Around the corner from the glitz of Prada, Louis Vuitton and De Beers on New Bond Street, the world's most famous sartorial road is wonderfully understated. There is no metal arch proclaiming its hundreds of years of tradition, there are no gaggles of Japanese tourists gawping; just a nameplate – Savile Row.
Some of the most illustrious names in tailoring are tucked into this 300-yard stretch of Mayfair. Gieves & Hawkes, Huntsman & Son, Hardy Amies, Henry Poole & Sons – companies so steeped in history that it seeps out of them like water from a sponge. Their shops resemble corners of gentlemen's clubs, recalling the burnished days of Empire. Wing-back leather chairs, rows of ledger books on high shelves, brass ornaments of lions, mahogany cabinets brimming with buttons, racks of crested ties and bright shirts, carved hat-stands – idiosyncratic, old-fashioned, grand.
Yet times are changing, and all too fast. The Row may be in long-term decline, but now, faced with globalisation, commercialisation, competition and modernity, the pressure has never been so great. And the choice for many of these great institutions is brutal: sell up or sell out.
Two years ago, the Italian designer Giorgio Armani described Savile Row as "a comedy, a melodrama lost in the past". He derided the street, describing its suits as anachronistic outer clothing for the children of lords. "It's so old it should be in black and white," he said. "They don't research or develop something, or innovate. There is no room in their head to expand into something new."
If Savile Row's tailors are hidebound by the past, they are operating in a cut-throat present. Arriviste outfitters knock out a whistle and flute for a mere £500 to tourists who can tell the folks back home that they're wearing a Savile Row suit.
There are yet more startling sights for traditionalists. Backing on to Savile Row, the US casualwear chain Abercrombie & Fitch has opened a huge store in nearby Burlington Gardens, with blacked-out windows, where bare-chested beefcake and high-cheekboned blondes persuade twentysomethings to pay £80 apiece for checked shirts. In seconds, a visitor can time-travel between a wood-panelled 19th-century gentlemen's club and a 21st-century nightclub.
There's another problem: recession. Hardy Amies, the Queen's dressmaker, is closing all its stores apart from the one at 14 Savile Row, and other tailors are having to cut their cloth accordingly. Billionaires and millionaires have seen their shareholdings mauled by the economic collapse. Many of Savile Row's customers in recent years have come from newly prosperous Russia and China, economies that are now finding their customers in the West out of money. Closer to home, the brokers, bankers and lawyers who made fortunes in the City of London have experienced a shocking and sudden loss of wealth. Many of the younger guns went for branded Hugo Boss threads, anyway. In this financial climate, more of the older ones are reluctant to pay £3,000 for a suit. Why would they?
The tailors of Savile Row have measured the inside legs of history's great men; almost all English and continental royalty, Admiral Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon III, Wilhelm the Great of Germany, Winston Churchill. When the explorer David Livingstone was met by Henry Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, he was wearing a Gieves suit; Stanley was wearing a Henry Poole. Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter wore Norton & Sons tweeds when they broke through into Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922.
Savile Row dressed Rudolph Valentino, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Sir Laurence Olivier and, more recently, Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie. During the mid-19th century, the Row's artisans invented the bowler hat and the tuxedo. British officers still visit for uniforms and caps, berets, badges and swords. High sheriffs order their ceremonial garb.
But the world's sartorial thoroughfare is best known for its suits; the Japanese word for suit is a phonetic copy, seburo. And not just a good suit – an extraordinarily good suit, a handmade, fits-like-a-glove bespoke suit that will last for decades.
Bespoke suits (the adjective derives from the word "bespeak", to order) worth about £30m are sold on Savile Row every year. The Prince of Wales pops into Anderson & Sheppard; newer, more fashionable footballers and City boys head for Richard James and Ozwald Boateng, the "new Establishment" tailors who opened in the early 1990s, combining glamour with craftsmanship.
In basements, back rooms and attics around Savile Row, hundreds of nimble fingers are at work, cutting legs, backs, breasts, stitching seams and lining, making button holes, sewing lapels and buttons, and pressing trousers, waistcoats and jackets. Savile Row staff are apprenticed for between three and five years. It takes a full 10 years to become a Master Tailor, longer than it takes to train as a GP.
A bespoke suit is a work of breathtaking, painstaking brilliance. At least 50 hours of skilled labour goes into each one. Comparing one to an off-the-peg suit is like comparing a Daihatsu hatchback to an Aston Martin whose dashboard and seat have been built to fit the girth and height of the driver.
