Customers rally to save the pukka tailor of Piccadilly

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The Independent Online
IT'S ALWAYS sad when you hear that a famous old name is in trouble - but cheering to know that it might be saved by loyal customers.

Earlier this month, Anthony Airey, managing director of Airey & Wheeler of Piccadilly, supplier of lightweight clothing to people who matter, wrote to his customers announcing that the annual sale would also be the closing-down sale. The recession has failed to lift in the upmarket retail sector, and the company was being placed in the hands of the administrator.

But he concluded: "If you or anyone you know is interested in buying the business, please get in touch." About 10 potential buyers have expressed an interest, the administrator says, and at least two are customers.

Mr Airey, great grandson of James, who founded the shop in 1883, says that even last year's steaming summer failed to convince people to shrug off recession and replace their lightweight suits, because they assumed Airey & Wheeler would be there to serve them next year. Now that it might not be, they have been queuing at its portals.

I assumed Airey & Wheeler had always specialised in tropical clothing, kitting out district officers before they set off to distribute justice in the colonies. Not so. Until after the war, it was just another bespoke tailor. But Anthony's father believed there was a market in lightweight clothes, and started specialising. He bought the current Piccadilly shop in 1957 and soon it was the place to buy your lightweight outfit.

Sir Winston Churchill bought his there. So did John Major when he was Foreign Secretary, and most of our warmer ambassadors have an Airey & Wheeler or three in their wardrobe. Nowadays they would pay pounds 750 or so for a bespoke number, though if they want the ultimate, a Super 100s 8- 9oz worsted is recommended at about pounds 1,000.

Mr Airey, a qualified barrister, says he would be happy to stay on if the new owner wants him. Otherwise there is always the Bar - I've always thought there must be a market for lightweight wigs.

LATEST management theory tells us executives should do all they can to break down the barrier between themselves and the plebs - they should share canteens, car parks and the like. General Accident in Perth does not apparently agree. The executives there even have their own entrance - at the bottom of the hill. The plebs have to struggle to the top - and in this weather they could lose a finger or two from frostbite in the process.

Metric mutiny

BUNHILL noted the other week that not every business is cock-a-hoop over the enforced metrication of our retailers. Since then, I have been chatting to one of the more notable refuseniks, Bruce Robertson of Trago Mills. Trago is one of Cornwall's biggest companies, and Mr Robertson is well practised at getting his message across. The photo below of the billboards he has been displaying gives a good idea of his line. Like most retailers, he is against the compulsory use of metric measures. He points out that with its possible pounds 5,000 fine, it is in the law's eyes as sinful to mark up a carpet in square feet as it is to assault a policeman.

But Mr Robertson goes further ... much further. "This European directive affects the way we think and speak to each other - eventually our national character is going to change."

Consumer laws, he says, are supposed to protect against misrepresentation. "Now a new law says we must misrepresent ourselves to a part of the population, particularly those whose education finished before 1971.

"We are breaking the law: we have 44,000 lines and on 99 per cent of them we lead off with the imperial measurement. That is illegal, but I have not had a visit from the trading standards office."

Which is a shame. "If they haul me in front of the JPs and they hand down anything other than an unconditional discharge, I'm going to be purging my contempt in a local jail. I shall ask them who is in contempt, me or the quislings of the Vichy government in Brussels on the bench."

It is well known that the end of the millennium will be marked by apocalyptic events. This seems especially likely in Cornwall, because after 2000, shops will not be allowed to mention imperial measures. Stand by for avenging angels, horseman of the Apocalypse, and Mr Bruce Robertson.

BANNED expression - "fat cat". Not only is it terribly 1995, it also insults my volumetrically challenged pet. So we need a new expression for grossly overpaid managers. A colonial colleague tells me the Canadians refer to "corporate welfare bums". Not bad, but maybe someone can come up with something better. Bottles of fizz could be available.