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Brexit, Covid and a World Gone Casual: Can Savile Row’s Legendary Tailoring Survive the Moment?

The cradle of Western menswear is experiencing seismic changes.

Gieves & Hawkes suit Courtesy of Gieves & Hawkes

If you had taken a walk down Savile Row last fall, you’d have found yourself on a glitzy London shopping street, supercars lined up on either side and well-dressed city slickers strolling between stores with suit bags fit to burst. Skip forward 12 months, and all that has gone. As the UK slowly emerges from its lockdown slumber, the Row feels more like a sleepy side street than one of the world’s most famous retail destinations.

Savile Row has been the lodestar of bespoke tailoring for over two centuries; the street’s oldest firm, Henry Poole, opened its doors in 1806. Today, more than 15 world-class tailoring firms work inside whitewashed Georgian townhouses to create exceptional men’s clothing by hand. Most bespoke suits here cost between $5,000 and $6,000, require an average of three fittings and take around 80 hours of handwork over roughly three months to complete, passing through up to five different specialist craftspeople on the way. It’s a time-honored process and the definition of old school. To step inside your chosen tailor’s shop is to begin a personal relationship with people who are on hand to create one-of-a-kind clothes that will last a lifetime.

The past year and a half, though, has presented Savile Row with unique challenges. For starters, even before the smart-shirt-and-pajama-pants uniform of recent months, the suit’s place in the world was growing less and less certain, as office dress codes have relaxed, most notably in finance and law. Soft Italian tailoring, with its lightweight construction and carefree informality, also poses a threat to the Row’s traditional battle armor, which usually has more padding in the shoulders and chest, making it rather more formal. Alongside these cultural shifts, 2019 was marked by questions surrounding the impact of Brexit on Britain’s luxury industry—and its repercussions on tailors’ ability to stay competitive and attract Europeans.

Huntsman exterior Savile Row

A view of the Huntsman exterior along Savile Row.  Courtesy of Huntsman

Despite these hazards, things were looking up: Many on the Row reported sales growth in the first months of 2020. Then Covid-19 hit and they were forced to close up shop completely for three months, a turn of events that has disconnected the tailors from their international clients, who can constitute up to 80 percent of business, putting serious pressure on cash reserves. 

“International travel, particularly to the USA, has played a vital role in the continued success of Savile Row since the 1960s,” says William Skinner, the managing director of Dege & Skinner and chairman of the Savile Row Bespoke Association, the tailors’ official trade body. “For the key bespoke houses, the clientele is approximately 40 percent American, 30 percent European, 20 percent British, and other areas such as the Middle East and Asia account for around 10 percent. Now there’s nervousness about when the US border will reopen and our regular trunk shows can resume.” With travel restrictions likely to be in place for the rest of the year—at press time, most foreign visitors were required to self-isolate for 14 days upon entering the UK—Savile Row is now faced with a simple yet daunting prospect: adapt quickly or die.

In the first instance, many tailors started to communicate with overseas clients on videoconference calls, sending out fabric samples to drum up interest and some even shipping test or sample garments for clients to try on at home, but these solutions are unlikely to make up for the serious drop in revenue plaguing most houses. Cad & the Dandy is one of the Row’s newest and largest firms, cofounded in 2008 by James Sleater and Ian Meiers, and it’s among the hardest hit. “I’m expecting us to be 50 percent down this year,” says Sleater. “We’re looking at losing approximately £1.75 million [around $2.25 million] worth of sales for the three months of lockdown alone.”

Cad & Dandy

A suit under construction at Cad & Dandy.  Courtesy of Cad & Dandy

It’s a similar picture at other tailors. Stalwart Henry Poole, inventor of the tuxedo, by the way, relies on overseas trunk shows for almost 70 percent of its business—and 40 percent of those trunk shows take place in the US. A few doors over, 20 percent of Richard Anderson’s business is American, and you’ll hear similarly concerning geographic breakdowns from tailors up and down the street.

The question then becomes, how does Savile Row reach its clients at a time when travel is tricky at best and impossible at worst? The obvious answer is to digitize, but opinions differ on whether companies like these, which rely on client interactions that can feel as intimate as doctor exams, could thrive online. “We’ve been taking advantage of technology wherever possible,” says Skinner. “Some customers like these innovations. Others still prefer the more traditional approach. Certainly, it’s been a genuine challenge to maintain the standards expected of Savile Row bespoke tailoring without being hands-on.”