A circumspect salesman starts with an inquiry; where will Sir be wearing the suit – boardroom, dinner table, wedding or House of Lords? The fabric – wool, tweed, silk or cashmere? The pattern – pinstripe, check or plain?
Then the client strips to shirt and underpants and a tape measure is run over his calves, thighs, waist, stomach, chest and shoulders. Based on the measurements, brown paper shapes are cut for each strip of fabric required for a suit.
Tailors working on the premises (or within two miles as part of a network of self-employed specialists) will make a draft suit, or a baste. Sir is invited back for a fitting. Depending on how it hangs, the suit will be ripped apart and adjustments made – a quarter of an inch off the lapel here, a little more padding to the shoulder there – until an advanced baste is produced. A second fitting, and yet more adjustments.
All this does not come cheap; a bespoke suit costs between £2,700 and £10,000. A Savile Row suit should last at least 10 years, but it can remain wearable for decades.
"We get suits coming to us from the Thirties which are in good nick. You might need to re-line it, but all the inlays are in there," says Graham Lawless of Davies & Son, established 1803, the oldest independent tailor on the Row. Like many traditional outfitters, he is concerned about lowering of standards. But he is sure about his own: "When we do a coat [what the public calls a jacket] we have a coatmaker who makes that coat; he doesn't make trousers, he doesn't make waistcoats. He makes just the jacket and he's trained just to make jackets. We've got a trouser-maker – all he does is make trousers. On a three-piece suit, you'll have a salesman, the cutter, the coatmaker, the waistcoatmaker, the trousermaker. Then you've got a presser. He's trained to press. All he does is press." Lawless, a grey-haired, patient man, pauses. "There's a lot of people involved and they're all experts in their own field."
Other companies on the Row offer a made-to-measure suit, a halfway house between an off-the-peg or ready-to-wear suit and a Rolls-Royce bespoke. Made-to-measure is usually a standard suit altered to fit an individual. It's about one-third of the price of bespoke and its advocates say it is a good value.
Lawless says: "It's an adjusted block. They will take a 42in-chest regular and they will make certain adjustments to that. But what they don't take into consideration is that you're down right by quarter of an inch on the left-hand shoulder; or you've got a bit of a pot stomach compared to your chest; or you can be all chest, someone who goes to the gym.
"If he's a runner, the calves will be bigger. You get someone who is a rugby player – a kicker who kicks rugby balls all day – his right leg will be considerably bigger than his left one, so we will cut two different legs. You won't get that with made-to-measure. They haven't seen the guy."
In 2004, traditional tailors formed an alliance to safeguard their tradition – Savile Row Bespoke, which represents 12 tailors. In an attempt to protect its members from cheap imitators, it has specified what constitutes a bespoke suit. Among the factors are a choice of at least 2,000 fabrics, and 50 man hours of labour. The group has also lobbied against the change of use of buildings from light industrial to retail, which results in the quadrupling of rents. Members have invested £1m in refurbishing shops and workrooms in the past 18 months, and training has been increased. Thirteen young people are now on an NVQ2 course launched recently by Savile Row Bespoke with Newham College in east London. Never mind the clients; the tailors had been dying off, too.
But, as they try to compete in the modern world, the tailors of Savile Row are encountering new problems. Last month, on the advice of trading standards officials, Richard James had to cut out "Made in England" labels from ready-to-wear and made-to-measure suits on sale in Savile Row because they had actually been made in Mauritius. Richard James insisted that it had not misled shoppers because the garments had been "finished" in England – the buttons and sleeves were sewn on at the Norwich workshop of its supplier, Wensum Tailoring – and maintained that the English work (which it admitted had been no more 25 per cent of the total) had been "substantial", a defence relying on a novel approach towards the meaning of the words "Made in England".
Wensum Tailoring is owned by the same Hong Kong company, USI International, which owns the Row's most famous name, Gieves & Hawkes, whose managing director, Mark Henderson, is chairman of Savile Row Bespoke. Henderson says Gieves & Hawkes did not stock any of Wensum's "Made in England" suits – and he springs to the defence of Richard James. "I believe both of them acted in good faith," he says, citing an "ambiguity" in the law on country of origin labelling (both companies received legal advice suggesting that the labelling was acceptable before a change in the law in May). "I promise you there isn't a product from one of our members that wouldn't stand up to the best in the world, whether it's made on Savile Row or in Mauritius."
