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Twenty years—and just a few prime Ministers—ago, Savile Row was a street filled with opaque windows, snobbish shop assistants and silver-haired clients who treated their tailors of choice much like private gentleman’s clubs.
“They were so grand, they didn’t even talk to us—except once to say that our drains were smelly,” says Richard James, who arrived on the Row in 1992 and was immediately scorned by his fellow tailors. “They called us ‘sheer parasites’ and accused us of not knowing one end of a needle from the other,” recalls James, whose shop offered bespoke and ready-to-wear clothing—something previously unheard of on the street, which has been a men’s wear hub since the early 19th century.
James isn’t the only one who recalls the Row’s stuffier times. “In the Eighties, there was this feeling of despondency; people were no longer paying for quality,” says Mark Henderson, head of the Savile Row Bespoke Association, which aims to protect and promote traditional bespoke tailoring on the street, who is also deputy chairman of the tailor Gieves & Hawkes.
Faced with constant pressure from the bottom end of the market, such as low-cost operations that claim to offer “bespoke” goods made on Savile Row but are really madeto- measure suits sewn far from the street, and the top end, in the form of slick designer labels such as Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, Savile Row’s tailors had a choice —evolve or go extinct. And while several of the street’s oncefamous names have disappeared, those that remain have changed with the times. They’re no longer content to be tailors—they want to be brands.
“We’ve moved with the market and transitioned from a dying, craft-based industry into a luxury product,” says Henderson. “We’re like all the great brands out there: We’re founded on craft. I think the quality of our product today is the best it’s ever been.”
The strategies have been as myriad as the cut of each house’s suits. Some, like Richard James and Spencer Hart, are becoming lifestyle brands, while others, like Anderson & Sheppard, pride themselves on a more narrow, specialized offer to customers.
Meanwhile, Patrick Grant, owner of bespoke tailors Norton & Sons and the off-the-rack label E. Tautz, is waving the flag for British industry—and the environment—by using only British fabrics for the bespoke collection. Many tailors are working to introduce the Internet generation to the luxury of choice, consultation and face-to-face conversation, while others have begun to experiment with innovative fabrics or offering an increasingly environmentally minded clientele a sustainable product that will last a generation or more.
Not that there still isn’t an amber light flashing—the reinvention of Savile Row remains a work in progress. “We need to change people’s perceptions of what can be done on Savile Row, and we need to get across that we are not about newness, but about choices,” says Anda Rowland, managing director of Anderson & Sheppard, which her family has owned since 1980.
It is a sunny day in Mayfair and Rowland, dressed in biker boots and a long, skinny black dress, is seated in her tiny shared office overlooking the cutting-room floor. She’s clearly enthusiastic about the future of bespoke. “Men are waking up to what they have lost with ready-to-wear. They want more detail—they send us pictures of the lapels they want—and they’re not ashamed about being interested in dressing up,” she says, pointing to clients’ recent requests for lightweight tweed suits to be worn with T-shirts and sneakers, or to the thick, heavy corduroy coat Bruce Weber recently ordered, and the trousers with a two-buckle waistband that Ralph Fiennes favors.
Tailors on and off Savile Row are tapping into that same momentum, taking a client base that’s increasingly interested in dressing well and offering them more. “People want nostalgia, but they also want their clothes to be relevant to now,” says Timothy Everest, whose headquarters is off the Row, in an East London town house. Everest points to a recent, multitasking travel blazer he made for a beauty executive who practically lives in a first-class airline cabin. It’s made from a creaseresistant blue wool Fresco fabric, and has a strap for the International Herald Tribune, specially sized patch pockets for a boarding pass, pens and two cigars and a loop for hanging his eyeglasses. Like Rowland, Everest wants to push the limits of contemporary bespoke. Together with Betty Smith, the Japanese denim company, he has been taking traditional tailoring fabrics and putting them through denim processes—resulting in Prince of Wales, pinstripe, cavalry twill and houndstooth denim fabrics.
Other tailors are leveraging the success of their bespoke labels and moving into the lifestyle-brand territory. Later this year, Spencer Hart’s Nick Hart, who has just secured new funding from a clutch of current clients and one Chinese investor, plans to open two flagship stores in London. Hart, who until now funded his bespoke business himself, will sell off-the-rack clothing, accessories and nonfashion items in the stores. His bespoke shop on the Row, he says, will remain open. “We want to put Spencer Hart out there as a lifestyle brand and have the company create real profits over the next few years,” says Hart, whose design muses include the Rat Pack and jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson. Uttering words that would make many of the past denizens of the Row blanch in horror, since they prided themselves on discretion to the point of invisibility.
Hart, who counts Kanye West, Jay-Z and Damon Dash among his clients, says the new stores will most likely open next year. “I want to introduce an uberlevel of luxury and include nonclothing items in the stores, although I’m not thinking Dover Street Market or the Dunhill town house,” he says, adding there will be a “dynamic approach to packaging, something that involves the art world.” Over the next year, Spencer Hart also plans to roll out a new shop-in-shop concept—there is currently one shop-in-shop at Liberty for Spencer Hart ready-towear— and unveil the company’s first ad campaign.
Savile Row stalwart Richard James and his business partner Sean Dixon believe that now—as a younger generation is discovering the lure of classic clothing that can be worn for years—is an ideal time to build their brand. “I think young people especially have reacted against fashion—there is a backlash against the frivolity of it,” says James over tea and biscuits at his bespoke shop. Times have certainly changed: When James opened on the Row in the early Nineties, men were in the thick of their love affair with designer fashion.
