RETURN OF THE KILLER SUITS

Savile Row stands for everything that fashion hates: sobriety, simplicity, stability. But it is also synonymous with elegance, exclusivity, dandyism. Which is exactly why designers are now turning to the Row for inspiration

THE SUIT in its purest form - the bespoke suit from Savile Row - is essentially anti-fashion, an escape from fashion. The dynamic of fashion is change, while the whole point of Savile Row is its permanence. Occasionally, though, the two worlds come together.

The last time was in the Sixties. First, the Mods flocked to the low- rent tailors of Soho; then the Beatles, Stones and the rest crossed Regent Street to the Row itself, establishing a bridgehead at Tommy Nutter (Get Back was performed on the roof of No 3, where the Beatles set up their headquarters). The idea was to apply the superb techniques of the traditional tailor to the fab and groovy gear of the day.

But by the late Eighties, the tailors were on the ropes, threatened by colossal rent hikes and cut off from the flood of Eighties money, which went instead to designers such as Armani. Savile Row at that time recalled a line of Baudelaire's: "Dandyism is a setting sun; like the star in decline it is superb, without heat and full of melancholy."

Now fashion is back in the Row, but this time round it's different. This season, it is the designers who are emulating the Savile Row look, and new talent is moving in - notably Ozwald Boateng, the 28-year-old darling of English design, who's recently set up shop in Vigo Street round the corner.

Inspired by the wave of killer suits unleashed by Reservoir Dogs, this time the groovers come not as revolutionaries but as pilgrims. Even the announcement that 007's suits for the new Bond film were made not by his usual Savile Row tailors but by the Italian firm Brioni has merely served to focus attention on the Home of the Suit.

The suit's origins lie in the late 18th century, with Beau Brummell and the Great Masculine Renunciation, when men gave up on display and concentrated on correctness. What Brummell did was to citify country clothes, and to found a cult of simplicity and sobriety. Captain Jesse, his biographer, noted that "His chief aim was to avoid anything marked, one of his aphorisms being that the severest mortification that a gentleman could incur was to attract observation in the street by his outward appearance. He exercised the most correct taste in the selection of each article of apparel, of a form and colour harmonious with all the rest, for the purpose of producing a perfectly elegant general effect."

Brummell was eventually driven by debt to France, where he died wretchedly in an asylum; his last words were: "Loose me, you scoundrels! I owe nothing!" (Whether he was addressing his tailors is not known.) But his achievement lives on. He created the bourgeois uniform par excellence and founded the reputation of Savile Row, which by the 1820s had eclipsed Paris.

Later in the century, his precepts were codified in the creations of Henry Poole, doyen of the Row and tailor to kings and princes. According to a contemporary ac-count, Poole "petrified and embalmed the mode which he found, after which he locked Tailordom itself in a Sleeping Beauty spell".

The spell has yet to be broken, and the style that began in London in the 1790s has this century achieved global hegemony. Even the old Soviet Union could not resist the suit - though Moscow tailors, as Guy Burgess observed in An Englishman Abroad, "dress you up like a bloody beadle". With typical perversity, Britain imports 60 per cent of its suits, while most of Savile Row's products go to Europe, America and Japan (the Japanese word for suit is sabiro).

The men pictured here work at Kilgour, French & Stanbury and at Bernard Weatherill, Kilgour's sporting wing, which is the only Savile Row tailor to employ a women's cutter. Kilgour is one of the Row's Big Four (the others are Henry Poole, And-erson & Sheppard and Huntsman) and its clients have included Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and the Maharajah of Jaipur. These days they make suits for Barry Humphries, Harold Pinter and Chris Eubank (they do a nice line line in jodhpurs).

Bernard Weatherill was a Tory MP as well as a tailor. When he was appointed Speaker of the House of Commons, which requires a livery of velvet Court dress with pigeon-breasted front, knee breeches and wig bag, he faced the prospect of wearing George Thomas's coat and Selwyn Lloyd's trousers for a State Opening of Parliament. His Savile Row colleagues came to his rescue and kitted him out in silk velvet, which was then virtually unobtainable and is now entirely so. (A thousand times more problematic for the tailors of Savile Row will be the next Coronation, which will employ the entire street for at least nine months.)

A suit is called "bespoke" because the customer bespeaks it, nominating which cloth and lining, whether single- or double-breasted, the number of buttons and so on. He is then measured, with the tailor discreetly noting idiosyncracies ("I see you dress to the right, sir") and such deformities as bandy legs and "forward abdomens", with a view to making them disappear in the finished product. "The aim," as a tailor at Huntsman puts it, "is to improve on the perfect fit. A suit that fitted perfectly might not satisfy us where there are faults to hide or correct."

A few weeks later, there follows a first fitting, for which the suit is roughly assembled with temporary stitching; then one or two more fittings in due course. The whole process takes about two months, entails about 80 hours of labour and costs somewhere between pounds 1,000 and pounds 1,700.

The tailors, naturally, regard such prices as a bargain for a unique creation, but so do their clients. This season's off-the-peg suits from Prada and Dolce e Gabbana cost between pounds 1,000 and pounds 1,200. They're jolly nice - to die for, in fact - but would you be able to wear them every week for the next 20 years or so? And would you want to? !

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