmajian, the newly appointed creative director of Savile Row tailor Gieves and Hawkes. “A swing towards British style and British heritage, the kind exemplified by Downton Abbey. If you look at the collections, you see it. Tom Ford’s was entirely based on Savile Row. Maybe Tom will exaggerate it in his style, but it is all about a renewed interest in what’s happening in London.”
Dylan Jones agrees. “London is the most exciting city in the world right now,” and not just in fashion, either: “culturally there is no one who can touch us. We have the best museums, the best art galleries, the best open spaces the best restaurants, the best nightclubs.”
The current interest in Savile Row is the second wave of a renaissance that began twenty years ago. Richard James and Ozwald Boateng capitalised on a similar tide of enthusiasm about Britishness when they opened up shops in the nineties. James and Boateng combined the quality of British tailoring with the sexiness of continental design, blurring the distinction between tailor and designer label. “The introduction of more fashion-forward brands and a younger clientele has helped keep the Row cutting edge,” says James. He puts his success down to “a desirability for quality, uniqueness and classic clothes but with a fashionable twist.” Before the nineties, tailoring and fashion were two separate worlds. Savile Row was a silent sanctuary in the middle of Mayfair’s gleaming hubbub. It was a place where old judges bought sombre grey suits and where high ranking members of the military got kitted out for stiff, multi-coursed dinners.
THE fustiness was not only anachronistic; it was also bad business. The collective noun for a group of tailors is a “disguising”. The craft of tailoring is built on discreetness. A perfectly tailored suit will disappear away the imperfections of the body, creating an illusion of slimness, balancing out sloping shoulders, elongating short legs. The tailor is also discreet in his dealings with the client. There are codes of ethics and confidentiality that resemble those between doctor and patient, psychoanalyst and psychoanalysed. A tailor never tells.
The problem, however, with being in disguise, is that no one can see you. The older houses on the Row were uncomfortable with modern marketing requirements. Advertising was seen as vulgar and talk of money was taboo. Thick velvet curtains hung in the windows, taxidermy and hunting trophies lined the walls. James Sleater of Cad and the Dandy, the newest tailor to open on Savile Row, explains that before Boateng and James, “the Row was really on its uppers.” Despite the unrivalled quality and craftsmanship, the later stages of the 20th century struggled to find a place for the finest tailors in the world. “It had an old client base,” says Sleater. “It was slowly dying away and each year wasn’t being replenished.”
The shops that opened in the nineties were airy, sleek and manned by approachable staff. They did bespoke tailoring but also had extensive ready to wear ranges that attracted a broad customer base. Dylan Jones was one of the hip young Londoners who invested in a suit on the Row at that time. “Savile Row has become so much more egalitarian over the last 20 years. It’s not such an icon of the establishment. It’s not so bound up with class.”
If the first wave of Savile Row modernisers dragged tailoring in the direction of fashion, the current revival is heading back towards traditional bespoke tailoring. It’s possible to divide Savile Row down the middle. On the west side are the younger, hipper houses like Richard James, Ozwald Boateng and Spencer Hart. The east side is more old-school, with the likes of Huntsman, Gieves and Hawkes and Dege and Skinner; it is this side that is now attracting the biggest buzz.
These days people flock to the Row for the very thing that separates tailors from designer labels. “In the eighties everyone was tearing out their fireplaces and ripping the cornice work out of their sitting rooms,” says Patrick Grant of Norton and Sons. “Now it’s swung the other way: people can’t get enough of craft and heritage.” Grant questions the authenticity of the first wave of Savile Row modernisers. “Ozwald Boateng and Richard James in the 90s were proclaimed as the new Savile Row but the simple fact was they were just shops that happened to open on Savile Row.”
Grant is part of a new generation of tailors keen to preserve the old style. He’s been in the business for under a decade, but says his is the only shop on the Row that doesn’t sell any ready to wear garments. Fresh from an MBA at Oxford with a focus on the luxury goods market, he couldn’t believe his luck when Nortons came up for sale in 2005. “It struck me as too good to be true that I could buy a 200-year-old tailoring house, with all that incredible history.” The face of luxury has changed, according to Grant. “The big French and Italian houses that were supposed to be luxury are now making a huge amount of their products in China. You can buy their stuff in every airport and every city around the world. Luxury is about scarcity – too many of what were the big luxury brands are just cashing in on their names, pumping out huge volumes of products that aren’t amazing.”
So what constitutes amazing? Up to 70 hours of work will go into a fully bespoke suit. When you buy a garment from Savile Row, you don’t just get a hand-tailored suit; you get hand-tailored service as well. The rules that govern the relationship between client and tailor are as hallowed as those that govern stitching and needlework. The process starts when a client walks onto the shop floor. They might have made an appointment, but if they have wandered in off the street, the tailor will usually be cautious with his approach. “Can I be of any assistance sir?” This question is the beginning of a complex, intimate relationship. The point of bespoke is individuality. That means a suit fitted not just to the client’s body, but to their personality as well. The tailor must be as dexterous and intuitive with people as he is with cloth.
Client and tailor will then examine fabrics, discuss pockets, side vents, fastenings and other details about the mechanics of the suit, before retiring to the fitting room for measuring. This will take around thirty minutes, during which up to 25 different measurements will be taken. Then the cutter makes a cardboard cutout of the client’s frame and uses it to sew together a fit-ready suit out of the chosen fabric. This all takes around three weeks. The tailor is then reunited with the client for a fitting before the garment is taken away for final alterations. Six weeks after the initial meeting, the garment should be complete. A bespoke suit often costs upwards of £2,500, but without any of the inevitable corners that are cut during mass production, there is no reason why a bespoke suit cannot last a lifetime.
This hasn’t changed since the first Savile Row tailor, Henry Poole, opened in 1806. For the tailors of the Row, it was just a question of changing their presentation to meet the marketing demands of the new world. “It is important not to demystify the Row, because that is part of its appeal,” says Basmajian. “But we do need to make it more accessible. We need to let guys know that Savile Row is out there and a valid option.” This process has already begun, says Grant. “Everyone has tidied up their shops a little bit. One or two of them have their own PR agencies and have engaged with the press.” This opening up allowed the tailors to capitalise on the renewed appreciation of craftsmanship and the re-establishing of London as the menswear capital of the world.
Richard Anderson learned his trade at Huntsman – famously the most expensive tailor on the Row and one of the oldest – before breaking away to start his own shop at number thirteen, under his own name. Over the last few years, he has “opened the shop up – with the whole press thing, we have become sexier than we used to be. A little bit more savvy.”
Last month, almost a year after the protest, Abercrombie and Fitch’s plans to build a kid’s store at 3 Savile Row were quashed. Westminster City Council refused listed building consent after a successful lobby organised in part by the Savile Row Bespoke Association. Modernising is one thing, but a children’s store on the row? You can go too far. As Anderson says, “Yes we move with the times – but slowly.”
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