To many, Savile Row is still a bastion of British stuffiness, an ode to the gentleman and his Club; tailors to a dying breed which enjoys being measured up almost as much as spending weekends shooting grouse in bespoke tweeds. In truth, the last decade has been hard. The designer era rampaged and the high street was transformed while aristocratic customers spent more money on roof repairs than new suits.
But things are changing. Even No 1 Savile Row, home to Gieves & Hawkes, the original tailoring address, has started stressing its casualwear. And men who would have referred to themselves as designers in the 80s - Ralph Lauren, Richard James, Ozwald Boateng - have rediscovered classic tailoring and want not only a Savile Row address but cut and quality too.
Scattered among the dowdy windows of traditional tailors - worsted wools and walking sticks - are sudden dashes of colour. Oranges, pinks, purples, lime greens, bold checks, unusual stripes, set boldly against each other. Late 20th century menswear is making its presence felt.
"I discovered Savile Row 10 years ago, when I was 18," said Ozwald Boateng, who opened his shop in December. "I respect the tradition and the snobbery and I love the pomp." Fresh from his workshop on the Portobello Road, Mr Boateng's bright canary polo neck and dashing navy suit declare that he is far from the typical Savile Row gent. But in many senses he wants to be: "Tailoring has almost become fashionable again," he says. "The Row was on its last legs and it needed to be reborn."
Indeed, though his cut is traditional, and he loves the form of shoulder lines, waists, and curved backs, Mr Boateng defines himself as a "bespoke couturier", somewhere between a designer and a bespoke tailor, at home at the Parisian menswear catwalks or in Covent Garden, where he hopes to open his next shop.
Richard James also took an unusual route. After starting out as a buyer at Browns in South Molton Street, he took up the sketch pad to fill a gap he saw in the market."Everything has changed since the 80s," he said. "There's a reaction against high fashion. It's about people's style rather than a designer's. A few years ago our customers would have worn Comme des Garcons or Armani. But men are realising that there's something not very sophisticated about wearing a suit you can buy in any major city."
In his sleek, minimalist showroom, Mr James and his partner Sean Dixon (formerly John Galliano's commercial director) talk about the fine quality cloth on their shirts, the traditional two vents on suit jackets, a slight flare on the cuff, a narrower trouser and a clear waist. "Not outrageous. Modern but still classic."
It's all part of re-establishing old values, like the almost defunct practice of buying specially-commissioned runs of fabric from the Yorkshire mills. Even though the bulk of Mr James' business is off-the-peg, these runs guarantee a uniqueness. "Men can have a suit made here for pounds 1,100, and a ready-to-wear designer suit costs that. People are aware they're paying for advertising costs. Here you pay for workmanship."
In a strange way, the so-called New Wave on the Row are trying to reinvent tradition. "I thought now was the time for a new sophistication," Ralph Lauren says of his Purple Label. Or, from Mr James: "Our clothes are English to a tee. We're trying to bring back the spirit of Savile Row" (this is a street that once had such standing that the Japanese appropriated the name as their generic term for tailoring - Sabiro).
lt isn't the first time the old guard has been shaken by newcomers. In spite of a behind-the-scenes sniffiness - comments like "they're not even tailors but they're getting the publicity" - their arrival is a continuation of Savile Row history. "You had Tommy Nutter, Rupert Lycett Green, Michael Fish and myself," explains Tom Gilbey (best-known as the waistcoat king but also an innovative tailor) about the last influx of new blood, in the 60s. "Tommy Nutter wasn't a tailor and a cutter. He came from the sales side."
Without such marketing skills, the old school has not exploited the potential of one of the world's best-known brand names. It wasn't long ago that some Savile Row firms were resisting offers of export deals to Japan. Like Nutter, the newcomers see things differently. One could hardly imagine them serving years in a basement learning the crafts of cut and sew."We're not tailors," Mr James admits. "But we work with tailors who've been in the business a long time and know all the techniques that are dying out."
Given panache and an opening into the world of modern men, Savile Row has potential. After all, Lauren and Armani learnt a long time ago that perfect packaging is essential. And, in the right hands, Savile Row offers that - as long as it remembers that men are no longer Nelsons or Wellingtons and that a glorious past does not necessarily confer success on the present.Reuse content