A cut above: The king of Savile Row reveals the secrets of life as a top-end tailor
Katharine Hepburn is demanding trousers three sizes too big, Stewart Granger won't stop cursing, and Rex Harrison is over in the corner, throwing a strop. In his new memoir, Richard Anderson draws aside the changing-room curtains...
Sunday 20 September 2009
What does one wear to interview a Savile Row tailor? As I approach the façade of Richard Anderson Ltd at number 13, my Hackett slacks and Tyrwhitt shirt begin to feel like sacking. I've even got a chocolate stain on my inside leg, sponged but persistent. I'm here to discuss the eponymous owner's memoir, Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed, and I'm reminded of Anderson's entrance to Huntsman (arguably the most distinguished establishment on the Row) one snowbound day in 1982. His school blazer just didn't cut it.
I needn't have worried. A boyish fortysomething, Anderson is adept at putting people at ease, as befits a man who spends his days capturing the particulars of a body line or customer's whim. We sit at one of the tall cutting tables, surrounded by the hanging skeletons of tawny patterns, each holding a paper DNA of a client's silhouette. Bespoke is a beautifully crafted celebration of this peculiar arena, smoothly weaving three overlapping narratives: a coming-of-age tale, a history of "The Row" and an examination of the tailor's craft.
Anderson recounts his initial reaction to this alien atmosphere. "Oh, I loved it," he smiles. It was "electric, masculine and aggressive" and fitted perfectly with his football-playing, cocky teenage persona. The world into which "Young Richard" walked that winter morning was an arcane one anchored in time-worn traditions. "It might as well have been 1882," he laughs. Surfaces were strewn with half-made garments and "massive shears like scissors on steroids nestled in their folds". Under the tutelage of Huntsman's managers, Brian Hall (grumpy, chain-smoking) and Colin Hammick (smooth, unflappable), he was introduced to the world of bluff edges and blind-flies, rip downs and roll lines; 27 years later, he is the proprietor of the youngest bespoke tailoring house on the Golden Mile.
With the recent opening of Abercrombie & Fitch, at the junction with Burlington Gardens, the Row has found itself in a rather undesired limelight. Abercrombie & Fitch of Savile Row is as incongruous a label as Café Rouge of Brick Lane. The deep pockets of the American casual-apparel outfit have raised the stakes on property prices and created worries that a reputation expertly burnished over two centuries could lose its lustre. Anderson, however, claims it is positive for the future of the Row. "Footfall has increased and that can't be a bad thing. Before, it was a destination venue. But now, while children are in [Abercrombie], their fathers will wander up and buy a shirt, a belt, a tie," he says.
At this point, a customer arrives for his inaugural fitting. Anderson apologises and heads to the backroom, leaving me with his amiable apprentice, Rebecca. An Australian who left the Great Ocean Road to take up the role six years ago, she embodies progress in the industry. "I've got a young face," she says, "and at first you could see the clients' reactions: who's this girl? In my first week I remember ending a client call by saying 'No worries,' and the room went quiet. Then someone told me, you can't say that." Returning from his whistle-stop fitting, Anderson points out that when he started, his girlfriend wasn't even allowed in the front of house.
The process of tailoring has also changed. "Each tailor in the team had his own role; one affixed the collar, another the sleeves, another the lining, and so on," to form a production line not unlike that at Bentley or Daimler. Economic necessity has faded out that expensive practice in favour of a single tailor taking responsibility for the whole process. However, an exacting approach remains, and Anderson retains the services of dedicated workers to whom he passes on duties after he has created a blueprint for the work. "Some tailors will specialise in Nehru jackets, others morning suits," he says. "We try also to keep a single tailor working on a customer's commissions for consistency of quality."
Anderson is respectful of his competitors' virtues and I'm impressed by the clubbable qualities of the Row. Even so, does he not see suits or coats when out walking and think he could do much better? "Oh God, all the time!" he exclaims.
Yet his immaculate manners have helped navigate some precarious situations with famous clients. High-end frequently means high maintenance. The Row has a fine record of pandering to the pompous antics of the great and good. The Huntsman years are full of stories of bad behaviour. Stewart Granger stomped around, turning the cutting-room blue with unwarranted language, while Rex Harrison would go mad at the drop of a stitch. "Oh, he was a boy!" declares Anderson. Yet for every Granger and Harrison there would be a darling like Katharine Hepburn, who "liked her trousers about three sizes too wide, so they billowed like ship's sails when she walked". The fitter's relationship with their client is a balancing act of deference and authority.
His erudite memoir positions Anderson as the Anthony Bourdain of the rag trade. And as I leave him to his bodkins and bolts, I wonder, glancing to my caramel-blotted trousers, if his book might even teach me how to smarten up my act.
'Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed' (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) is out now. www.richardandersonltd.com
The benefits of bespoke
'It's as crisp and sharp as a shot of limoncello'
The term "bespoke" derives from how a customer's fabric would be "spoken for". The client's will is the metronome by which Savile Row ticks – and justifiably so considering the price tag: Anderson's standard bespoke suit is racked at £3,500. Yet, Anderson points out, the cost equates to a suit's durability. To highlight this, he pulls out a grey two- piece, with a one-button jacket, that he cut 15 years ago. It's as crisp and sharp as a shot of limoncello. If Huntsman's famous one-button coats were the innovation of their time, then what, I ask, has been the most prominent development of late? "The Blackberry or mobile-phone pocket. We'll take the measurements of a particular model," says Anderson. "That's the beauty of bespoke!"
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