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The New Face of Savile Row

London's famed street of tailors is shedding a bit of its haughtiness in an effort to expand its customer base
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

A young bearded man wearing a motorcycle jacket, a fisherman's sweater and jeans saunters into a fine menswear store and announces he wants to buy a suit. He is welcomed and asked to have a seat while a salesman is rounded up.

It's an unremarkable exchange unless you consider that the store in question is the 200-year-old Henry Poole, the first tailoring house on Savile Row, the London street that defines not only the ultimate in the craft of men's tailoring, but the strictures of class.

Legends abound about the exclusive atmosphere of Savile Row. Barren window displays showed little to suggest what its shops even did. Perhaps there was a bolt of cloth or a list of royal warrants, which flaunted the nobles that had given their grants to supply goods. But the message received by those of less than the peerage often seemed to be, "Go away!" Curtains blocked curious shoppers from seeing inside. Those brave enough to venture in were met with icy assessment. Customers were not won by advertising, but handed down from father to son or through regimental, club and school connections. Even someone as stylish as Fred Astaire was once turned back. Enamored by the vests of the Prince of Wales, he sought out the maker, only to be apologetically told that it could not be done. (He found someone else to make the garment.)

So what would so self-possess a young man to be so blasé about busting into the bastion? Or why would such a customer even want its product? The answer is that Savile Row has become more welcoming for neophyte customers. Most of the foreboding curtains have been removed. Tailors are less rigid about the constrictions of house styles. Younger firms with modern merchandizing techniques have joined the Row. And—gasp—ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing is sold right alongside the bespoke suits that have been the street's hallmark. Furthermore, the revolution has heralded the return to fashion of the English-cut suit and the national taste for dandyism—all without compromising the Row's renowned integrity for expert tailoring.

Yet for all its haughty exteriors, Savile Row should surprise no one with its ability to change with the times; its history and very product suggest resiliency and durability. Not only did the English invent the modern business suit, adapting it from the uniforms of the military and sporting worlds, they invested it with a tailoring virtuosity perfectly able to roll with the vicissitudes of fashion. English style has always managed to suit the needs of clothes horses, from Beau Brummel to the Edwardians to the well-heeled Mods of the Swinging Sixties.

Angus Cundey, the chairman of Henry Poole, is conversant in the history of not only "our funny little firm," but tailoring on the Row itself. He's a direct descendant of not only Henry Poole, but James Poole, who founded the concern as a linen draper between Russell and Brunswick squares in 1806. James later joined the army—"just in time for the Battle of Waterloo" as Cundey points out—and impressed the officers corps with the uniform he made for himself. Suddenly, Poole was in the menswear business. He did well enough supplying officers tunics that he moved to swanker quarters in Regent Street in 1822. It was under Henry Poole, who inherited the business in 1846, that the firm enlarged to such an extent (300 tailors and 14 cutters in its heyday) that it built a showroom on nearby Savile Row. Other tailoring houses followed to form a tight concentration of fine craftsmen. Poole's early success was based on making uniforms, but Henry Poole, a great horseman, developed the Row's first cult of personality that extended far beyond the military to noblemen with leisure time pursuits. The firm began its collection of royal warrants—there are 40—with Napoleon III in 1858.

In the basement of Poole, thousands of paper rubbings of uniforms are stored, which today forms a sort of low-tech military archive. In fact, a military historian who recently used the rubbings as a reference told Cundey, "You have no idea what you have." What it has is the records of the size and shape of such renowned characters as Winston Churchill, Haile Selassie, several maharajahs, "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Emperor Hirohito—as well as some who were disgraced such as Lord Cardigan, who led the disasterous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War—along with any decorations and gold piping they wore on their chests.

Last year, when Great Britain celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the firm was called on to create replicas of period uniforms, including that worn by its hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Poole did not create the original (that was done by Gieves, now its Savile Row neighbor Gieves & Hawkes). The task fell to the tailor Keith Levett, Poole's in-house expert for historical uniforms. Because Henry Poole has cleaved to the artisanship of bespoke tailoring, says Cundey, Poole is in a position to make such one-offs. He adds that Levett enjoys stretching the craft beyond the standard business suit. "Of course, he's not asked to do that very often."

No, the great majority of Henry Poole's custom suits are quite indistinguishable in form from other business suits. It is in fit, function and feel that most Savile Row garments distinguish themselves. A bespoke suit is made from a pattern created for the wearer alone; its stitching, pressing and details are unique. As a result, it typically stands up for more than 10 years without refurbishing, another service offered on the Row.

While the bespoke customer is hypothetically able to order suits to his whims, most don't, says Cundey. "Sadly, a lot of it is 'I'd like a blue suit like the gray suit I got two years ago.'" In such cases, they take the "round measures—check the waist and seat" and typically enlarge the original pattern accordingly, with no stylistic changes.

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