Back at Cad & the Dandy, which, as a relatively recent addition to the Row, is often viewed as a disrupter, Sleater is taking a different approach. The house already sells accessories and some shirts online but now plans to launch a sizable collection of off-the-peg wardrobe staples—made using bespoke techniques in the firm’s own workshop—toward the end of the year. “We were just starting to think about making some ready-to-wear pieces before lockdown, but now we’re accelerating our ready-to-wear collection,” says Sleater. “It will be made up of pieces you’d tend not to [buy] bespoke, like overshirts or safari jackets. I’m also looking at ways to step up what we can do digitally, whether that’s webcams in our workrooms or more virtual fittings. The rest of 2020 is all about showing that we’re more versatile than most people realize.”

Drake's shop

The interior of Drake’s shop.  Courtesy of Drake's

Retail consultant Ray Clacher understands the realities better than most. During his time as commercial director of Gieves & Hawkes, he took it from a tailoring house with around $25 million in domestic turnover in the early 2000s to a diversified global brand with annual revenue of more than $125 million by 2012, when he became managing director and further developed its strategy involving ready-to-wear, e-commerce and international expansion. “Often, I think Savile Row doesn’t realize what it has,” Clacher says. “The Row can be quite insular, and some firms fear trying something different—or just don’t know how to digitize and showcase what they can do online.”

But it would be remiss to write off the tailors as reactionary. Bespoke tailoring is a niche product for a niche audience, and many tailors are innovating in their own fashion. Huntsman, one of Britain’s most famous houses, has built a robust US business with a pied-à-terre and permanent bespoke cutter in New York, allowing the firm to service its clients there even when other tailors can’t travel to the city. After experimenting with two bespoke offerings—one made entirely in-house, the other partly outsourced overseas—Huntsman in July decided to drop the all-Row service, unless a client is willing to pay a substantial premium. A jacket will now start at $3,950. “Consumers are still looking for that bespoke piece but conscious of spending,” says Huntsman owner Pierre Lagrange. The company is also offering a made-to-order option with in-person or video consultations and the promise of delivery in three to four weeks.

Outsourcing certain stages of bespoke production in return for a lower price proved popular with both new and existing clients, a clear indication that today’s customer doesn’t obsess over every single stitch of his new suit being made at a specific address. The Savile Row Bespoke Association, on the other hand, decrees that its members must make suits within a 100-yard radius of the street itself. But to remain competitive, more tailors may have to adapt to outsourcing, as have some prestigious shops in other parts of town. Edward Sexton and Whitcomb & Shaftesbury, for two, offer bespoke clothing that relies on workshops in China and India for certain tasks, both with success similar to Huntsman’s, attracting a younger client while maintaining quality. Sexton’s Offshore Bespoke now accounts for 50 percent of its orders, for example.

Henry Poole Savile Row

The exterior of Henry Poole’s Savile Row shop.  Courtesy of Henry Poole

All these challenges are compounded by most firms’ steep overheads. Bespoke suits are not cheap to make (world-class raw materials and the wages of highly skilled local workers add up), and while rents on Savile Row are reasonable by Mayfair standards, a ground-floor commercial unit still costs an annual $90,000 to $260,000 to rent. The Pollen Estate is the street’s majority landlord (most of central London’s property is held in chunks by private estates, a system inherited from the 16th and 17th centuries), and it’s been working closely with the Bespoke Association for the past two years to increase foot traffic. But here, too, lockdown has set things back: As of midsummer, there were 10 ground-floor vacancies, and some of the street’s thoroughbred tailors, including Chester Barrie, had shuttered pending liquidation or permanent closure.

“Our ambition is to ensure as many of our tenants as possible can work through to the other side of Covid-19,” says Julian Stocks, the Pollen Estate’s property director. “We’re closely working with the tailors to give them some breathing space.” The estate has moved quickly to put in place a welcome mixture of rent reductions and deferrals, but this short- term relief doesn’t resolve a long-term, and potentially more damaging, issue: Many of Savile Row’s street-level properties are restricted to clothing retail or manufacture by the government (a regulation, ironically, designed to preserve the Row’s character). The unintended consequence of banning complementary businesses, such as watch shops or art galleries, and even bars and restaurants, is an absence of the kind of vibrancy that might draw new customers.

