Techno-suit: a snip at half the price

Sartorial saviour or end of an era? Robin Dutt tries laser suits for size
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The Independent Culture
As the fashion bunnies take to the catwalks this weekend, something radical is happening in the sartorial heart of London: laser cutting. The painstaking art of marking out with chalk and cutting with shears now has an electronic rival. James & James, traditional tailors whose client list has included the Lords Hanson, King and Forte and the late Duke of Windsor, has joined the computer age.

While still retaining the bespoke side of the business, Eric James, director and son of the founder, wants to democratise the notion of fine sartorial dressing and open up the market to those whose only options are ready- to-wear high street or designer labels.

Designer label suits often top £500, with certain Italian brands hovering cheekily on the £1,000 mark. They may have style cachet but they will still be bought off the peg, tried on by countless shoppers and not exactly unique. "People don't come in regular sizes," says James.

Laser suits are simple in theory. First, a customer's measurements are taken, converted into co-ordinates and then sent by Minitel through to the cutting room in Strasbourg. In a matter of seconds the chosen material is sliced up into the suit or trouser component shapes.

The traditional cutting of a suit can take at least an hour to complete and a customer's measurements are kept for reference on a paper pattern. With laser cutting they are stored in the computer's memory banks and on order forms.

"What we are talking about are suits of high quality using a hi-tech system," James says. "Eventually I can see a time when there won't be much difference between a laser-cut suit and a bespoke example. Technological advances are being made all the time."

But James is also the first to defend the master tailor's art of cutting by hand. Bespoke tailoring is a labour of love. In the heyday of sartorial expression, Savile Row boasted hundreds of tailors. Sackville Street alone had 39 establishments. Today, in the whole area, you would be hard pressed to find 50.

Naturally a few establishment feathers may be ruffled, not to say plucked, by the laser system. "We don't really discuss it," James says, when asked what his competitors think about laser. "Most tailors are either just waiting to see what will happen or shutting it out. You can't stop technology, though. You can't uninvent the system."

The styles offered by the laser system are potentially infinite, with more possibilities being added all the time. Despite the fact that the suits are made up abroad, there is a final fitting in London. It is also at this stage that customers can request extra special details.

Price is another thing in favour of laser cut suits. The starting price is around £350, and goes up from there depending on what the customer requires. A bespoke suit by comparison usually starts at £1,200.

The whole process, from initial measurement to delivery, takes about two weeks. As the bespoke market inevitably shrinks, laser, by a strange quirk of fate, may turn out to be a sartorial saviour.

James & James, 11 Old Bur-lington Street, W1 (071-734 1748)