When a man is bored of London, he is bored of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.--Samuel Johnson
Especially when it comes to shopping for menswear. Paris, Rome and Milan may jump to mind first as pure fashion producers, but when a man is actually acquiring clothing, no place is so accommodating as the small area that comprises St. James's, Bond Street and Savile Row in London. A greater concentration of high-toned haberdashers exists here than just about anywhere in the world. All stand ready to outfit any gentleman's wardrobe with impeccable style and service of the first order.
From hat to shoes, every aspect of apparel is available in the shops that line these lanes or hide in little warrens called arcades -- and not just according to the fickle cycles of fashion that dictate what you can buy in any other city. In London, if you crave a proper ascot even when no one in his right fashion sense has touched an ascot in 20 years, you can still get a proper ascot.
That's not to say that London shopping is all the stodgy, replacement business of trudging back to the same store year after year to buy the same shirt your father's father wore (although tradition still exists). Current styles abound in London as young designers such as Oswald Boateng have trumpeted a rebirth of London's mod era. But it's not just the homegrown, for most every fashion designer around the world has set up shop on or near Bond Street, from Versace to Armani to Donna Karan. We key here on the uniquely English, however. After all, why cross the Atlantic to visit stores you have at home? Read on and see what life and London have to offer. (With apologies to Dr. Johnson, it's not always what life can afford, but what you can afford.)
If you accept the notion that the business suit has been the predominant form of men's attire worldwide for the past 100 to 150 years, it's hard to argue against the idea that English tailors have wielded more influence over how gentlemen dress than anyone else.
Forgetting momentary lapses, such as the recent flirtation with dressed-down office attire, the world does business in a uniform that essentially came out of the tailoring houses of Savile Row. The British royals spread the style, Hollywood's nobility (Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, etc.) came to worship it, and the rest of the world imitated it in some way or other. Sure, French and Italian designers have had their periods of ascendancy, but they were basically working in a medium born in England.
While a sense of tradition has weighed heavily on English style, that is not to say that the whole island is mired in the past. On the contrary "cool Britannia" has made great fashion strides in recent years by way of young designers fueled simultaneously by new ideas and a reverence for classical looks. Any shopping trip in London deserves a look at what the local talent is cooking up for suits. Here are some of the fashion forward outlets of the high street.
Gieves & Hawkes, at the head of Savile Row, has a 200-year history of outfitting the royal family as well as the British army and navy (Gilbert and Sullivan consulted the store on the costuming for the original production of HMS Pinafore). Heritage notwithstanding, the firm is now devoting itself to adapting to changing styles and fabrics with a ready-to-wear line, called Gieves, aimed at the thirtysomething generation.
The store has always been known for its bespoke tailoring (which remains unchanged), but what is less known is that it developed off-the-peg clothing on Savile Row in 1926 and was one of the chief innovators in that direction. The latest incarnation of the Gieves & Hawkes look is the work of merchandise director James Whishaw, late of Calvin Klein. The gist is a modern look that plays off the shop's take on traditional English tailoring (longish jackets, tight waists, formed shoulders), while renewing an emphasis on color. The store itself is still one of London's most enjoyable in which to shop, housed as it is in the former Royal Geographical Society headquarters. What was once the galleried library forms the main emporium, with its surrounding balcony of suits. As well as suits, jackets and trousers, Gieves & Hawkes supplies all elements of menswear. Ready-to-wear ranges from about $650 to $1,700, a line called Personal Tailoring Department $825 and bespoke $2,800.
Oswald Boateng, approximately across the way on Vigo Street, takes the concept of fusing traditional tailoring with contemporary looks a few steps further. The hipster designer of Portobello Road in Notting Hill moved to this venue with the express purpose of taking the traditional concept of bespoke tailoring, which he says was an old and dusty concept, and making fashion. Boateng, who once designed an outfit for a computer game character and who's helped costume the vogue of Brit gangster movies, challenges the tradition to modernize with purple frock coats and navy blue suits with raspberry pinstripes. While proud of his British roots (he worked under mod designer Tommy Nutter on Savile Row), Boateng shows in Paris, calling himself a "couture tailor." Besides suits, his line includes shirts, ties, cuff links, coats, sunglasses, bags and shoes. Ready-to-wear suits begin at about $1,250, bespoke at $3,100.
Richard James created a bit of a stir a few years back with a commercial that was banned from TV. Over the tagline "menswear for every occasion," a young man rose to carefully coif himself, don his Richard James outfit, and take the elevator to the roof for a final leap. While the Cinema Advertising Association didn't appreciate the antics, the designs have caught on with hip London and the likes of Liam Gallagher and Tom Cruise. The look is another marriage of the classical and the controversial. The traditional English hacking jacket (double vented in one-, two- and three buttons) is offered in an electric palette. Navy blue coats are paired with patterned shirts straight out of the flower power era. Denim and camouflage stand alongside chalk pinstripe in the minimalist showroom on Savile Row. The product is all-English-made, reflecting James's offbeat dedication to his homeland. The shop also supplies ties, cuff links, shoes, wallets and luggage. Ready-to-wear sells for about $1,110, bespoke about $2,550.
Hackett was created as the result of a meeting of two men, Jeremy Hackett and Ashley loyd-Jennings, who were searching Portobello Road market for good secondhand clothes. The two were soon creating clothes for a perceived market of traditional English styles in natural fibers. Their instincts were right and Hackett now has a firm following in London and across the globe. The shop bills itself as "essential British kit," and this is a very apt description of its trademark tight-waisted, natural-shouldered hacking-jacket silhouette. Hackett's traditional bent follows through in the inclusion of such classics as the morning coat, tweedy country wear and sportswear essentials like the original army polo shirt. Hackett also offers accessories such as cuff links, socks, gloves and umbrellas. Suits range from about $700 to $900.
Burberry made its name as the outerwear outfitter that invented gabardine and kept the Shackleton expedition from perishing in the Antarctic cold and later became synonymous with its familiar plaid design first used on scarves. Now it seems bent on riffing on the latter while still proffering the high-quality standards for look and durability that made it famous. Whole shirts are made in the Burberry plaid. The pattern comes off warped on a tie. Other treatments add colors or wash them out. The irreverence stops, however, when it comes to jackets. They're clean and sharp in plain dark colors -- just what you'd expect from this venerable firm.
21-23 New Bond Street, Mayfair, WIS 2IE. Tel.: 44/207-839-5222
GIEVES & HAWKES
Number One Savile Row, Mayfair, WIX 2JR. Tel.: 44/207-434-2001
87 Jermyn Street, St. James's, SW1Y 6JD. Tel.: 44/207-930-1300
9 Vigo Street, Mayfair, W1X 1AL
31 Savile Row, Mayfair, W1X 1AG