Women's Fashion

Behind the seams

Tom Ford, Jil Sander, Paul Smith… Behind some of the best-known labels are ‘partner’ companies working their artisan magic. Canny shopper Mark C O’Flaherty suggests cutting out the middle man.

November 01 2009
Mark C O’Flaherty

Nestled amid the picturesque countryside close to Derby, the John Smedley factory represents British manufacturing today – as scarce as it is special. The factory is the oldest in Derbyshire and has elongated rows of inscrutably complex heavy-metal machines with a beautiful Victorian industrial-green patina which churn out fine-gauge merino knits, while ladies sit hand-sewing the necks to sweaters. Close to the end of the production line and overseen by a poster on the wall of David Cassidy sits one woman attaching the Smedley labels – John Smedley, John Smedley, John Smedley, Margaret Howell, Paul Smith…

Like many artisanal operations, Smedley is the go-to company for designers who want the best. Relatively few labels have their own production, calling instead on a specialist workforce for the tricky stuff, whether that’s an extensive range of tailoring in Vicenza or a handful of couture hats in Chiswick. In many cases the work is done in secrecy, the artisans acting as wizards behind a huge curtain of glossy advertising and clever marketing. Elsewhere, designers are happy to applaud, albeit discreetly, the expertise of their go-to men. Those experts, whether it’s Gina shoes working for Giles Deacon, Danish underwear brand Hammerthor creating pants and vests for Comme des Garçons’ Shirt collection, or the design duo Eley Kishimoto creating prints for Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs, have the talent that their patrons thrive on – and frequently have their own excellent core product lines too.

One of Smedley’s past customers, Vivienne Westwood, has built up her business by choosing the best experts. The majority of her line has been made by Staff International in Italy, also the home of Martin Margiela and Viktor & Rolf, while accessories are handled by another Italian production outfit, Braccialini. “Vivienne Westwood is a team,” explains managing director Carlo D’Amario. “There are more than 30 people in the design department, and a chief designer overseeing each range. But Vivienne oversees absolutely everything. The work with our partners has produced some classic items that remain very popular today, such as the Yasmine Bag with Braccialini and the Bettina jacket with Staff.”

Braccialini’s showy, fantastical way with leather really is a natural fit for Westwood’s style. Under its own label, Bracciliani now has a Gold Book from which clients can order any of the most popular Temi bags (£600 to £935) from past collections – witty and chic pieces that come in the shape of flowers, crowns, steam trains and tropical birds – which are made to order and are finished with their owner’s name etched onto a metal tag.

One of Westwood’s most faithful artisans is the milliner Prudence. Working with a team of just three out of her atelier in Chiswick, she’s known to insiders as the least exposed of London’s trinity of great contemporary hat makers, which includes Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones. “Until recently, I’ve never had a press office, and I’m not really interested in going to parties,” she says. “I just want to make really beautiful couture hats. I operate on a different planet from other milliners.”

Prudence has worked with Westwood since 1990. Although often called just a week before the collections are catwalked to make around 15 showpieces, the turn­around on her own label is usually two to three weeks for a private order, though she has been known to produce a hat in just five days. Her pieces are indeed a rarity, focused on a simple but defined silhouette rather than outré trimmings, with three fittings required per hat (£350 to £2,000 and upwards). She works in the most exquisite fabrics: fox and voluminous silk gazar – originally developed by Balenciaga – are favourites. Generally, she designs to order, which involves seeing the entire outfit a hat is intended to complement, right down to the shoes, but she also has a seasonal collection. For this autumn she has created a range that is intended to be “light, to take the place of a hairstyle, and quite 1930s in style. I’ve been inspired by Elsa Schiaparelli and the pleating of Madame Grès [the late couturier famed for her Grecian draping]. I was thinking about her at home with a turban on.”

Millinery might be as specialist a craft as you find in fashion, but for the kind of complexity that makes you wonder how anything is ever achieved to perfection, look at fine tailoring. A perfect example is the Forall factory in Vicenza. Established in 1970 and still a family-run business, it is best known for the in-house Pal Zileri lines that it produces. Its quality is as excellent as you’ll find in Italy, and like John Smedley, it operates in what feels like a poetic, anachronistic bubble. Every weekday, its employees eat lunch together in a loft space above the showrooms. Immaculately groomed men with slick hair settle down at the elegant dining table for their primi, secondi and a glass of the local soave, before work continues.

