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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

(continued from page 1)

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.


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