Nonetheless, some tailors on the Row are unhappy about the "Made in England" controversy, disclosed by The Independent. Patrick Grant, the former male model who has taken over Norton & Sons, says: "We are all aware of firms on this street which make products that claim to be be 'Made in England' that are made abroad cheaper. It's very clearly a question of the consumer being misled. It's not an accident; you don't put 'Made in England' on your suits by chance. It seems to me to be bad practice." Anda Rowland, new part-owner of Anderson & Sheppard, while not naming names, says: "It's extremely important that this labelling is cleared up."
Tailors are cagey about the effects of the economic slowdown, but orders are down, to no one's surprise. Scabel, a cloth manufacturer that sells its Huddersfield-made fabrics to local tailors as well as having a suit shop on Savile Row itself, is well placed to comment on the impact of the slump. Retail sales manager Ricky Sahota says: "It [the economy] has had an effect on everybody on Savile Row, us included. Being international, we can cope with it better. We sell fabric to every tailor on Savile Row, and we have noticed some falling back on payment or calling it a day. And spending is lower."
A short stroll is all it takes to spot three of the dangers that threaten to ruin Savile Row's considerable charm; cheap imitators, global brands, and offices. At 40 Savile Row, the Savile Row Company offers ready-to-wear suits from as little as £200. Another company, Sartoriani, has a small base at 9-10 Savile Row. This year, the Row's traditional tailors made a complaint about Sartoriani's description of its "made to measure" suits as bespoke. In June, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled in favour of Sartoriani – and against the Savile Row Establishment. The ASA explained: "We considered that customers would expect a bespoke suit to be tailored to their measurements and specifications... the majority, however, would not expect that suit to be fully handmade with the pattern cut from scratch."
As well as Abercrombie & Fitch, the French fashion house Lanvin has swept on to the Row and, in the next few months, a 4,500sq ft shop will open, dwarfing a typical tailor's premises. The new shop, at No 23, is part of a 100,000sq ft office development by Stanhope on the site of English Heritage's now demolished but once imposing headquarters, Fortress House.
The westwards shift of boutique finance away from the City and into the quieter streets of Mayfair is also making its mark. The brass nameplates tell the story: Lowndes Partners, Blackfish Capital Management, and Strategic Value Partners, which describes itself as "a global alternative investment firm focused on distressed, deep-value and turnaround opportunities from around the world". Some of the financiers take space above the tailors, where there would once have been workshops; in other cases, new offices open up between the tailors.
Does Savile Row have a future? As a street selling quality menswear, the answer has to be yes, but the future of the bespoke business is less certain. In 1901, the largest bespoke tailor, Henry Poole, employed 300 tailors and was making 12,000 bespoke garments a year. Now, the whole of Savile Row employs 100 tailors and makes 10,000 suits a year. Only four Savile Row Bespoke members are now purely bespoke: Anderson & Sheppard (forced by a rent rise to move round the corner to Old Burlington Street); Dege & Skinner, Henry Poole, and Norton & Sons, each of which has its own workshop on site.
Some of the street's best-known names have been bought up by foreign firms: Hong Kong entrepreneur Christopher Cheng's USI group bought a majority stake in Gieves & Hawkes in 1997, and this year a Dubai chemicals group, JMH, took over Kilgour, French and Stanbury. Hong Kong's Li and Fung bought Hardy Amies last month.
As time goes by, the remaining bespoke houses subsume the business of smaller tailors who die or retire, giving them access to their usually ageing clientele. In just 10 years, Davies & Co has incorporated Wells, Johns & Pegg and James & James. "We've got generations of customers going back – you can be on the fifth son of the same family, but there is not as much bespoke tailoring being done as there was 50 years ago, and 50 years ago there was probably less than a hundred years ago," says Lawless. "The competition has got better; if you are a standard size and you put something on and it looks reasonably good, then the quality of ready-made stuff is a lot better than it was. It's not going to last years, like one of ours will, but someone can get a £200 suit that looks quite decent for 18 months or two years."
Peter Saville, a bespoke suit aficionado, who designed the record sleeves for the Mancunian pop group New Order and now works for Kilgour, believes Savile Row has been given hope thanks to its reinvigoration at the hands of younger designers. "Savile Row had really been of no interest to people in the Sixties, Seventies or Eighties, but when the cycle of fashion went back to the look of when men looked like men, they went back to the 1960s and Savile Row," he says. He adds that the costume designer Koji Tatsuno claims to have rediscovered the classic Savile Row silhouette, as exemplified by James Bond.
