The Dandy’s Brilliant Comeback

  • William Kissel

It is another gray afternoon in London, but the atmosphere on Savile Row is anything but gloomy. On the contrary, the world’s most distinguished avenue of fine tailoring is nearly pulsating with shoppers. A quartet of well-dressed men strides by, wearing fitted windowpane-plaid topcoats like those made here for centuries. Inside Gieves & Hawkes, the shop at No. 1, a man in jeans and a melton blazer is poring over a rack of ready-made suits, while his friend lolls on the tufted fuchsia leather sofa, mesmerized by the soaring domed ceiling. Up the street at No. 8, Kilgour’s polished herringbone floors are being paced by young men in skinny corduroy jeans and Nike sneakers, presumably as they envision how they might look in one of the sleek, narrow-lapel suits. And at No. 13, home to Richard Anderson, a bespectacled gentleman is staring uncertainly at a flashy orange jacket.

 

It seems incredible that until just a few years ago, Savile Row had been stuck in the sartorial version of the dark ages, its traditional British tailoring eclipsed by designer labels and contemporary cuts, its shops known for drab paneled interiors, heavy drapery, and doors that tended to be locked to keep out anyone without a formal invitation. The clientele had dwindled to a privileged but older audience of well-heeled Europeans, travelers, and royals, who often arrived in limousines with tinted windows—the evolution of a tradition established when their grandfathers arrived by covered carriage to keep their comings and goings as discreet as their choice in tailors. Indeed, for nearly 200 years the choice of tailor had been handed down from father to son like an heirloom—until the younger men moved on. Savile Row’s traditional suits had begun to look, as the late costumer Cecil Beaton put it, like the heavy-handed clothing from a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

 

"When I first came to [the Savile Row tailor] Huntsman in 2005, the first thing I thought was, ‘Good grief, this place is stuck in the ark,’" recalls David Coleridge, a former executive at the Richemont luxury group and the current chairman of the 163-year-old Huntsman, one of the Row’s founding members.

 

Now the pendulum has swung back to Savile Row, and the evidence is all around. Men’s fashion is moving in a classic, formal direction, so traditional English tailoring is once again having a moment on the runways. Designers such as Tom Ford are recruiting tailors straight off the Row, and others, including Stella McCartney, have trained there. Brands like Gucci, Prada, and Canali are presenting classic suits in traditional British fabrics as part of their fall lines. And at the January menswear shows, Alexander McQueen creative director Sarah Burton announced that the fashion house is collaborating with Huntsman on a new bespoke line that will also debut in the fall.

 

As for the shopping street itself, the doors have been flung open, revealing the millions the tailors have spent on witty renovations—changes intended to help the bespoke houses compete with such unlikely new neighbors as sportswear brand Ben Sherman and, to the chagrin of the establishment, Abercrombie & Fitch, whose outpost sits at the southern tip of the Row. In keeping with the original purpose of their Georgian-style buildings, some shops are modeled after private homes, with wood-paneled walls and leather sofas, and fireplaces ablaze in the middle of the afternoon. Others are organized like austere art galleries, and many offer services beyond the crafting of a sartorial suit. For example, Dege & Skinner, one of the Row’s oldest houses, has brought in its own bespoke shirtmaker, while Gieves & Hawkes now has separate rooms for the restoring and selling of vintage luggage (operated by Bentleys, the Walton Street antiquities shop) and for the fashioning of custom shoes (by Carréducker).

 

What most of the Row’s tailors have in common are VIP areas, or entire floors, devoted exclusively to bespoke suitmaking—still the bread and butter of the business and still discreet. These quiet, isolated spaces allow clients to meet with tailors in private and to examine the newest fine wools, silks, and mohair, just as generations did before them. For those accustomed to shopping in specialty stores or making purchases online, there is something disarming about the experience. The journey to Savile Row is, in many ways, like a journey back in time: The client can revel in the satisfaction of having a one-on-one with a private tailor, and walk away with an unforgettable experience and a garment that meets every sartorial need.

 

Crowded sidewalks notwithstanding, "Savile Row was never intended as a shopping street," says Brian Lishak, a 56-year veteran shopkeeper of the street and a founding partner at Richard Anderson. "It was a place you went to get something made."