“Savile Row was having a tough time in 1992. Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto were on the scene, and English tailoring was not seen as very sexy—despite the great quality, and despite the fact that the tailors on the street had dressed everyone from Beau Brummell to the Beatles,” he says.
Although James has stand-alone bespoke and off-the-rack shops on the Row —British Prime Minister David Cameron is a client, and the prime minister of Greece stopped by earlier this year to buy an off-the-rack suit—the partners are now pushing into international markets and aiming to reach a wider audience via lower price points. James and Dixon have recently launched a collection called Mayfair that sells at John Lewis in the U.K. and at Bloomingdale’s in the U.S. Prices are about 450 pounds, or $648, for a suit and 60 pounds, or $86, for a shirt—compared with 1,000 pounds, or $1,440, for a Richard James off-the-rack suit and 3,000 pounds, or $4,320, for a bespoke one. The new collection, which will hang alongside such lines as Z Zegna and Boss, includes suits, shirts, ties and accessories.
“We have been copied so much that we wanted to create something with authenticity,” says James, noting that he has no problems at all with the new lower prices. “We could get quite elitist, but we want to be accessible,” he says. The company, James adds, is also pushing into new markets such as India and China.
Other bespoke labels, including Kilgour and Norton & Sons, are committing themselves to British manufacturing.
Kilgour’s new owner, the Dubai-based JMH Group —founded by a Scottish family that made its fortune in cement and industrial building products—plans to relaunch the brand’s off-the-rack collection with a focus on British fabrics. “The positioning of the brand is going up, and we’re going to get the ready-towear collection as close to bespoke as we can,” says Richard Fuller, retail manager at Kilgour. Off-the-rack prices will start at 2,500 pounds, or $3,600—the price of a bespoke suit at some neighboring tailors on the Row. “We believe British manufacturing has been overlooked in favor of Italy, Portugal and Shanghai,” Fuller says, “and that the few remaining U.K. manufacturers have raised their game.”
Kilgour has closed its former off-the-rack shop—located next door to the bespoke tailor on Savile Row—and brought its new off-the-rack collection into the main store. The former offthe- rack shop now houses Bernard Weatherill, another company in the JMH stable that sells bespoke riding and shooting clothes. The overall strategy, Fuller says, is to take Kilgour back to its “core values” of bespoke tailoring. On a larger scale, he adds, JMH wants to create a luxury group along the lines of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, with Kilgour and its sister brands Bernard Weatherill, gun maker Ray Ward and Fitriani, a women’s couture label based in London.
Like Kilgour, bespoke tailor Norton & Sons wants to fly the flag for British manufacturing. Grant says he wants to stress “the Britishness” of the suits. “We use only British cloths—and we’re sometimes working with one-man weavers,” says the dapper Grant from his basement office on Savile Row. “All of our cloth is spun, woven and finished in Britain. We can even tell you the breed of sheep that supplied the wool and where they grazed.” Grant applies similar standards to the brand’s accessories collections. “We don’t want 400 years of leather manufacturing to disappear, which is why we are working with a guy in the Cotswolds who sews one belt per day, someone in East London who makes our bags by hand and people in South Wales who are hand-knitting our socks.”
Although they may be competing for business, the tailors on the Row are joining forces and lending their dynamism and commercial savvy to Savile Row Bespoke, an association that aims to protect and promote bespoke tailoring on the street. In July, the association marked the “graduation” of 15 apprentices who had been working in cutting rooms on the Row for the past three to five years. The ceremony took place at the Merchant Taylors’ Company in the City of London, which began life as the tailors’ trade association and is now a charitable institution. “It shows how important apprenticeships are to us,” says Henderson. Later this year, the association will unveil a unique Savile Row Bespoke kitemark that Henderson hopes will distinguish articles that have been literally handcrafted on Savile Row from others merely making that claim. The label has a simple design and features the organization’s trademark shears. Savile Row Bespoke members also plan to display the label in their windows and in-store.
Meanwhile, the brick-and-mortar of Savile Row is changing, too—and many now consider this another positive development compared with the arrival of people like Richard James and Ozwald Boateng in the Nineties, who were literally shunned by the snobbish long-time occupants of the bespoke establishments on the street. The Swiss art gallery Hauser & Wirth is opening on the Row in October. Lanvin men’s wear and Rag & Bone stores have also opened, and Abercrombie & Fitch, the biggest brand name on Savile Row, has been drawing queues of hysterical teenagers from around the world for the past three years.
“Abercrombie brought a lot of young people onto the row, and their chief executive [Mike Jeffries] is a customer of ours,” Henderson says. “So long as the new arrivals uphold a high level of quality, we’re happy.”
Richard James would agree. “Since Lanvin arrived, there’s been more life on the street— people are looking in the windows and there’s a lot of energy and interest and curiosity,” he says, adding that some of his own customers wear Abercrombie jeans. “The street has had a renaissance,” he says. “It’s not just about old men in suits.”
But it’s still about suits. The established tailors of Savile Row are battling to protect the street’s traditions of handcraft, quality and style in a world where those attributes are disappearing faster than tweets on Twitter. “So many tailors on the Row are still so keen on what they do,” said Rowland. “They don’t want to be big brands, and their heart is in the handmaking. We’ve all smartened up our game—but the old passion is still there.”