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.
Sociologically, the area has a village type of atmosphere. The people who work there know each other; they retire to regular haunts for lunch, gossip, professional and social meetings, and recreations. Their lives are tied to one another, both as rivals and helpmates. It is, in fact, this heady, concentrated atmosphere that largely accounts for the success and influence of the entire enterprise. It's a good medium for breeding ideas, improving technique, sharing resources. Another case, if you will, of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
Which helps account for the sense of tradition one finds here. "We're all interested in maintaining the quality of our work," says Benson & Clegg's Austin. "This is why we're successful. We don't look to gimmicks or radical fashions. Customers trust us to give them quality, and if a suit is going to last 10 years or more, it should stay in style. My own feeling is that, if someone wants something trendy, he should buy something less expensive."
"Yes, it's the quality," agrees Anderson & Sheppard's Halsey. "We attract fairly conservative customers. The secret and strength of the London tailor is that he sticks to what he knows, and works to improve on that, rather than jumping from one new fad to another. I must also say that we're encouraged to be getting more and more young customers. As soon as they can afford us, that is."
There have been tailors in this neighborhood since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, but not in great concentration. For the next 100 years, the Row was dominated by physicians. The big change began in 1846, when a tailor named James Poole, who had a shop on adjoining Old Burlington Street, died. His son Henry took over the business and decided to enlarge the premises by turning his back workroom--which faced Savile Row--into a new shop front.
The firm of Henry Poole is thus considered the first tailor on the Row. Poole's was so successful that it began both to scare off the medical people--who regarded tailors as commoners--and attract other tailors to the street. Poole's is still there, at number 15, and still a family business after more than a century and a half.
Since that time, the Row has had its ups and downs. Where once a personal introduction was considered de rigueur, business now comes from word of mouth and reputation. The great dandy King Edward VII used his influence and brought his cronies to the Row at the turn of the century. The tailors prospered, only to be cut off from international trade a few years later by the First World War. Edward's grandson, the Duke of Windsor, revived interest in the Row after the war, and helped the tailors attract an influential Hollywood contingent of well-turned-out fellows like Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable and Cary Grant. The Second World War not only brought again a cessation of international customers, but a number of Row premises were bombed out by the German blitz.
In the 1950s and '60s, young men found their fashion influence in, first, American Ivy League styling, and later, the Italian Continental look. In the late '60s and early '70s, the Row's most formidable enemy was only a few short blocks away across Regent Street: The Carnaby Street look--all-velvet suits, flower-print shirts with matching neckties, bell-bottom trousers and platform shoes--garnered the lion's share, albeit short-lived, of London media attention. The designer onslaught has continued the past two decades, perhaps the greatest irony of which is the Ralph Lauren shop on nearby Bond Street, which is doing a brisk business in copying the English styles created a three-minute walk away.
Yet with all this, there are as many tailoring firms on the Row as there have ever been. And perhaps with the Westminster ruling, the fate of the world's greatest tailoring enclave will undergo a renaissance.
Herewith a survey of those estimable firms that cater to the discreet sartorial wishes of the individual. In each case, the clothing is handmade from individually cut patterns, with only the finest cloths. Three fittings are considered customary, and three to six weeks are necessary for completion of a garment. The firms listed are strong in the American market, and representatives make regularly scheduled trips to the United States. Phone for an itinerary.
Anderson & Sheppard Ltd. 30 Savile Row (44-171-734-1420)
Customers included everyone from Rudolph Valentino and Fred Astaire to the current Prince of Wales. A&S does the softest tailoring on the Row, with a somewhat easy silhouette: a high armhole, natural shoulder, soft chest and ample blade. Its suits are the epitome of the drape style as it was invented by the almost mythic Dutch tailor Frederick Scholte in the 1930s. Too much padding and stiffness in a jacket would be considered deplorable, so these suits have a feeling of airy weightlessness. The firm's ideal is shape with comfort. Excellent for single-breasted and double-breasted town suits and sports jackets (of which the firm has a wonderful range of exclusive tweeds at £900--roughly $1,350). An absolutely-proper-in-every-detail camel hair polo coat can be had for £1,730 ($2,600).
Benson & Clegg Ltd. 9 Piccadilly Arcade (44-171-409-2053)
Started in 1937, the firm was a favorite of King George VI. The silhouette is cosmopolitan, neither rigidly structured nor loose; just that bit of subtle shaping for ease and definition. Two-piece suits from £1,000 ($1,500), cashmere sports jackets from £1,500 ($2,250). B&C is particularly good for evening wear, including the most formal white tie and tails (barathea tailcoat and evening trousers, white pique waistcoat), £1,600 ($2,400), which is something of a specialty.
Dege 10 Savile Row (44-171-287-2941
Dege started as a military and equestrian tailor, and the house style partakes of that tradition: a fitted coat with real shape, defined shoulders, suppressed waist and flared skirt. Dege tailoring is expert in country clothes (for men and women), specializing in three-piece shooting suits in traditional British tweeds, £1,600 ($2,400), and riding suits from £1,250 ($1,875). Town suits, with perceptible hacking style, at £1,315 ($1,975), blazers from £940 ($1,410).
Gieves & Hawkes 1 Savile Row (44-171-434-2001)
Housed in a Georgian building at the head of the Row, G&H's home was, throughout much of the nineteenth century, the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society, frequented by most of the great Victorian explorers. It was here, in the first-floor main room, that the body of David Livingstone lay in state before burial in Westminster Abbey.
Thomas Hawkes had been a military tailor, James Watson Gieves a naval outfitter (between them they dressed both Wellington and Nelson). A mere quarter century ago the two firms merged, combining a total of 210 years tailoring experience, and today, Gieves & Hawkes arguably boasts the most beautiful men's store in London. The firm's custom-made suits (they also do semi-custom and ready-wear) have a moderately shaped silhouette with a nipped waist, a somewhat filled shoulder and a slightly longer jacket. Three-piece suits from £1,900 ($2,850), sports jackets £950 ($1,425), trousers £450 ($675), three-piece tuxedos at £2,000 ($3,000).
Douglas Hayward Ltd. 95 Mount Street (44-171-499-5574)
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