 

The only way to understand what is so special about a Savile Row suit is to slip one on. Like a woman’s haute couture gown, each is a one-of-a-kind masterwork shaped to fit and flatter the wearer’s body. The bespoke garment is constructed to his exact specifications, from the number, shape, and size of the pockets to the direction of the pleats on the trousers and the type of buttons (horn, metal, mother-of-pearl). Each suit is made with such attention to detail that a client’s physical anomalies—sloping shoulders, a hollow chest, a protruding abdomen––are masked by the finished suit (a better option than going under the doctor’s knife).

 

Naturally, choosing a tailor is deeply personal. "There are essentially two sides to the Row at the moment," says Simon Cundey, managing director of Henry Poole, the 206-year-old bespoke suitmaker that was among the Row’s founders. "You have the moderns on the west side," he says, referring to tailors Ozwald Boateng, Richard James, and Spencer Hart, "and the more traditionals are on the east side." Those include Maurice Sedwell, Henry Poole, Huntsman, Norton & Sons, Dege & Skinner, Kilgour, and Gieves & Hawkes.

 

A man whose taste runs a bit conservative may lean toward Huntsman, an old-world brand operating in a shop where modern appointments share space with timeworn hunting trophies and centuries of royal warrants. This tailor continues to cut its suits with sharp, square shoulders; high armholes; and a slightly nipped waist. The garments are typically fashioned around a single-button silhouette, the style that was worn by the actor Colin Firth in the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Huntsman tailored some of the suits for the movie.

 

The tailoring is still conservative at Henry Poole and at Anderson & Sheppard, both known for having popularized the English drape, or soft suit, in the early 20th century. The shops still reflect their origins, but in a more approachable way now that they have undergone refurbishments. At Henry Poole, for instance, the front room has been converted to accommodate the shop’s new livery and court sheriff uniforms, so that clients can see up close the intricate workmanship of these ceremonial outfits before they are worn at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Such commissions not only reflect Henry Poole’s past as a tailor of military and royal uniforms, but also illustrate how the art of bespoke suitmaking transcends modern bankers’ pinstripes. At Anderson & Sheppard, archival books containing the names of former clients, such as Charlie Chaplin, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Duke Ellington, have been brought up from the basement, where they were gathering dust, and given a prime spot near the shop’s front entrance. In the past, the names of such enviable clients were held in secret; in today’s celebrity-obsessed world, they are being used like bragging rights.

 

The Row’s unconventional tailors—Ozwald Boateng, Patrick Grant, Richard James, Richard Anderson—tend to draw the younger or more fashion-minded men. These suitmakers work in their own sleek, minimalist environments and, as evidenced by such clients as Will Smith, Tom Ford, David Beckham, and Bryan Ferry, cut a trimmer silhouette.

 

If there is a single garment that captures both the timelessness and timeliness of British tailoring, it is the single-button, square-shouldered sport coat by Patrick Grant for Norton & Sons. Grant, a 40-year-old Oxford business school graduate, acquired the 191-year-old Savile Row suitmaker in 2005, and to it he brings his modern design sensibility. Not only is Grant the youngest managing director on Savile Row, and the name behind the new E. Tautz ready-made clothing brand, he was also Britain’s 2010 menswear designer of the year.

 

 

 

The tailoring process on Savile Row is much the same as it was a century ago, and walking into one of the street’s shops can still be an intimidating first experience. The British are notoriously aloof and uncomfortable making the first approach, so it is not uncommon for customers to wander about a shop, thumbing through fabrics and eyeing accessories, before eventually catching someone’s attention. Then it is often the customer’s obligation to introduce himself and explain the reason for his visit. From that moment, it becomes a stress-free affair if the tailor is indeed the right match for the customer. (The client’s comfort level and the geniality of the staff will affirm that such a match has been made.)

 

The managing director next ushers a client into a private room, or possibly an upper floor. This is the most important moment, when the client meets the master tailor. This architect of the suit is an expert in fabric weights, color, and fit who balances how the client wants to look with what he actually needs. "The first thing we do is stand and have a conversation so we can get to know you," says William Skinner, managing director at Dege & Skinner. "We also use this time to go through the style detail—pick out linings, pocket shapes, button or zip fly, floating pockets, center vents, side vents—and get all that decided upon." This is when, for example, a client’s love of tweeds will confront the reality that tweeds can be heavy, prickly, and not a good choice if he mostly suits up in warm-weather climates. Once he has chosen the fabric, the cloth is said to be spoken for.

