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
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006
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The super woolen fabrics made from ever-finer thread that are the current vogue are harder to mold to shape and, of course, much more expensive. "It's all very well if you've got stacks of money," he adds.
Down the street at the venerable house of H. Huntsman, the look has changed quite recently. Gone is the wooden partition that once shielded it from passersby. Now when you walk inside, you see the cutters working in the area beyond the showroom. "The cutting room is where all the important work is done," says Gordon Alsleben, the head tailor.
Despite the new look, Huntsman hews to tradition. "We've kept our house style while others have given up," says Alsleben. That style has much to do with cloth: Huntsman is expert in working with plaid and check fabrics. It stocks a rather large selection and also works with a Scottish mill to create new tweed patterns that are exclusive to the firm every year.
While checks draw the eye to the shape of a garment, that fabric choice has its challenges. For one, the tailors must be adept at merging different pieces of patterned cloth so that they appear to be seamless.
Another Huntsman specialty is a one-button coat with a rakish cut. Alsleben is quick to point out that it isn't simply a matter of making a two-button coat with one button left off. He creates a coat with a longer front with less drape on which more of the shape is seen.
With all the nuance that goes into custom tailoring, the fitting of a customer is a ritual in itself. Alsleben will first fill out a form with measurements (there are dozens of specifications) and then note what he calls "figurations." These may include peculiarities such as bowlegs, knock-knees, and stoop shoulders that take into account more than just inches on a tape measure. "Of course," Alsleben chuckles, "you wouldn't want to call these out in front of the customer. Part of the art is disguising these traits that a customer might not even know he has." In the basement workroom a presser is ironing a sleeve. Alsleben explains that pressing an entire jacket takes up to an hour and a half as the artisan works the signature English shape into the piece. It is a craft that, like most of the jobs in a bespoke shop, takes years to perfect. Many Savile Row firms have apprenticeships that amount to a college education. This is how the art is kept alive. To become a tailor can take longer than it does to become a doctor. The minutia of the tasks explains the length of the study. Inner linings, for example, are made shorter than the outside of a garment so it curls just right. The roll of a lapel, created by hand stitching, requires that the tightness of each knot be drawn precisely. Even for Alsleben, the son of a master tailor and the grandson of a cutter, it took 20 years to rise to the position of master tailor. His son, it appears, aspires to the same calling, so the continuation of the art seems assured.
Across the street from Huntsman is a tailoring house anomaly, a firm whose windows have actually been transparent for all of its 18-year history on the Row: Richard James. Sean Dixon, Richard James's partner, says that the modern open appearance was initially frowned upon when curtained shops were the norm here. "It was deliberate that we did not want to do that," says Dixon. "We wanted to make it accessible, to reach men in their 20s. But we're still responsible about the craft. Our tailors have 30 years' experience."
Much of what the firm does is RTW that is more or less exclusive to the store, including in-your-face-stripes and argyles designed by James in conjunction with the mills. The quirkiness isn't limited to the garments. Richard James has created controversy with his television commercials. In one, a young man rises and flawlessly dresses in the store's clothes only to commit suicide.
Despite the somewhat offbeat approach, Richard James seems to be reviving rather than reviling a Savile Row tradition. "The fashion setters used to come to Savile Row and have things made. We recognize that and set out to hopefully bring that back," says Dixon.
Richard James does not have a house style. Its current look is a modern take on the two-button coat with a long, slim silhouette and soft shoulders.
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