Savile Row begins fightback to save the gentleman's suit: Roger Tredre looks at the way traditional tailors suffering a decade of declining trade hope to halt the march of casual fashion

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THE GENTLEMEN of Savile Row are rallying forces. With sales of men's suits nation-wide showing a steady decline since the late Eighties, the tailors have decided the time has come to counter-attack. Ever so politely, of course.

Sir Hardy Amies, octogenarian veteran of Savile Row, has led the assault. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, published yesterday, Sir Hardy defended the traditions of the Row: 'It is clear that the man's suit . . . is still worn by men at all times when respect for tradition and hope for an ordered future

prevail.'

Sir Hardy did accept that the suit has to change with the times, but argued that 'the modern commercially made and marketed garment is only a substitute for the bespoke job. Any development in the shaping and styling of a suit which is not acceptable by our famous traditional tailors will not last.' In the men's fashion world, the view is that suits are on the decline. Designers at the spring 1994 menswear catwalk shows in Paris and Milan, which closed last week, showed very few suits. A flood of casual wear and unstructured dressing dominated the catwalks.

On Savile Row, however, the tailors insist the suit is far from dead. Colin Hammick, managing director of H Huntsman, who has worked in the Row for more than 40 years, said: 'I agree with Sir Hardy. Suits are very much in demand. Business executives still like to wear them.'

Many of the tailors believe that the Savile Row suit is a symbol of all that is best about Britain: solid, reassuring, dependable. Anthony Hewitt, a tailor, said: 'A well-made suit doesn't date. It will last for 10, 20 years.'

John Taylor, editor of British Style, and an authority on Savile Row, said: 'The Savile Row suit is restrained. It's about discipline, about self-discipline perhaps. Once discipline goes, the whole social structure goes.'

Mr Taylor said that Britain's streets were turning into 'Slobsville - all blousons and cotton trousers.' By his reckoning, Savile Row is fighting a rearguard action at a time when standards everywhere are deteriorating. 'It's terribly sad - like the disappearance of good manners.'

But even Mr Taylor agrees that the suit must change if it is to survive. In 1989, 6.8 million suits were sold in Britain. Last year, the total was just 4.5 million.

Tailors in Savile Row admit to a sneaking regard for Giorgio Armani, the Italian designer, who defied traditionalists by developing unstructured jackets. Mr Hammick said: 'It's not our kind of thing, but one can still admire the lightness and subtleness of his jackets. We're not particularly supporting him, but we're not knocking him either.'

Mr Armani is a modern designer but he is, perhaps, just as much a tailor as the gentlemen of Savile Row.

Richard James, a fashion designer who took the radical step of opening a shop in the heart of Savile Row last year, got it about right: 'While you should respect the past, you have to push forward. People get grouse in Sainsbury's these days, not on the moors.'

(Photographs omitted)

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