Suits you sir? The changing face of the Savile Row

It is the London street synonymous with men's tailoring of the highest standard. But the unique character of Savile Row is now under threat from the developers. Terry Kirby reports
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The Independent Online

It was always said that a gentleman's first bespoke suit was a rite of passage, as important as, say, getting married or becoming a father. And, since the days of the Regency dandy Beau Brummel, there has been only one place where a gentleman would go to be fitted for his first bespoke suit: Savile Row.

A short street, in the heart of Mayfair, in central London, it has become synonymous with a certain type of English style and elegance, redolent of a bygone era perhaps, but a benchmark for quality known around the world.

Now, almost 200 years since the first tailor's shop was established in Savile Row, the street faces an uncertain future, due to a combination of high rents forcing out long-established businesses, the increasing number of office blocks, a lack of apprentices and the erosion of the exclusivity of "bespoke" tailoring.

"We are at a crossroads in our history," said Mark Henderson, the chairman of Savile Row Bespoke, a new body established by the street to fight for its future. The group intends to find new ways of marketing Savile Row as a brand - in the same way, suggests Mr Henderson, as the French champagne houses work together in their own joint interests - to preserve the integrity of the area, particularly in battles over rents and planning and to improve training. "Given the growth in interest in all luxury goods and the realisation of the qualities of craftsmanship, there is a great opportunity for Savile Row to establish itself for the future," he said.

Mr Henderson, who is also the managing director of Gieves and Hawkes, whose imposing premises at 1 Savile Row, proudly proclaim their establishment in the 1770s as well as their Royal warrants, rejected the suggestion that the street simply catered for an outdated concept of men's tailoring, a combination of rich overseas tourists and old money. This, after all, is still a street where one can get a military uniform hand made or buy bespoke pyjamas. He said: "That simply isn't true. Most of our business is domestic and we have rock and film stars as well as company directors. We are unique.''

There is some force to his argument. Despite the new casualness, the "dress down Friday", and competition from the Far East and the high street, Savile Row remains when everyone goes to get a "whistle and flute" hand made and pays upwards of £2,000 a time for the privilege.

As well as businessmen, MPs and lawyers, they include rock stars such as Eric Clapton and Bryan Ferry and actors such as Daniel Craig, the new James Bond (a man who would certainly have been a customer) and Jude Law. They are following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier and Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire and David Lean.

The Prince of Wales still gets his double-breasted and twin side-vented suits made at Anderson and Sheppard, a firm almost as old as the street itself, while the younger celebrities and footballers patronise newcomers such as Ozwald Boateng, which is more cutting edge.

But it was Ozwald Boateng who last week spoke out on behalf of maintaining the tradition of Savile Row when he criticised the planned development of Fortress House, the home to English Heritage, the Government quango charged with the protection of historic properties, which occupies an extensive frontage on the east side of Savile Row. "We don't need another office block," he said, suggesting it should be turned into a hotel.

The planned redevelopment as an office block by the owner, Legal and General, has horrified the tailors in the street and conservationists, particularly in view of the irony of English Heritage deciding it should not be listed.

Conservation groups, such as the 20th Century Society and Save Britain's Heritage, say the building, built in 1949, is a fine example of "sophisticated, stripped down classicism" and should be preserved, either as a hotel or as upmarket apartments.

There are already several other offices in the street, both as frontages and above the tailors. Number three, the headquarters of the Building Societies Association, was once the offices of the Beatles' Apple Corps and the group recorded at Apple Studios in the basement. In 1969, they played their final concert on the roof of the building.

Built on the Burlington estate at the end of the 17th century and named after the Earl of Burlington's wife, Lady Dorothy Savile, the first tenants of Savile Row were military officers, the nobility and physicians, the latter earning it a reputation as a forerunner to Harley Street.

It was the patronage of Beau Brummel, born in 1778, a dandy and confidant of the then Prince of Wales, later George IV, which made Savile Row famous. Brummel is credited with creating the concept of a well-fitted suit, then, of course, entirely hand made. He took his custom to the Burlington estate, initially to neighbouring Cork Street, where the tailors had begun to congregate. The first tailor opened in Savile Row itself around 1806, with Brummel the chief patron. By the 1830s, tailoring ruled the street, with names such as Anderson and Sheppard and Henry Poole - who in 1860 could boast that it had 50 European monarchs or heads of state as customers - still present in the area.

Today, other well-known firms, such as Gieves and Hawkes, Hardy Amies and Bernard Weatherill, the family firm of the late Speaker of the House of Commons Lord Weatherill (who always carried a tailor's thimble in his pocket), mingle with newer companies, such Ozwald Boateng and Richard James.

