the boys in the backroom

Despite Savile Row's renewed popularity, the coatmakers and buttonholer s who fill its workrooms are a dying breed.
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"In The old days," the tailor grumbles gently, "you wouldn't dream of going out to the cinema or pub without a jacket and tie on. They wouldn't let you in. Nowadays, though, you see people going out in singlets." John Crawley is in his garden, wearing shirtsleeves with prop- er cuffs and links. The garden has a lawn and flowerbeds, a fishpond with a little fountain and, tucked away by the greenhouse, his workshop - which to the untutored eye looks like a shed. "It's more a summerhouse, actually," he explains.

John Crawley has been a tailor for 54 years. He has a bad leg, so as a child he was sent to a school for the handicapped (as they were then called) where the emphasis was on the practical; he was working a half week from the age of 10. When he was 14 the wool merchants paid for him to go to the old Tailors and Cutters Academy in London's Gerrard Street, and from there he set up as a freelance coatmaker in Meard Street - "There were hundreds of little workshops all around Soho in those days."

For a while he worked as a salesman in Savile Row; then in the 1950s his leg got worse and he took up waistcoat making, which he's been doing ever since out in suburban Kent. He makes about six a week - which adds up to about 12,000 in the course of his career. "But each one is different, because no customer is the same."

Thanks to central heating and the fashion for the two-piece suit, the popularity of the waistcoat has gradually declined, but for the moment at least there's still plenty of work. Mr Crawley makes all kinds - hunting, military, clerical, but mainly to wear with suits. He is the top waistcoat man at Henry Poole, a leading Savile Row firm, and every Thursday he goes up to town to drop off the last week's work and pick up the next.

He loves the history and camaraderie of the Row. As he recalls his contemporaries, now all senior figures on the brink of retirement, he wonders where the next generation will come from. "Nowadays they've trained at the London College of Fashion and they want to be designers. They're living in flats in London, and they need more money."

This is the big question for both the grand old firm of Henry Poole and for Savile Row in general. Poole employs about 55 people, of whom only a few are "homeworkers". Some of the rest labour in the old upper-storey workshop on Carnaby Street, but most are in-house, at 15 Savile Row.

The first Poole made a fortune tailoring uniforms for the Na- poleonic War; when his son Henry expanded the Old Burlington Street premises backwards, Poole's became the first tailor on Savile Row - which was then full of doctors. Others followed, and the doctors fled to set up shop in Harley Street. Poole became a Victorian institution, dressing Trollope, Dickens, Livingstone and the crowned heads of Europe, Asia and Africa. Branches were opened in Berlin and Vienna (both abandoned in the Great War) and in Paris (abandoned in 1940, but they've kept the telegram: "Regretfully must evacuate").

France is still Poole's third biggest market, after Britain and the United States. The French prime minister Monsieur Balladur was a customer for many years, until he stood for the presidency. He was well ahead of Chirac in the polls when his spin doctors told him to go to a French tailor. "I saw a poster of him," recalls Angus Cundey, whose family has owned Poole since 1876, "and I could see immediately it wasn't one of our suits. And by coincidence his rating in the polls started to go down and down. Many of my French customers said it was because he no longer went to his London tailor. Sadly, we haven't seen him since." Giscard d'Estaing has kept the faith, though.

Number 15 Savile Row is a handsome building, the original premises of the Savile Club, and the showroom still has a clubby air. The rest is given over to a warren of workshops; standard light-industrial spaces - benches, tools, radios, pin-ups - but filled with a workforce of dapper men in waistcoats and shirtsleeves. The tailors sit on the benches, one leg crossed over the other, sewing and shaping the clothes, making jokes. Someone whistles "Killing Me Softly".

The older craftsmen can remember the days when tailors worked cross-legged on the floor. Derek Goggin, for example, joined as an apprentice at 14 after the war and is still making superb coats (as tailors call jackets). Arthur Bruschen, another coatmaker, is in his seventies and has been drawing his pension for years, but he still goes into work.

There's something orchestral about the making of a bespoke suit (called bespoke because the customer "bespeaks" what he wants and the suit is made to fit him - tailors pronounce it bespoke). The role of conduc- tor falls to the fitter/cutter, who measures and otherwise assesses the customer, then cuts the cloth and parcels it out to the boys and girls in the band; to Messrs Goggin and Bruschen on coats; to "the two Georges" (Messrs Day and Jenkins) on trousers; to Mr Crawley in his summerhouse; to Mrs Stevenson and Mrs Flohera on buttonholes.

Each garment comprises doz- ens of pieces, which are first tacked together in a "baste". The baste is tried on the customer and returned with arcane chalkmarks on it, then the tailor "builds" the finished article, shaping it to the contours of the body with a steam iron and a wooden wedge called a banger. "You stretch the back an inch," explains Mr Goggin, "down by the blades."

Alterations account for a good deal of Poole's work. Churchill, for example, ordered "enormous amounts of clothes" as a slim young man, then for decades afterwards had them let out. These days there's at least the same amount of taking in. "Americans especially, they go on diets, go on machines in the gym, then three or four years later they put it back on again."

Poole makes fewer suits than it used to - about 1,800 a year now, compared to 2,600 at the end of the war. One might think demand had fallen, but according to Angus Cundey the cause is evolutionary: tailors have failed to replace themselves.

Simon Cundey (29, fifth generation, in charge of the American side of the business) has followed his father's footsteps, it is true, but his fellow twentysomethings in the firm are mostly Europeans. Nick Ylallouris, a young Greek coatmaker, has two apprentices: Maria Gomes, who is Portuguese and Marit Bergman (Swedish).

New local talent is represented by Keith Levett, who is clearly some sort of genius. On a YTS at 17 he was interviewed by Angus Cundey, who showed him Poole's display of historic outfits (as seen at the Victoria and Albert museum) and asked if he knew what they were. Levett identified them all, and added that he was making a replica of Nelson's vice-admiral's uniform. Seven years later he's in charge of the Royal livery side of the business. His last commission was two coats for the Royal coach's postillions; the amount of metal involved finally explained that old phrasebook oddity, "my postillion has been struck by lightning". Well yes he would be, if you dress him up like that.

Philip Parker, a director of Poole and a senior fitter and cutter, was so concerned at the dearth of fresh British blood that he has helped the London College of Fashion devise a new National Vocational Qualification in tailoring. Poole hopes to take on four new apprentices this autumn, and trusts that the rest of the Row will follow his example. Such a scheme is surely the best hope for one of the last industrial enclaves in the West End. !

Right: Angus Cundey. `Many of my clients believe Balladur lost the French presidency because he ceased coming to us'