 

From here the somewhat uncomfortable process of measuring begins. Over the course of 30 minutes or so, cutters take an average of 25 measurements, and some also take digital photos of physical imperfections (sloping shoulders, for example), which they will refer to as they shape the pattern. The confidentiality of these photos, which typically do not include a client’s face, is a given.

 

Next the cutter takes over, crafting a cardboard pattern to suit the wearer’s frame. When the cutter has the dimensions exactly right, the coat maker uses them to construct a fit-ready garment from the desired fabric. The first fitting is usually ready within several weeks. At this point, the suit is sewn with white basting thread so that the tailor can make alterations, such as adjusting the lay of the shoulder or the height of the buttons, before final sewing commences. The fitting need not take place back on Savile Row: It could be at home, in an office, or in a hotel. Many tailors make seasonal visits to the United States for their American clients. "We’re trunk-showing a lot these days; traveling and setting up in hotels is about 40 percent of our business right now," says Simon Cundey of Henry Poole, who regularly visits Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

 

The entire process—from initial meeting to multiple fittings (preferably three) to delivery—requires three to six months. And when the suit is done, it should be without any of the intrinsic flaws of ready-made suits, such as excess padding hanging off the shoulders, fabric bunching on the chest, vents flaring at the hips, and collars gaping at the neck. "I always look at the back of the neck, and if there is a ridge there you know it’s not a bespoke suit," says Mark Henderson, vice chairman and retired chief executive of Gieves & Hawkes. "That’s the most telltale sign."

 

A bespoke Savile Row suit starts around $3,000, a reasonable sum considering that many off-the-peg garments from luxury brands are priced higher. Add the new formality of men’s fashion that has surfaced on the runways, and the demand for Savile Row suits is growing rapidly.

 

Many also credit this revival to the Savile Row Bespoke Association, a collective of tailors formed in 2004 to promote the Row as the birthplace––and the future––of custom clothing. Among the collective’s first orders was to define the term bespoke, which, the group determined, is a suit made from a client’s individual pattern, cut entirely by hand, and requiring more than 50 hours to produce. The association also established a tailoring school that now has more than 30 apprentices training on the Row. "Twenty years ago we couldn’t get young people into the tailoring trade; they saw it as a dying profession," says Richard Anderson’s Lishak, who has four apprentices. "But when they find out that two of our greatest modern designers, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, both trained here, suddenly the profession became rather sexy and young."

 

Today’s clients range from young hedge fund executives from Mumbai to Internet boomers from Brazil to a record number of Americans, says former Kilgour vice president Robin Philpott. "If you think back to the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, we were selling to the style icons of their day, stylish international travelers, people successful in their field," Philpott says. Even with the current influx of younger, more style-savvy customers, he adds, "I don’t think our strategic target has really changed."

 

Indeed, Kilgour’s two-button, single-breasted suits, as well as Anderson & Sheppard’s double-breasted jackets, are being worn by such luminaries as Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, and Manolo Blahnik, just as the 1940s brought Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, and Douglas Fairbanks through the Row’s doors. And now the 21st-century Beau Brummels browse the Row online before setting foot in a shop. "Today we get about 20 percent of our new customers directly as a result of the Internet," says Huntsman’s Coleridge. "Ten years ago, I can safely say that number was zero."

 

Dege & Skinner, www.dege-skinner.co.uk; Gieves & Hawkes, www.gievesandhawkes.com; Henry Poole, www.henrypoole.com; Huntsman, www.h-huntsman.com; Kilgour, www.kilgour.eu; Maurice Sedwell, www.savilerowtailor.com; Norton & Sons, www.nortonandsons.co.uk; Ozwald Boateng, www.ozwaldboateng.co.uk; Richard Anderson, www.richardandersonltd.com; Richard James, www.richardjames.co.uk; Savile Row Bespoke Association, www.savilerowbespoke.com; Spencer Hart, www.spencerhart.com

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