Fashion: People In Fashion

Good to know some things barely change, especially in the world of bespoke tailoring. Hester Lacey strolls down Savile Row

A large statue of an eagle, perched high on a shelf, keeps a watchful eye on proceedings at Henry Poole & Co, the oldest tailor on Savile Row. The eagle is a relic of the Paris Exhibition of 1851; he looks out on a cosy and masculine vista of leather armchairs, glass cabinets of military memorabilia (including some spectacular Poole-tailored uniforms) and an enormous selection of fabric sample swatches. The stern-looking old bird has probably borne witness to some riotous fittings; at one time, the establishment was more of a gentlemen's club than a clothes shop. Henry Poole, or Old Pooley, as he was known, played host to the swells of the 1870s with hock, claret and fine cigars. These days, under the direction of Angus Cundey, great-grandson of Old Pooley's cousin Samuel Cundey, things are more decorous.

Henry Poole & Co was founded in 1806; Angus Cundey joined the business in 1957, after a year apprenticed to the Lanvin fashion house in Paris. "I came back, did my National Service and started in the cutting room. Then my father became ill and I had to come out and spend my time on sales and admin, which is where I've been stuck ever since," he says genially. As a boy, he wanted to be an RAF fighter pilot but, he says, he has never regretted taking his place in the family business; his son, recently appointed a director, will be the fifth generation to run the company.

Apart from a computer system to deal with accounts, things have altered little over the course of those generations. The Henry Poole workshops are housed in the Savile Row premises and it is very specialised work. The cutters specialise in cutting and fitting; the trousermakers and coatmakers put together the pieces (bespoke jackets are always known as "coats"), then the garments are passed on to the finishers, who do the buttonholes and sew in the linings, and the pressers and the machinists who sew in the pockets. Each suit represents around 50 hours' work. "We try to keep to our old traditions," says Angus Cundey. "There has been one considerable change: now that America is our biggest market we have had to learn different methods of dealing with the lightweight materials that they insist on. But the basics are the same as in my grandfather's day."

A two-piece made-to-measure Henry Poole suit costs between pounds 1,695 and pounds 2,000 and clients, says Mr Cundey, find they are worth every penny. "Once you have had a really proper bespoke suit you are very unlikely to go back to off-the-peg." He regrets that the Englishman is not the stylish dresser he once was. "The Americans and the French are prepared to pay more for their clothes than the average Englishman. I believe it is a result of the Second World War and clothing coupons; we never recovered." At the moment, he says, single-breasted suits are in vogue, particularly among his younger customers, but with a three-button front rather than the traditional Savile Row two-button style.

These days, tailors also have to be globetrotters. Although there are some fifth-generation scions of the British aristocracy who have remained faithful customers over the past two centuries, the bulk of Angus Cundey's customers today are businessmen. "Part of our costs are down to giving amazing service - like rushing to New York with 100 suits to fit," he says. Each client's individual paper pattern is kept on file until they die.

Mr Cundey is particularly proud of his record-keeping. "We are the only firm in Savile Row that has managed to keep all its records, right back to 1846." In the basement, 105 huge tomes record every purchase. The company's first royal warrant was from Napoleon III in 1858. Queen Victoria granted Henry Poole & Co the royal livery warrant in 1869 which they hold to this day.

These days, Henry Poole & Co turn out around 1,800 suits a year. "In my grandfather's day it was 12,000 a year," says Angus Cundey. "Then we employed 300 sewing tailors and 14 cutters. Today we are still the largest bespoke tailors in Savile Row and we are down to a workforce of 70." He wonders, he says, if he has encouraged his son to join a dying business. "But we won't go out of business through lack of demand. It will be because there are not enough craftsmen to keep going." And venerable traditions don't come cheaply. "Keeping a whole lot of craftsmen in central London is a very costly operation. But it's the only way we know how to work. For a firm like ours, one of the top names, to have to find a different way of working would be a tragedy."

Henry Poole & Co, 15 Savile Row, London W1X 1AE, tel 0171-734 5985.

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