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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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.
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.
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