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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)

Besides, associations with movie stars create unreasonable expectations on the part of less-than handsome customers. "You are probably asking for the impossible if you want us to make you look like Cary Grant," bemoans Holland.

The irony is that, while strikingly good-looking, Grant had body issues, according to Holland. His head was abnormally large and his shoulder were small. This Kilgour could help him with. "The skill of the tailor is to work with the customer's physique and make him look as good as he can possibly look," says Holland. Special problems of function are also no trouble for the firm. Its tailors have made tailcoats comfortable enough for Astaire to dance in and will typically cut the armholes larger in the same garment for orchestra conductors, so they may wave their arms.

More pedestrian accommodations include pockets for glasses, pens, wallets, mobile phones and travel humidors. Extra room can also be added to hide a weapon or a colostomy bag. Holland confesses that Savile Row tailors encounter the latter need more frequently, but tend to brag about the occasional time they've built space for the former.

The old practice of asking for references from customers may have had more to do with financial considerations than class, he suggests. The tailor needed to insure that the customer could pay for the garment weeks later when it was finished. Super fabrics impose a similar problem, says Holland. They are so expensive and challenging to work with that the house often insures them before it will cut them.

For Kilgour, which typically stocks huge amounts of fabric—Super 150 being absolutely standard now—there is always a chance of a natural disaster. "Fire you can control. Smoke is a bummer," says Holland, as the latter can permeate a building and ruin all the cloth stored there.

Across the street, the smaller shop of Davies & Sons has effected a different kind of merger. The owner, Alan Bennett, has made a practice of buying up smaller businesses from proprietors. Some of those names (many of them listed above his door) are Phillip Alexandre, Welles, Adeney & Boutroy, Guthrie & Valentine, Stovel & Mason, James & James and Johns & Pegg. His friends kid him that if he buys any more firms, they'll hit their heads on the sign when entering.

The purpose of all this acquisition, however, is to secure the valuable warrants held by each firm. Johns & Pegg brought Bennett the warrant of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip. Another warrant charges him to make the diplomatic uniforms for the governor of the Falkland Islands. He deals not only in clothing, but regimental swords and special gold and brass buttons that might be needed for ceremony as well. Some of those items also draw souvenir hunters to the store. It was the acquisition of James & James, once warranted by the Duke of Windsor, that brought a sharpened form of dress to Davies & Sons, as well as its signature silhouette, which is very slim-wasted with a high armhole and soft, straight shoulders and a slight drape.

Other results of all this acquisition have included a willingness to do almost anything as far as bespoke is concerned and a quite esoteric collection of merchandise, such as cashmere dressing gowns and cloth that is made by Scabal from corduroy with 5 percent cashmere. Despite the quirkiness, Bennett insists there is a demand for all of this. "We wouldn't stock anything we couldn't sell."

While most of the contemporary-looking shops on Savile Row have sleek steel-and-glass motifs, William Hunt distinguishes itself with its rococo feeling. There's a piano, murals on the ceiling, candelabras and chandeliers. The back walls are decorated with carved wood with a gilded finish.

The spirit of ornamentation spills into the clothing. While Hunt shows the same one-button hacking jacket with peak lapel that has taken over British fashion, his suits have a longer coat and are fraught with features: cloth-covered buttons, flared cuffs on three-button suits with a split on the bottom, and horizontal pant pockets. Silk shirts can be bought with ties of matching cloth. French cuffs fold back over the cuff links in the James Bond style. Sport jackets come in black leather.

Hunt revels in what he calls his store's "camp renaissance style" and thinks that others on the Row have come to accept it after his seven years there. "It's just sort of second nature now. At first when we came, everyone was a bit sort of snooty."

He says highly stylized clothes are highly recognizable and get the shop a lot of attention. "If you see it on TV, you know it's us."

Hunt has been 20 years in bespoke, which he calls "a very pleasant side of the business." He also specializes in outfitting such golfers as Ian Poulter, Paul McKinley and David Howell in very plaid outfits and did Ray Liotta's golf clothes for personal use. "It's the only sport where you can dress like a pimp," he comments.

His take on bespoke is actually pretty simple: "It should just be beautiful. It's measuring and cutting where the skill is. The rest is a matter of taste. Mercedes or BMW, which do you like?"

Clearly he likes clothes that say sex. "The suit is the beautiful cocktail dress for men. It should make you feel sexy. It's the peacock aspect. But it also should make you look taller, your tummy slimmer, like you have half a chance of getting laid."

