Style: Cool Britannia
When Nick Hart was creative director for British suitmaker Chester Barrie four years ago, he attempted to nudge the struggling 70-year-old Savile Row institution into the 21st century by developing a collection with slimmer, more contemporary styling. Among the items he created was a hand-tailored travel jacket, a reinterpretation of a 1940s concept, with numerous pockets to hold everything from a cigar to a cell phone. While Hart’s travel jacket was ahead of its time, it was not enough to save Chester Barrie: The outmoded company, which had a factory in Crewe in addition to its Savile Row shop, shuttered its doors in 2002 and reemerged a short time later with new owners and a new name, Cheshire Clothing Co.
Two years ago, Hart launched his own Savile Row label, Spencer Hart, located two doors down from the former Chester Barrie. His original travel jacket, now produced by Cheshire Clothing Co., is a fixture in the new collection, which reflects Hart’s long-standing goal of introducing a lighter, more modern, somewhat adventurous style of British tailored clothing that is unlike anything ever made before on Savile Row.
“Men’s choices have always been incredibly restrictive, especially on Savile Row, because all the tailors there want to give you their signature story,” says Hart, who named his label after his 6-year-old son. “The modern brands, like Burberry, are making a mass-market product, and the fashion designers have their own distinctive points of view. Even the Italians, Kiton and Brioni, sell thousands of suits, but those products are all classic. To my mind, this leaves a gap. That’s why I wanted to create a company that would offer the quality of Kiton and Brioni, but be a little edgier designwise.”
Hart is not alone in this endeavor. Over the last five years, a handful of English newcomers, including Alex Bodikian and Oscar Udeshi, have introduced collections with slim cuts and soft tailoring that challenge the notion that upscale British suitmaking is limited to stiff structure and classic formality. At the same time, American menswear retailers are indulging a renewed appetite for British design. For the past several seasons, they have emphasized tweedy English fabrics for sport coats and Savile Row–inspired pin-striped suits.
In a recent series of store window displays, Bergdorf Goodman promoted the look of the fashionable English country gentleman. And Neiman Marcus’ new fall menswear catalog is heavily weighted toward the English sensibility, featuring colorful shirt-and-tie combinations inspired by London’s Jermyn Street, wing tip shoes, and an article on British designer Paul Smith’s suits. “I’ve been talking about it for two or three seasons, and it’s now starting to dawn on me that a real English influence is coming,” says Colby McWilliams, men’s fashion director at Neiman Marcus.
However, this new British bespoke movement, as it is called, is not about traditional English design. “There is an opportunity to create a luxury British tailored collection that isn’t based on country houses and Cary Grant,” explains Hart. “That’s a Britain of the past, and I think Ralph Lauren has done everything there is to do on that.” Hart and other young suitmakers describe the new direction as a hybrid that incorporates the most luxurious English and Scottish cloths, the hand-tailoring skills invented on Savile Row, and the lightweight design that the Italians have perfected over the past decade.
“On Savile Row, they will tailor a beautiful suit for you, but who wants the weight that comes with the horsehair canvas and all the inner linings?” says Oscar Udeshi, who quietly launched his signature brand of sleek suits in 1999 after leaving a successful career in banking. “Regardless of the tailor, it was completely impossible to find an unlined or half-lined suit in England, until now.” His collection is also characterized by its youthful styling and meticulous details—hand-sewn buttonholes, silk stitching, and braid trims—that typically distinguish custom clothing from conventional ready-made suits.
“There are a lot of wonderful suits out there,” adds Alex Bodikian, who recently launched the Reuben Alexander collection, which is made from Super 120, Super 150, and wool/cashmere fabrics produced by his family-owned textile mill, Charles Clayton. “But I didn’t see a lot of choice. A man could buy something forward by Gucci or Dolce & Gabbana or something classic by Brioni or Zegna. I wanted to create my own version of a serious suit, something for my generation, but with a completely different, younger point of view.”
To that end, the 25-year-old Bodikian designed pencil-thin suits with deconstructed shoulders, high armholes, and narrow sleeves, which he describes as bold by British standards. “It’s a very 1930s-style Savile Row suit in the way it’s made,” he explains, “but the choice of fabrics and details—single forward pleats on trousers, V-shaped inside breast pockets, seams with 11 stitches per inch [versus eight for a typical ready-made suit]—make it higher quality and a bit more modern for the younger guy who has interest in this level of product.” Bodikian’s company is on a fast track with this year’s expansion into sportswear, denim, and outerwear, plus a signature store, located off of London’s Jermyn Street, that is scheduled to open this fall.
All of these new British suits are designed for clients who are younger in age or in spirit. But with bespoke suit prices starting at $2,500, they clearly are targeted at men of serious means. For example, Udeshi claims to have an exclusive on English mill Reed & Taylor’s new 12.1-micron Super 260 wool that is nearly as fine as vicuña. A hand-tailored suit constructed from this gossamer material requires as many as 120 hours to produce and carries a price tag of about $35,000.
Hart, in particular, claims his Spencer Hart custom and ready-made suit collections (the latter of which will debut at Bergdorf Goodman this fall), appeal as much to men of a certain attitude as to those of a certain age. “I make product that goes over with Americans because it has that hint of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. So it appeals to young people, but also to a whole generation of men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who grew up with rock and roll, jazz, and soul,” he says, noting that his client roster runs the gamut from corporate bankers to entertainment industry executives to music and film stars. “We don’t just dress hip young guys,” he says. “We also dress men with charisma in their 60s, and even one or two in their 70s and 80s.”
Unlike bespoke clothing, most of these suits are designed specifically to transcend typical business attire. “My clients wear suits not just for work, but because they derive personal pleasure from it,” explains Udeshi. “They are perfectly comfortable mixing a jacket from a three-piece pin-striped suit that they wear to work with a favorite pair of beat-up jeans that they wear on weekends.”
McWilliams of Neiman Marcus agrees: “There is a huge opportunity to cater to young, successful guys who want to dress up for business but don’t want to wear a suit in the traditional sense. We have to give them something more modern that they can wear in a lot of different ways.”
This latest group of stylish young suitmakers is certainly not the first to shake up the Savile Row design establishment. During the 1960s, Tommy Nutter, who trained on Savile Row and ended up designing clothes for the Beatles, and Michael Fish, who outfitted the Rolling Stones, helped build momentum for what became known in British fashion as the Peacock Revolution.
In the early 1990s, suitmakers such as Ozwald Boateng, Richard James, Timothy Everest, Mark Powell, and John Pearse assumed the mantle of England’s next generation of modern bespoke stylists and tailors. Subsequently, they were able to attract a new, younger audience to staid Savile Row. Their colorful and, in some cases, less expensive machine-made suits were positioned as more stylish options to the classic bespoke product previously identified with the Row.
“Savile Row is not necessarily a place where someone younger, affluent, and hip would feel comfortable,” says Oscar Udeshi. “This is one of the reasons why we saw the emergence of Boateng, Everest, and James.” The problem, he concludes, is that these predecessors were unable to redefine British menswear and appeal to a wide audience. Of course, timing didn’t help: The new casual dress revolution was taking its toll on suits at the time.
Now that suits are back in style, Boateng has gone on to design for Givenchy in addition to maintaining his own menswear label. And Everest, who considers himself the architect of the new bespoke movement in Britain, recently launched a ready-to-wear and a made-to-measure collection.
This latest wave of young British suitmakers will face different obstacles, of course, not the least of which will be convincing affluent American men who customarily buy Italian to consider trying English for a change.