Perhaps there are wider structural forces at work here. In his book Real England, the author and journalist Paul Kingsnorth charts the "blanding" of Britain, the stripping of character from the nation's individual components, whether they be small shops, pubs, canals, farms or orchards. The scale and homogeneity demanded by commercialism and globalisation is driving out the individual, the quirky, the original.
But who could look at the special world of Savile Row and wish away its excellence and authenticity? For £2,800, you can buy a bespoke suit. And they weave in two centuries of history.
The devil's in the detail: A suit for every pocket
Savile Row bespoke
Price: from about £2,800
Fittings: at least three
Waiting time: eight weeks
Process: Precise measurements of clients taken, noting any unusual features. All cloth hand-cut and hand-sewn by specialist tailors with at least three years' apprenticeship. Fifty hours of work on each suit.
Advantages: High-quality, durable, crafted to fit any shape
Lasts: at least 10 years
Worn by: princes, dukes, barons, barristers, bankers, judges, actors, sportsmen, playboys
Price: about £600
Fittings: one or two
Waiting time: three weeks
Made: Italy, Germany, Hong Kong
Production: measurements of client sent to factory where tailors alter a standard suit to fit. Work may be done by machine or hand.
Advantages: snugger fit than off-the-peg, especially for unusual body shapes, cheaper than bespoke.
Worn by: as per Savile Row, plus middle-class dandies
Lasts: five years
Price: around £200
Fittings: none – try and then buy
Waiting time: none
Made: Poland, Bulgaria, China, India
Production: machined to standard sizes
Advantages: the buyer is able to see what finished suit looks like before buying, and can wear it instantly.
Lasts: three years
Worn by: doctors, lawyers, accountants, estate agents, journalists, door-to-door salesmen, criminals attending court
A stitch in time: The history of Savile Row
1965: Built on the green fields of the Burlington Estate, Savile Row is named after the Earl of Burlington's wife, Lady Dorothy Savile. For 100 years, there are no tailors, its occupants being aristocrats, soldiers and lawyers.
1760: Thomas Hawkes comes to London to make his fortune. In 1771, he opens his eponymous tailoring shop and dresses King George III and his glamorous son, the Prince Regent.
1800: Beau Brummel, the original Regency dandy (who polished his shoes with champagne and took five hours to dress) establishes the fashion for the modern suit. His patronage of Savile Row establishes its sartorial supremacy.
1846: Henry Poole opens its Savile Row store. By 1865 it is tailor to more than 50 European leaders including Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, as well as to Charles Dickens.
1850: James Lock & Co invents a Savile Row icon: the bowler hat, which is commissioned by William Coke as practical headwear for his gamekeepers.
1860: The Prince of Wales orders a short smoking jacket in midnight blue from Henry Poole. In 1886, James Potter of Tuxedo Park, New York, is a guest at Sandringham and, admiring the Prince's attire, orders his own "tuxedo".
1871: The first Japanese ambassador to London goes to Henry Poole to be fitted out with Western clothes. "Saburo", which becomes the Japanese word for suit, is a phonetic approximation of "Savile Row".
1892: It emerges that the Duke of York's trousers were made in a Soho sweatshop rife with typhoid. The scandal is recorded in 'The Pall Mall Gazette'.
1912: Hawkes & Co buys No 1 Savile Row from the Royal Geographical Society for £38,000.
1922: Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter break into Tutankhamun's tomb wearing tweeds from Norton & Sons.
1959: Kilgour, French & Stanbury make Cary Grant's classic suits for Alfred Hitchcock's 'North by Northwest', associating Savile Row with Hollywood masculinity.
1966: H Huntsman & Sons makes bespoke suits for the world-beating England football team.
1969: Nutters of Savile Row opens and helps to define the style of swinging London, dressing everyone from the Duke of Bedford to Mick Jagger and The Beatles. Nutters is the first tailor on the Row to design window displays.
1974: Gieves Ltd buys Hawkes to become Gieves & Hawkes, which fits Prince Charles for his 1981 wedding to Lady Diana Spencer.
1992: Richard James shakes up the Row, pioneering Saturday opening and attracting a new celebrity clientele.
1997: Ozwald Boateng, Richard James and Timothy Everest are christened the "New Generation" and feature in the "London Swings Again" issue of 'Vanity Fair'.
2004: Savile Row Bespoke is formed to represent the street's bespoke tailors.
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