That said, there is new blood. The Pollen Estate has taken the bold step to collaborate with men’s stylist and writer Tom Stubbs, who’s taken up residence at No. 31 Savile Row with a brief to introduce new brands to the street. In many ways, he’s the ideal candidate. His trademark summer look is a double-breasted bespoke suit, worn open, over a tank top: a more contemporary styling of tailoring. He’s also masterminding the Instagram page @therowstance to capture the street’s most colorful personalities out and about, myth-busting the stereotype that Savile Row is staffed only by crusty characters in chalk stripes. Moreover, he has succeeded in cajoling dynamic bespoke tailoring duo Joshua Dobrik and Kimberley Lawton onto the street for a six-month residency. Dobrik & Lawton are based in edgy northeast London and known for using their Savile Row training to make couture suits that feel more red carpet than boardroom-ready. Theirs is a radically different aesthetic to old- school Savile Row, but that’s the point.

Henry Poole suit mask

A suit and face mask at Henry Poole & Co.  Courtesy of Henry Poole

Alongside Stubbs’s efforts, other young brands are lending the street fresh energy. Chief among these is Drake’s, the quirky British haberdasher that’s known for its irreverent aesthetic and casual approach to tailoring and that opened a new flagship on Savile Row last fall. It’s not a bespoke tailor, but Drake’s is nonetheless making the kind of relaxed, slouchy jackets and pants that are in right now, and helping to bring a younger generation of snappy dressers onto the street. The same applies to Hackett, which opened a palatial store at No. 14 Savile Row last November, and Thom Sweeney, which is soon to open its new four-story townhouse one block over on Old Burlington Street. This expansive space will host bespoke tailoring, made-to-measure and a modern ready-to-wear collection under one roof.

Between them, these new players are changing the street from a tailoring hub into a “full-look” shopping destination, with everything from navy blazers to luxe cotton T-shirts. To many fashionistas observing the street from afar, it’s real progress. Creative consultant Jason Basmajian was creative director at Gieves & Hawkes from 2013 to 2016, and worked alongside Clacher to modernize the brand. Also of Brioni and Cerruti 1881 fame, Basmajian is convinced that Savile Row needs to broaden its horizons. “My role was to view Gieves through an international lens,” he explains. “We took a Savile Row identity and gave it a global feel, made it a little more comfortable and contemporary. We understood that there was a bigger world out there, and we wanted Gieves to be more than a tailor’s shop. To see some brands on the street doing this now is really exciting.”

In some corners, there are rumors of more radical thinking still. “Craft industries have always had to evolve to stay relevant. Tailors used to sew every stitch by hand before the invention of the sewing machine,” says Dominic Sebag-Montefiore, creative director at Edward Sexton. “Designer brands are starting to invest in fashion tech like 3-D printing and body scanning, but surely there’s no better place than Savile Row—where we’re experts in garment fit and construction—to be pioneering these technologies. I’d love to explore how we can make 3-D modeling and AI work for bespoke tailoring.”

Huntsman tailor

A Huntsman tailor at work.  Courtesy of Huntsman

While not quite so maverick, even some of the old guard are daring to mix things up in their own way. Henry Poole is trying out a new “super-lightweight” design that takes the heft out of its conventional suit. “We’re already seeing that our clients are thinking about their wardrobes differently,” says managing director Simon Cundey. “Post-Covid, I expect most of our clients will go the way that San Francisco has gone for us. We’ll make less business suits because highfliers no longer need to wear them, but the same highfliers will invest in relaxed, lightweight tailoring to dress up in and wear about town instead. Men will always want to dress elegantly to go to dinner or see friends.”

Perhaps all is not lost, then. Savile Row has some huge challenges to negotiate through 2020 and beyond, but its community of tailors remain optimistic, and many are working hard to navigate their way through this new, rocky landscape. “Savile Row’s collective nature is its strength,” says Sleater. “That’s the thing we have that separates us from other world-class tailors in Paris or new entrants in Hong Kong. We need to work together now to ensure we’ll still all be here in a year’s time. This street has survived two World Wars and the Great Depression, so we plan to be around for a good while yet.”

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