He believes he caters to a new generation of younger-feeling older men. "The age gap is getting smaller. People are mature at 25 and youthful at 65. The golden rule for the mature is that we can all look good and get a pretty girl without having to scream."

OFF THE ROW
Like Hollywood and Broadway, Savile Row has become a state of mind that is not limited or defined by the borders on the map. Many of the young tailor/designers driving the new English dandy look with exquisite bespoke clothing have chosen to do it off the Row. One such person is Timothy Everest, a disciple of Tommy Nutter who has set up shop in a house in the Spitalfields section of London on its East Side, a former light industrial area that is reviving much like the SoHo section of New York City did back in the 1970s.

Everest greets a visitor in the faithfully restored sitting room of this house that was once owned by an artist, saying, "Welcome to the eighteenth century." He feels that the location in a neighborhood that had once been a bit dubious is a plus for his clients, who have included the likes of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, David Beckham and Tom Cruise. "Sometimes it's good for a customer to feel 'I discovered it,'" he says.

His intense training gives him a solid appreciation for the values of the Savile Row craft. "We are tailors who design, not designers who discovered tailoring," says Everest. He is also interested in making the sometimes daunting experience accessible for the customer. "We don't say, 'What side do you dress on?' or 'Don't you know what blue serge is?' We make it easy for them."

Everest is also keen on raising consciousness about the craft. "British tailoring was a bit undersold. People got the idea: Those Italians, they make better suits. We make equally fine suits with different handwriting. Instead of apologizing about the tailoring, we put the table right out in the middle."

While it's hard to ignore the celebrity of some of his clients, Everest doesn't feel that is what bespoke is about. He would rather fit into everybody's lifestyle, he claims, and pegs characters like Wyatt Earp and James Bond rather than rock stars as spiritual role models.

He describes his look as a "business suit that becomes a cocktail suit": it's an Edwardian look, with three-button coat, hacking jacket pockets with high lapel notches, high armholes, the soft Kilgour shoulders and folded-over cuffs. "But I can't get into that anymore," he adds with a rueful look to his paunch.

Another shop that offers the Savile Row sensibility is Alfred Dunhill, which is located on nearby Jermyn Street, a stretch better known for its shirtmakers. Famous for its cigar shop, Dunhill offers a small clientele bespoke service in a small shop within the store.

While the main part of the store displays Dunhill's ready-to-wear line (in which suits can be bought as separates) and there is also a made-to-measure service, Martin Nicholls, formerly of Dormeuil and Hackett, runs Dunhill's bespoke service. He gained tailoring fame by outfitting Jude Law, Orlando Bloom and Heath Ledger in tuxedos that brought recognition on the red carpet at the Oscars. His domain is a fitting room off the main floor that is equipped with a special lighting system designed to mimic different environments, which helps ensure accurate color selection for garments.

The current Dunhill look includes a strict silhouette with slanted pockets, high gorge and double vents. Of course, a bespoke customer needn't stick to that. Nicholls preaches the customized lifestyle philosophy of founder Alfred Dunhill, who made a business of creating tools and objects to meet the needs of an Edwardian gentleman's life. Some of the intering remnants of that day are displayed in a museum-like setting in the store, such as the clip Dunhill produced to hold a cigar while driving one of those newfangled automobiles.

As Nicholls takes the dozens of measurements needed to create a bespoke suit, he subtly chats up the customer and it slowly dawns that it isn't idle curiosity that is driving him, but a desire to know how the garment will be worn so he can make it more useful for the wearer.

"It's a lifestyle thing where we slot in," says Nicholls. "I want to know if he's the kind of guy who tends to trash a suit. Then I'll give him a military tweed lining. If he's a cigar smoker, I'll fit the suit to accommodate a pocket humidor. If his business takes him to warmer climes, I'll take that into consideration for the weight of the fabric. If he wants it to show off his cherished Bentley at automobile shows, maybe I'll suggest a tweed three-piece suit."

Sometimes, he says, it's important to educe these things from a client. "Customers don't always tell you what they want. The blank canvas is sort of dangerous as people don't always have the language to tell you. Some do and will. Others will tell you exactly what they don't want. If you're buying a bespoke suit, it's always wise to give it a bit of thought. It helps me to have a fixed idea from the customer."

Nicholls likes to think that the clothes he makes are useful. "I like something with a bit of wearability. I prefer to make suits that are defined by people's lifestyle, not the other way round."


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