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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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.
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.
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.
Dixon hastens to add that its bespoke service will move off that track. "You feel you are part of the process. If we can do it, we will do it." The lengths the firm has gone to satisfy customer whims include a business suit made entirely from a camouflage pattern. "It looked fantastic," says Dixon, "but I'm sure it caused quite a stir at the opera."
Across and down the street, Kilgour, French & Stanbury, which merged the firms of those names and is now officially called Kilgour, has found that selling RTW in its sleek modern boutique has helped increase the sale of bespoke garments. Likewise, the custom line has returned the compliment as elements of bespoke (cloth and hand workmanship, for instance) find their way into the off-rack clothes.
Celebrity and style are not new to Kilgour. It was Louis Stanbury who created the elegant sleek curve we think of as the English look in the 1950s and introduced the Italian tailors' facility with working in lightweight fabrics. Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison and Daniel Craig, the latest on-screen James Bond, have all been dressed by Kilgour.
"It's the same sort of person," says Hugh Holland, managing director of the firm, "just the look that's slightly different."
He hastens to add, however, that heritage is important to Kilgour. "I eschew the celebrity culture," he says. Everybody asks, 'Who are your customers?' It's a fairly shallow measure of how competent you are. Celebrities almost by definition don't have time to figure out who the best tailor on Savile Row is."
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.
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