Even with budget bespoke suit stores opening at record rates, the tailors of Savile Row aren’t sweating through their linings just yet, writes Jack Phillips.
The history of London’s Savile Row dates back to the 17th century when journeyman tailors first began setting up shop in Mayfair. Just 270 metres long and lovingly referred to by many as simply ‘The Row’, the road and its tailors have become a drawcard for shoppers of exquisite bespoke clothing across the world. In fact, the term ‘bespoke’ as applied to fine tailoring is understood to have originated in Savile Row, and came to mean a suit cut and made by hand.
Like those in many of the UK’s premier vocational districts, vendors have had to weather their fair share of storms. Economic hardship, a fluctuating political climate, austerity cuts and shifting fashions have forced the tailors of Savile Row to adapt.
Thanks to globalisation and a little thing called the internet, the speed at which they’ve had to adapt has only intensified. In response, five of the Row’s most prominent tailors banded together to create the Savile Row Bespoke Association to promote and maintain the impeccably high standards of Savile Row craftsmen; from apprentices right through to master tailors. Since 2004, the group has successfully injected new blood into the industry in the form of 50 new apprentices working across 40 or so brands.
The design is always changing, but the quality is always there.
– Brian Lishak, co-founder of Richard Anderson
Creative efforts are also being made to ensure even the oldest businesses remain relevant and capable of competing with the deluge of affordable suiting brands touting customisable options, both online and on the high street.
Brian Lishak, co-founder of Richard Anderson at 13 Savile Row, apprenticed at H. Huntsman & Son and has spent his entire career in the industry. He says the street holds a special place in the hearts of those who shop there. “I would compare ourselves to a good motor car,” he explains. “The design is always changing, but the quality is always there. When we first opened in 2001, many other tailors were a lot like men’s clubs. We opened with a clean look, wanting to cater to a wider clientele. We experimented with colour and design to entice the more daring customer … always looking to push boundaries.”
But Lishak is far from the only tailor to have experimented with the Row’s DNA. H. Huntsman & Sons, located at number 11, garnered recognition after it was featured in the 2014 spy caper Kingsman: The Secret Service, starring Colin Firth. The film’s commercial success and subsequent sequel have helped introduce a younger audience to the traditions and eccentricities of British tailoring.
Just a few shops down, Richard James has also sought out symbiotic partnerships. Regarded as an upstart when it opened at number 29 some 25 years ago, the brand is continually taking steps to remain relevant.
Alongside a minimal modern fit-out, which looks more akin to a designer boutique than the stereotypical ‘boys’ club’ favoured by some, the brand has leaned heavily on relationships with its famous clientele.
The store hosted an Elton John costume exhibition earlier this year to mark the opening of the biopic Rocketman and commemorate their 20-year relationship. Richard James has also dipped into the world of sport, launching a capsule collection with Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi, of FC Barcelona fame.
Collaborations have become a commonplace marketing strategy. William Hunt at number 41 even teamed up with Swedish furniture store Ikea last year to create a limited line of suits using Ikea fabric in a step that would have seemed unlikely to many a few years previously.
One of the street’s longest serving players, Gieves & Hawkes, located at number one, has operated for more than 200 years. Housed just a stone’s throw from the budget bespoke Dutch behemoth, Suit Supply, founded in 2000, it’s hard not to compare their offerings. Gieves & Hawkes has doubled down on its product lines, recently announcing expanded bespoke and ‘modern’ made-to-measure offerings.
“Our fitting blocks have been completely redeveloped,” says creative director John Harrison. “They now offer an enhanced fit well suited to today’s stylish international man.”
But that’s not to say they’re forgetting their legacy. According to cutter Roger Keary of Maurice Sedwell at number 19, youngsters are still coming through the doors the old-fashioned way. “We still have the sons and grandsons of existing customers coming in,” he says. “Tradition is important; it’s what sets us apart.” Having swapped a short-lived career in finance for the life of a tailor, Keary believes that “craft and one-of-a-kind garments” will always be attractive to a segment of the market.
As much as Savile Row is looking to update its image, it’s also looking to maintain its customs. In an age where high-street brands are quick to reinvent themselves and shift their ethos to that of the masses, Savile Row sees longevity in consistency, continuity and craftsmanship.