There are also a number of independent, more low-profile tailors, with their own small but exclusive lists of clients. Although some firms do most of their work in-house, there are still about 100 workshops, housed in backrooms and basements, where individual craftsmen make the jackets, waistcoats and trousers. A production rate of two such garments a week is the norm.

As with other London streets associated with specific trades, such Hatton Garden and jewellery, the term Savile Row has come to encompass the immediate area as well, meaning that some, such as Boateng are in adjacent streets. Others, such as Anderson and Sheppard, who are long-time residents of the Row, have been forced by rent rises of more than 50 per cent over recent years to downsize and move to adjacent Old Burlington Street. The concern is also that forthcoming rent reviews will force many of the craftsman out of business or into other parts of London, diluting the concentration of expertise that gives the area its special character.

Then there is the quality of the goods on offer. While Richard James and Ozwald Boateng have become part of the Savile Row ethos, more recent arrivals have not, leading to dark mutterings of letting the public down. "You might be getting a Savile Row label, but you are not getting a Savile Row suit," says Darren Beaman, a former Anderson and Sheppard apprentice. "The street is divided," said another.

Without mentioning names, a clear division has emerged in the Row between those who still practise traditional bespoke (a derivation of the phrase, Be Spoken For) and some newcomers who specialise in made-to-measure. Bespoke suits, which can cost £4,000, are carefully and individually measured and cut by a tailor and then either stitched by him (as is the case with Mr Beaman or sub-contracted to another craftsmen; sewing machines are often used only for straight seams with all the detailed work on shoulders, pockets and button holes done by hand. Two or three fittings for a client is normal.

Made-to-measure suits, which normally cost about £600, are measured against a standard template and then produced in a factory, which may be even in the Far East. "Some people see a suit for sale in Savile Row and think that for £600 they will be getting a handmade garment, but they are not. I don't know how some get away with it. That is not the Savile Row tradition I feel very privileged to be part of," added Mr Beaman. But it is firms such as these that can afford the high rents now being charged by some of the freeholders.

Both Mr Beaman, 39, and Steven Hitchcock, at 31, the youngest independent tailor in the area and another Anderson and Sheppard apprentice, are concerned that the lack of new young people wanting to train as tailors presents a major threat to the future of the industry. There is no unified training scheme, and companies such as Anderson and Sheppard, which once had more than 20 apprentices now employ only a handful; many older tailors are reluctant to take on apprentices.

"In 10 years, many of the older hands who are in their sixties and seventies will be gone, and we do not have enough people to replace them; people do not want to spend four or five years learning a trade, as I did, because they all want to be a designer like Alexander McQueen [co-incidentally, also an A&S apprentice]. We need a new influx of people, like we had with the Jewish immigrants, to rejuvenate the business," said Mr Hitchcock. It is not as though the trade is poorly paid - a skilled coat-maker can earn £800-£1000 a week.

They agree with the aims of Savile Row Bespoke that the street needs to sharpen up its act, be more aggressive in its promotion and to stand its ground against developers and freeholders. But it is also about ensuring that a unique legacy is preserved, said Mr Hitchcock, adding: "When people buy a suit in Savile Row, they are buying into history."

The roads of London

By Emily Dugan

* HARLEY STREET

The home to most of the capital's nips, tucks and abnormally white teeth. It was regarded as the fashionable place for medical consultants from the mid 19th century. In 1857, Florence Nightingale was appointed superintendent at the Institute of Sick Governesses, then at No. 1, which is now the site of the stop-smoking specialists Hynotherapy Associates.

* CHARING CROSS ROAD

This paradise of the written word is crammed with bookshops. Despite rent rows pushing out some small independents and the arrival of a few chains - notably a rather large Borders - this is still a haven of small independent booksellers. Sadly, Marks & Co, the bookshop that gave the road international fame in the novel and film 84, Charing Cross Road, is now an oversized All Bar One.

* WARDOUR STREET

The centre of the old British film industry, this Soho street was home to the Associated-British Pathe film company, and Urban and Smith, pioneers of cinema in the 1900s. Signs of the industry remain, with the Moving Picture Company and Bectu based there, as well as many media and editing services.

* DENMARK STREET

Few musical heroes have missed going toTin Pan Alley, left. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix have all recorded in its studios.

* HATTON GARDEN

This is still the centre of London's jewellery trade, and the best place to pick up a diamond in the UK. It has been the jewellery quarter of the capital since medieval times.

* FLEET STREET

Home to the world's first daily newspaper in 1702, and still shorthand for the British press, it no longer has any news outlets.

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