When it comes to fashion, it is fair to say that those who are plus-sized are not usually found at the forefront of new trends. Yet when a handful of gentlemen who found it increasingly difficult to find good-quality casual clothes that fit their generous stature – and who had plenty of disposable cash to spare – happened upon Gresham Blake's atelier in central London, it gave the tailor pause for thought: if he could produce bespoke casual clothing for outsized clients, why not for all his other customers? "A guy with a 46-inch chest can't really just go and buy a polo shirt – and some of these guys are multimillionaires," says Blake, in his small but immaculate South Molton Street fitting-room in central London. "That's where it all started."
Blake has been producing what is now being coined in the industry as "bespoke casual wear" for a couple of years, but only now is it taking off. Aside from the formal suits, jackets and wedding attire he started out with 10 years ago, Blake is now producing made-to-measure shirts, T-shirts, jeans and even wallets – and he is finding that it accounts for more and more of his business.
Men's bespoke tailoring has seen only a handful of changes over the past few decades, but now the bespoke casual movement is emerging as a major trend and several Savile Row-trained tailors are offering informal tailoring alongside their more classic designs. Many are finding customers jaded and bored with high-street labels and the generic fit they offer, and these customers are coming to them seeking a traditional process, adapted to produce a modern and individual look.
Perhaps more radically for a traditionally trained tailor, Blake is printing designs straight on to fabric using computers. The DJ Norman Cook recently had a shirt made by the tailor, which according to Blake embodies the very notion of bespoke casual. "He brought in this crappy old shirt that was made of polyester or something. But he loved it as he could travel with it and not have to iron it. I said, 'I'm not using that – bespoke casual doesn't mean cheap!' We decided on crepe silk and used his tattoo [a smiley face with skull and crossbones] as a design. We made maybe 20 shirts in different colourways. That is bespoke casual down to a T, in my mind: we've sourced and identified the type of fabric that he's comfortable with, which will travel well, and we've identified a pattern that he likes."
Timothy Everest, one of the biggest names of the new-generation Savile Row-trained tailors, is also branching into the area. He pioneered the New Bespoke Movement (NBM) in the 1990s, bringing a designer mindset to the traditional values of Savile Row, which at the time was facing a financial crisis. It was seen as the last modern development within British bespoke tailoring and he, along with Ozwald Boateng and Richard James, who had also broken away from the Savile Row mould, set out to revitalise the bespoke style and make it relevant to an audience to whom it had seemed fusty and old fashioned.
The NBM received much public and press interest at the time, peaking in 1997 when the three appearing in the now much-lauded "Cool Britannia" issue of Vanity Fair. Those involved in the movement actively set out to garner celebrity clients and attract wider national and international custom. Blake numbers celebrity clients as diverse as Ray Winstone, Dizzee Rascal and Krishnan Guru-Murthy, and a number of women including Davina McCall and Denise Van Outen. Everest is more discreet about his clients, but does confirm he has dressed both Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
Now, Everest once again finds himself at the forefront of a new movement, attempting to attract the next generation of customers. "Casual wear in general has become very anonymous," he says. "People all look the same but, ironically, all think they're individual and cool. There are so many people who want to look like somebody else, and I think that's rather boring. Bespoke casual is also about comfort, comfort that's easy to buy into and comfort you feel cool in." '
Everest's desire to push the tailoring boundaries stems from his Savile Row days, when he trained under Tommy Nutter. Nutter is something of a legend in the world of tailoring, and changed the face and fortunes of the street in no small way. During the 1960s he made classic tailoring available to rock stars and celebrities, helping them stamp their individuality on the suits they'd had designed. Something of an enfant terrible among his peers, he moved in the same circles as rock stars. He famously made the suits the Beatles wore on the cover of their Abbey Road album, and legend has it that one morning he found John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing naked in his shop window.
But despite all the exposure, Nutter's real gift was as a communicator, and his skill was to open the world of bespoke tailoring to a wider, fashion-conscious audience looking beyond the traditional business suit. This communication, Everest and Blake concur, is key to understanding what clients want.
"I really encourage people to bring their own stuff in," says Blake. "If someone has a shirt they really love, you've got to identify why they love it – even though you're often thinking 'that looks shocking!' Then you'll look closer and see that it's cut quite broad across the back, for example, or that it doesn't rise up." He also stresses that there is no limit to what can be done. "If you can print it on a normal Epson printer, you can print it on a shirt. So there are no rules."
One tailor who has been quietly going about his business, producing bespoke casual wear as well as smart, quirky tailoring for several decades, is John Pearse. Savile Row-trained Pearse was one of the co-founders of Granny Takes a Trip, a 1960s boutique shop on the King's Road in London's then hip and fashionable Chelsea. Described as the first psychedelic boutique, it remained open until the mid-1970s and Pearse, while now producing much smarter tailoring, can be considered something of a godfather of bespoke casual. His store, tucked away in a back street in the heart of Soho, focuses on individuality, and much like Blake and Everest, he puts the onus on what the client wants.
"Everyone's an individual here. Many know what they want and many don't," says Pearse. "When we had suits made as a kid in Burtons, we were saying where we wanted the pockets, and 'I want this and I want that added'. There was a tradition of bespoke. We stepped away from that for a while, especially with the rise of Carnaby Street and jeans in the 1960s. For a lot of people the bespoke project went out the window. Now the tailor has become the new iconoclast in a way. We have more freedom than the designer who's got to do a range of things each season. And I think Armani and all that is becoming a bit generic."
Blake argues that the shift toward tailored casual wear is also born of a societal change: "There's been such a shift in trends, to the stage where men want what women have. There are loads of dressmakers, and women can have anything they want made. But all a guy generally has is a suit, trousers, a jacket and perhaps a shirt. So I think this is a case of men thinking, 'I want some of that.'"
Although the tailors maintain that their business will remain focussed on producing traditional suits and coats, they are seeing bespoke casual account for larger proportions of their output. Currently, Blake says that around a quarter of his business can be attributed to bespoke casual wear. Everest envisages that, while it presently accounts for a small percentage of his commissions, it will eventually be equal to his smart tailoring side.
Using British mills to source their fabric is a big part of the process. All three tailors agree that many of their clients like to know where their fabric has come from, as well as the process involved. Those few mills that have survived, mainly in the north of England, are finding themselves having to adapt to the times. Blake sources a great deal of his fabric from mills of the John Foster company, near Bradford. Nearly 200 years old, the company is using the latest technology to produce high-quality fabric. They are also producing fabric with shorter lead times, which suits the likes of Blake, Everest and Pearse, who don't order large amounts at any one time.
Matthew Simpson, the sales director at John Foster, says: "What the mills are doing, in effect, is cutting out the middle-man. Historically, we would have sold to a third-party merchant who would then have sold to the customer. We're becoming our own merchants, in a sense, and moving into smaller and more luxurious fabrics."
It remains to be seen whether the man on the street will be custom ordering his T-shirts, but Everest certainly believes it can be affordable: "I do think we have the opportunity to redefine the modern wardrobe," he says, "and in the training, tailoring and the quality of what we're producing, to be the benchmark for modern tailoring. A lot of people want to buy tailored things, but they don't all necessarily all want bespoke. So this could be a very interesting way of doing it."
greshamblake.com (limited-edition T-shirt, about £75); johnpearse.co.uk (bespoke denim suit, about £2,000); timothyeverest.co.uk (bespoke jeans, from £250-£450)