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British Style

Withstanding Real Estate Developers and Faddish Fashion, London's Legendary Street of Tailors Survives with Its Traditional Stylings Intact
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

We're just coming out of our slow season--traditionally, January through March--when business isn't overly vibrant," muses Ken Austin of Benson & Clegg Ltd., the renowned London tailoring firm. "But I should say that things are getting back to normal around here. Of course, it goes without saying that we'd all like to see a bit more business. Who wouldn't?"

The Savile Row area tailors have certainly had a spot of bother these past few years. For a start, the South American clientele has dropped by at least 40 percent. "You can put some of that down to the Falklands War," says Norman Halsey, managing director of Anderson & Sheppard Ltd., a legendary firm on Savile Row. "You see, our firm, for example, has had considerable South American business, and political changes in that part of the world affect us greatly."

Then there is the matter of zoning. For more than a decade, real estate developers had tried to have the area rezoned so they could raise the rents. "It all seems to have simmered down considerably since the real estate market fell a few years ago," notes Angus Cundey, who presides at Henry Pool & Co., the Row's oldest tailoring firm.

It has indeed, but the peril was very real. While the Row has continuously bounced back from a variety of fashion threats over the years (Carnaby Street in the '60s and '70s caused a minor furor), the real estate menace caused a panic. Well, perhaps panic is too strong a word for stiff upper lips, but the scare had the Row's tenants asking their customers to write letters of protest to anyone in the government who might listen. Formerly the area had been classified "light industrial," which effectively allowed for lower rents for craftsmen than would have accrued from a more commercial business classification. But in the early '80s, with the economy on the rise, developers and landlords began to clamor for new zoning regulations so higher rents could be charged on Row properties. For the tailors, the "light industrial" zoning was, and is, necessary because the firms must have workrooms on the premises. But with a drastic hike in rents, the tailors wouldn't be able to afford the space. There were rumors of rents increasing tenfold in one fell swoop. If this came to pass, the image--as well as the geographic reality--of Savile Row would cease to exist.

If there's anything more dangerous than getting between a grizzly bear and its cub, it's getting between a land developer and a dollar (or pound, in this case). The threat was particularly detrimental, since being outfitted in London remains one of the good reasons for visiting the city; the custom-clothing industry brings in about $30 million a year to the economy. As it happens, a somewhat stagnant real estate market has helped keep rents in abeyance.

"Rents are down," says Anthony D.R. Holland, chairman of the Holland & Sherry Group, one of the largest woolens firms on the Row and parent company of Kilgour, French & Stanbury. "I should say as much as 60 percent, from roughly £46 per square foot to £18. But the best news is that the Westminster City Council, our zoning authority, has taken a definite position on this issue. They are intent on preserving the character of the Row and very keen to promote tailoring there. [Developers of a] 200-yard-long area on the west side of the street must provide street-level shops and accompanying workrooms for tailors at reasonable rates."

You can rest assured that doesn't mean any down-market stuff like jeans shops. The top floors of the buildings--the council has allowed for new buildings to be one floor higher than the previous three-story restriction--can house other businesses, but the street itself will remain tailor-dominated. "Consequently," adds Holland, "there is considerable optimism. I know woolens sales are very good, so I expect the tailors are doing nicely."

So Savile Row will continue to be the home of tailoring. For 150 years the Row has stood for elegant gentlemen's clothing, characterized by good tailoring, quality cloth, and conservative and serious styling. The cheap and flashy, the vulgar and trendy find little room to maneuver within that august precinct.

Although Savile Row has had great historical importance and tremendous influence, and been a magnet and mecca to both highly skilled practitioners of the art and caring customers, tailoring's "Golden Mile" is surprisingly small. The square-shaped area, located in the center of London's West End, covers perhaps slightly less ground than a California shopping mall, with the Row itself running down the middle. Bordered on the east and west, respectively, by Regent, Old Bond and New Bond streets, on the south by Burlington Gardens (a short street) and Vigo Street, and on the north by Conduit Street, Savile Row is a mere three blocks long, about 20 feet wide and architecturally utilitarian.

At the moment, the aforementioned section on the west side of the Row is in the midst of reconstruction, making that area look more like a war zone than a place for a gentleman to be put in full fig.


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