It's scissors at dawn in Savile Row

If you go down to Savile Row for a suit, be careful. That swish you hear may not be the sound of cloth being cut, but of one tailor plunging his sharpened scissors into another's back.

If you go down to Savile Row for a suit, be careful. That swish you hear may not be the sound of cloth being cut, but of one tailor plunging his sharpened scissors into another's back.

The arcane homeland of gentlemen's tailoring has been torn down the middle by a row between the traditionalists, who have been practising their art for more than a century, and new arrivals who behave like their pop star clients and claim to have brought the Row back from the dead.

"We've made Savile Row sexy," boasts Richard James, who lines up alongside other purveyors of ultra-fashionable suiting such as Ozwald Boateng and Timothy Everest on the cool side of the Row. "I would be terrified to go into most of those tailors' shops. All that dark lighting, mahogany and dust."

Such confrontational words have always met with discreet silence from the big Establishment names across the Row such as Gieves & Hawkes, Hardy Amies and Huntsman - although gold lettering in the window of the latter reminds the arrivistes that it was clothing the Prince of Wales back in 1865.

Now, however, the tape measure has finally snapped. The opening of a new Richard James shop - the biggest on the block, with wide plate windows that break all the Savile Row rules by actually letting you see inside - has provoked scissors at dawn, with the angry traditionalists branding their rivals "parasites" who "don't know one end of a needle from another".

In a letter to London's Evening Standard last week, Francis Morris of Welsh & Jefferies at number 20 landed a blow for his kind. While Richard James had been described as making suits for It boys (the male equivalent of the girls who are talk of the town), including pop stars and dotcom millionaires, he said: "The traditional tailors of Savile Row are making suits for It men, the ones who pay the It boys' wages."

Mr Morris was still fuming in his shop the next day. "They upset us, because they knock what we do and at the same time live off the back of it. They call us the fuddy duddies. They say Savile Row was dead until they arrived. Well, some of the companies along here have been dying for the last 200 years, and will continue to die for the next 200."

On his own terms - fashionability is everything - Richard James may be right to claim that Savile Row was "dying a death" when he moved there eight years ago. The high days of the Sixties, when even female stars such as Cilla Black would go to the Row for the combination of flamboyance and expertise offered by the likes of Tommy Nutter, were long gone.

Relaxed Continental styling was popular at the start of the Nineties (with ready-to-wear suits by the likes of Hugo Boss capturing the top end of the market) and more formal English tailoring was definitely not. New designers like Boateng and Everest helped to change that, as did James. His quirky reinvention of an apparently outdated style has attracted celebrity customers including Tom Cruise, Robbie Williams and Robert De Niro. When Hugh Grant broke up with Liz Hurley he was photographed clutching a Richard James carrier bag for comfort.

But over at Welsh & Jefferies they were not impressed. "What they do is image and marketing," said Francis Morris. "What we're about is substance."

The entrance to his shop was not dark and impenetrable, but inside its modern frontage were the trappings of a 100-year-old company. White and blue chalk lay with brown paper patterns on the dark mahogany cutting table; half-made suit jackets hung next to bolts of cloth.

Back in the days when officers were usually moneyed gentlemen, most of Welsh & Jefferies' customers were military. Regimental watercolours on the walls and a scarlet tunic in the back room suggested that some still were. But there was no chance of persuading the tailors to reveal the identities of their customers.

"We work for the captains of industry," said Alan Cooper, the managing director. "We don't get our business from the minor players. The major City people come here. Worldwide forces. The old, solid Establishment. The landowners. We would only reveal the names of those we had worked for in the past. Such as those who had died."

Could he name any politicians to rival Peter Mandelson, who wears Richard James? "Will Anthony Eden do? Charles de Gaulle? Winston Churchill?"

Savile Row was no longer an intimidating place, claimed Mr Cooper. "They can walk in off the street, as they frequently do, and they can ask the questions: 'How long will it take? How much will it cost?' And they can scuttle out again if it's out of their league."

A suit would be about £2,000, unless it was made with more expensive fabrics (such as one that included a 22 carat gold pinstripe). Eyebrows were raised when the Chancellor got married in an £800 suit, so was it likely that most modern politicians could afford Savile Row? "Almost certainly not."

A two-piece took about six weeks to produce, he said, including an initial consultation and at least two fittings. "We're very rarely dictatorial. If you wanted one of these vast checks we might just warn you that it could be extremely bold and a little bit lively. The customer is buying 40 years of my knowledge and skill, none of which these other people have at all. This street is the only place left in the world where all the expertise comes together, in perhaps just a dozen first-class tailors. Everything else is inevitably second best."

The Row began to change about 10 years ago when a line of shops was redeveloped and the rents set at a level that was too high for the traditional businesses, said Mr Cooper. Those who saw the sales value of the address were willing to pay.

"They are parasites on our back. No doubt if you're marketing a range of wonderful green woollies in Japan and it's said to be So-and-So of Savile Row, that would be wonderful. The Japanese don't know any better, let's face it."

Other companies were using the name to sell factory suits rather than the bespoke, or hand-made, ones for which the Row was famous, he said. "Their address would give one the impression that they are of an equal [to the traditional tailors]. They are most decidedly not."

Day-glo sweaters and outfits in camouflage patterns were for sale inside the bright, airy Richard James shop across the Row, alongside more sober suits. A young, handsome, friendly assistant called Clive admitted that the ready-made ones hanging on the rack were "nothing like the quality of a bespoke suit". But he could have one of those made for me in a style designed by Richard James. It would take eight or nine weeks, cost £1,500 plus VAT, and be sewn by hand at a workshop in Savile Row. "We send the measurements to our tailor across the road."

A few doors down was a shop called 40 Savile Row, with a sign in its window offering bespoke suits for £395 - which Mr Cooper had described as "a contradiction in terms". The company's definition of bespoke turned out to be rather different to his. A saleswoman said that my measurements would be sent off for the cloth to be cut by laser or machine at a factory.

"Our tailors are in Yorkshire and Ireland," she said. "That way you don't have to pay so much for the people. So we're one step ahead."

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