LONDON — It was just three months ago that Patrick Grant showed his fall E. Tautz collection in London, a lineup of white shirts with artfully mended holes and craggy stitch marks and roomy tweed coats with a lived-in look.
Grant has been looking to reduce waste across his brands, which also include Norton & Sons of Savile Row and Community Clothing, and to slow down the high speed of the fashion cycle. With the latest E. Tautz collection, he wanted to tap into the spirit of World War Two-era Britain, when “make do and mend” was a mantra, and the Brits took pains to recycle and reuse almost anything.
The spread of the coronavirus, and subsequent worldwide lockdown, have forced Grant to take those ideas to the extreme: Right now, he’s not focusing on that fall 2020 collection, or on spring 2021 — and his customers might well have to make do and wear their old E. Tautz clothes for now.
Instead, Grant has chosen to turn his Lancashire factory (which also makes for brands such as Nigel Cabourn and Margaret Howell) over to creating unfashionable, but absolutely necessary, garments: V-neck tunic tops with lots of pockets, and elasticated, drawstring trousers for hospital workers at Britain’s National Health Service.
He’s been borrowing machinery from neighboring factories and leaning on others to supply and cut the fabrics. The sewers at his Cookson & Clegg factory in Blackburn, Lancashire, are working 48-hour weeks, the legal limit here.
“We normally make between 250 and 300 garments a week, for E. Tautz and other premium British brands. This week, we will make somewhere in excess of 1,600. The supplier we’re working with needs 600,000 pairs of scrubs, and we’re doing the most we can,” said Grant, who has long been a cheerleader for local manufacturing in northern England, once Europe’s textile powerhouse.
“It brings home the value of the skilled manufacturing business. We have systematically undervalued these people for 20, 30 years and considered manufacturing to be a second-class job for far too long in this country. The chickens are coming home to roost.”
Grant believes the future economy in Britain needs to “look different from the economy before COVID-19. We need to change the way we think about work, and about the economic benefit of work and society. It used to be 1.6 million people making textiles and clothing in this country. If we had that today, we’d be in a very different situation.”
Jermyn Street men’s shirtmakers Turnbull & Asser, which shut its stores and workshops due to the government’s lockdown measures, has made a similar move. The brand, which has a Royal Warrant and is an official shirt supplier to Prince Charles, is now producing thousands of garments for the NHS at its workrooms in Gloucester, England.
They’ve reconfigured the space to accommodate social distancing measures, while workers sit at new machines that were brought in specifically for the production of NHS scrubs. The company is now working on making an initial batch of 4,000. “We hope to do our bit in expressing gratitude” to the NHS, said Jonathan Baker, managing director of Turnbull & Asser.
Other businesses are focused on trying to keep commerce alive, and working toward bouncing back as soon as they can. They say they want to re-employ furloughed workers who are currently being paid under a new, U.K. government scheme.
Tailors on the Row are also seeking to keep customers close via mobile phones and computer screens. Huntsman is doing virtual consultations for new and existing clients alike, and pursuing its annual Design Your Own Tweed competition, with downloadable PDF templates and a call for submissions over Instagram.
Huntsman is also working with fellow Savile Row tailor Cad & The Dandy to create scrubs for the NHS from. Tailors and cutters are working from home on scrubs, and new orders alike. “We have seen studies, kitchens and even children’s bedrooms turned into workshops,” said Huntsman’s owner Pierre Lagrange. Everyone is coming together, “and thinking of creative ways to carry on.
Tailors including Richard James, Gieves & Hawkes, Richard Anderson and Anderson & Sheppard are engaging with customers on Instagram and getting behind e-commerce.
Sean Dixon, managing director and cofounder of the Savile Row tailor Richard James, said while the brand’s physical stores are closed, the online business is still operating in the U.K. and the U.S., with 5 percent of sales being donated to the Imperial College Heathcare Trust, which runs hospitals and clinics in London.
“We’re different from much of Savile Row in that we have a ready-to-wear business, so we can still deal with online, and have been concentrating on that. It’s small — we’re not like Mr Porter or Matches — but we can supply orders, and we handle it very carefully, with a small-scale staff,” said Dixon, adding that the direct-to-consumer e-commerce business accounts for around 10 percent of overall sales.
Dixon argued that life under lockdown is also an opportunity to fine-tune the e-commerce business. “It’s always been something we knew we should be concentrating on, and this process is helping us learn more. We realize that it’s going to be our only source of income right now, and we need to keep the business alive and relevant. Buying suits online is difficult if you haven’t bought one before, but we want to make the process as simple and easy as possible, so you can understand what you’re buying and your measurements are clear.”
Dixon added that, with physical stores closed, there is also an opportunity to communicate with customers in new ways — with transparency and humor.
“This is a very one-on-one, personal business, so now we just have to try and communicate differently. A lot of people are getting suits made for special occasions and no one knows what the situation is going to be in a couple of months. But our customers have been really incredible at just checking in to see if we’re OK, and everybody’s been understanding. Some people are even saying ‘This suit was supposed to be for my wedding, but we’ll probably have to repurpose it into a business suit.’”
Dixon said the other day, he had a customer from Spain wanting to double check an online order. “We were on the phone for 45 minutes. There’s more time now, and everyone wants to have a little bit of a chat,” Dixon said.
Like other Savile Row tailors, Anda Rowland, who owns Anderson & Sheppard, said that with stores closed and overseas trips canceled for the next three months, her team has also been staying in close touch with customers and trying to service them as best they can.
“As a small firm with strong relationships with our customers, we have been very encouraged by the support that they have shown — many have already inquired about placing orders once we are back up and running. And they can still place orders for later in the year. And the mills and merchants are also working with a skeleton staff. Although we cannot send cloth swatches out at the moment, our managing director, Colin Heywood, is speaking to customers and taking notes for when we open again.”
Rowland said she’s concerned about the timing of the lockdown. “Bespoke tailoring firms need to see the customer, and our trained teams need to work together. The spring and autumn trips are very important to us, as our customers like to order when they see a change in the weather.”
Those missed orders could hit smaller brands and suppliers hard, Rowland said, which is why she’s encouraging people to visit individual company websites, “rather than buy goods through the large online retailers, who are in a better position to withstand this crisis.”
Grant said his tailors at Norton & Sons on Savile Row are working on ongoing orders as much as they can from home, but that work is likely to dry up soon. “We sell in person, measure in person, fit in person. It couldn’t be worse set up for the current rules of social distancing. There’s just nothing we can do,” Grant said.
“We have work in hand from before the lockdown happened, so our tailors are sewing first bastes or second bastes. Everything can be moved forward one stage, and stuff that has had a final fitting can be finished and sent. There’s only a bit of work that we can progress through. Most our tailors have a sewing machine at home, so it is actually a very simply process to pick up,” he said.
The lockdown cannot end soon enough, and these brands are preparing for a comeback. Some high-end retailers in the U.K. have even mooted the idea of reopening on June 1 — with some distancing measures still in place — while others seem to think that date is too optimistic.
“What we’re discussing now — our main focus — is how do we come back? How do we plan that? Everyone wants to get back to work. If we knew we had a date to work toward, it would make such a difference,” Dixon said of Richard James.
Richard James also has a number of projects on the boil: About a month ago, it launched Aqua Aromatica, a collection of colognes, but had to put its marketing plans on ice due to the virus. The brand was also set to open a store on Noel Street in London’s Soho to house a new and more casual, lifestyle-focused collection. The collection, Richard James London, is selling online now with average price points of about 85 to 90 pounds.
The opening will happen when lockdown is lifted as the U.K. tries its best to snap back.