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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

(continued from page 1)

Nevertheless, he says, 99 percent of the customers who make the transition to bespoke tailoring typically never go back to wearing off-the-rack clothing. Not only is it about the improved product, but the process and the personal attention. "Once someone's walked through the door we're sort of friends for life," says Cundey. "The alternative would be that on a Saturday morning your wife drags you out to a department store and you have five badly fitting suits."

Cundey says that unlike some other entrenched Savile Row shops, Poole has no rigid house style. However, its typical suit has the sharp lines and slim shape of the English cut. Henry Poole has also been making the high-gorge, wing-lapel suit that is so in vogue and distinguishes the London Look from Italian suits. The firm counsels against going too far overboard because these suits last for a long time. "When trousers were 20 inches, we were 18. When lapels were 4 1/2 inches, we were four," Cundey says, explaining his approach to following fashion. "We're hardly fuddy-duddy if we hire a cutter who used to work for Tommy Nutter," he says, referring to the 1960s Savile Row tailor to rock stars, who led the Mod Revolution.

Cundey says that international business has been very important to the firm since Junius Morgan, the American financier and father of J. Pierpont Morgan, first bought a suit from it in 1851. "We like to think a Savile Row suit looks as good on Wall Street as it looks in the Ginza [in Tokyo]."

More emblematic of the new Savile Row is Gieves & Hawkes at the foot of the street. Located in a large emporium that once housed the map room of the Royal Geographical Society, it now caters to a fashion-forward customer who buys ready-to-wear clothing, as well as to its traditional bespoke customer.

Ray Stowers, the bespoke workman manager, has just returned from a fitting at the American embassy, where a new ambassador is to be sworn in that day. He's now remembering the mood when Gieves & Hawkes first brought ready-to-wear to the Row: "It was regarded as scandalous."

Like Poole's, the firm's history is largely defined by the military. Gieves made uniforms for the navy, and Hawkes for the army. The firms merged in 1974, with Gieves relocating from its Bond Street location into the Hawkes space on Savile Row. In 2003, the firm created its youth-oriented Gieves line, which allows experimentation with fashion and every season features military-inspired pieces. Gieves & Hawkes has three levels of service: the RTW line, where suits start at £495 (about $868); the personal tailoring service, in which customers can choose their own cloth from 6,000 swatches and get modest modifications starting at £795 ($1,394); and the full-on bespoke suit starting at £2,800 ($4,911). Depending on the price of the cloth and amount of tailoring, custom suits on the Row in general can be purchased at prices from about $4,000 to stratospheric tariffs that reflect questionable luxuries such as diamond-encrusted thread.

The bespoke service, Stowers says, is like hiring a master cutter who will follow the progress of your coat for several months. It is like having an architect create a house for you as opposed to buying a house made from an existing floor plan and then making custom changes, he reckons.

Gieves & Hawkes also has no house style, and Stowers, who has made clothing for Michael Jackson and Robbie Williams, the English pop singer, is more outspoken about the concept of creating products at the customer's whim. "That's what true bespoke is all about: I'll literally take on anything," he says. "I'm not just looking to make you a suit. We go out of our way to source accoutrements: fine leather gloves, a special hat."

That approach has earned Stowers a reputation for straying from the norm and helped win younger customers, especially pop stars. "When you're having a suit made you're creating your own style," he says. "I like to get someone when he is young and take him right through life."

In the store's basement workshops—many tailors work on this level, where it's warm and the lighting is even—Stowers is going over some piecework and remarks how important it is to choose the right fabric for each customer. "I wouldn't put you into something that wasn't right for you," he says. He sings the praises of "sturdy English cloth" as the hallmark of a well-fitted English suit, because it takes shape so well.

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