Racked up in a corner of the Forall factory is a row of perfectly finished, made-to-measure men’s black suits, displaying the distinctive bold typeface of “Jil Sander” across the Cellophane wraps. “Forall is the most experienced manufacturer in Italy,” says Andreas Bergbaur, head of communication and PR at Jil Sander. “It has an incredible know-how on sartorial craftsmanship, handmade techniques and top-quality fabrics.” Sander always goes where the quality production is, whether that is having its made-to-measure tailoring handled by Forall, or its double-faced cashmere dresses carefully put together in a monastery in Sicily.

The bulk of Forall’s work is the Pal Zileri lines, the finest of which is the Sartoriale collection (from £2,000). “We call it Sartoriale because it takes inspirations from the old sartorial traditions but with the advantages of industrial production,” says Pal Zileri’s marketing and communications director Manuela Miola. “A jacket goes through 180 processes, and 100 people work to create that jacket. Nearly all the procedures are done by hand.”

One of the other go-to factories in Italy is, of course, Zegna. It’s the most powerful and vertically integrated high-end manufacturer of its kind, controlling everything from the textile mill to the ambience of the lighting in its stores. Tom Ford’s suits, for example, are produced by some of the best factories at Zegna. And if Tom Ford has his own distinctly modern look, then so does Zegna’s most time-intensive line, Couture, with its narrow and powerful silhouette.

“There are 33,000 stitches in each piece,” explains image director Anna Zegna. “We have 50 people working exclusively on Couture. The look is very contemporary, with an unpadded natural shoulder and a higher armhole for more freedom of movement. Everything is done by hand to feel the tension of the stitching, because it changes according to the fabric. Even the pressing is like sculpture; when you use cashmere or vicuna the fibres must be pressed in a special way at the optimum temperature.” One of the most desirable Couture pieces for this autumn is a men’s double-breasted dark grey suit with a broad burgundy chalk stripe (£2,015) – a deeply sophisticated design concept and an exceptional piece of tailoring.

In the UK, celebrated bespoke tailor Tony Lutwyche may work out of a fourth-floor studio on Berwick Street that brings to mind Francis Bacon’s less salubrious Soho, but by taking over what was Cheshire Clothing in Crewe he has become the most important figure in English tailoring. The company, with a workforce of 150 tailors, had already been responsible for developing the niche, ultra-luxe Purple label for Ralph Lauren and has been producing it for many years. Since Lutwyche took over and renamed the company Cheshire Bespoke, more than 40 of the UK’s most exclusive tailors, including Hardy Amies, a high proportion of Savile Row’s houses and London’s oldest tailor, Ede & Ravenscroft, have become faithful clients, heading to Cheshire to make the ready-to-wear and made-to-measure branches of their business. In fact, unless it’s from a bespoke workshop, if a clothing label says “Made in England” and it is a fully canvassed hand-tailored garment, then chances are it’s by Cheshire Bespoke.

“We work behind the scenes,” says Lutwyche. “A brand appears graceful and serene like a swan, and we are the little legs paddling furiously under the water getting the whole thing sorted out.” This year, Lutwyche also launched his own ready-to-wear and made-to-measure ranges (from £2,700) at Saks Fifth Avenue in the US, while his own bespoke work continues to attract commissions from the likes of Tom Aiken and the British Polo Team.

While some designers manage their own tailoring, very few of the international designers with a footwear range produce their own heels. For most, it’s a case of finding a suitably swank cobbler to channel the DNA of their brand. Raymond Massaro helped create a certain iconic two-tone sandal with his father for Coco Chanel more than 50 years ago, and although he retired recently, his esteemed atelier in Paris still creates all the shoes for Chanel Haute Couture. It also produces shoes for private clients, each pair taking 40 hours to make and costing from €2,500.

Two-tones and satin court shoes aside, Massaro also delivers flights of fancy. “We once had a commission for a pair of thigh-high boots ending in trousers,” says director Philippe Atienza. Massaro is a rare and exclusive proposition, and in 2002 Chanel bought the company to safeguard its history. A ready-to-wear range has just launched, and more men’s designs are in the pipeline, but the business remains Massaro, not Chanel. Meanwhile, fellow Parisian Christian Louboutin creates many ranges for designers, including the show pieces for London-based Todd Lynn, famed for his sharp rock’n’roll chic and monochrome palette. “I give my vision for the season and Christian puts his stamp on it,” says Lynn. “You should stick to what you do best and work with other experts to complete the vision.”

Just as Louboutin and Massaro are masters in leatherwork for the foot, Gala Gloves is master of the hand. The Pellone family business started in 1930 in Naples and creates the gloves for Armani, Etro, Alfred Dunhill, Paul Smith and Temperley. Every piece is hand-crafted and produced in the kind of romantic atelier that one hopes is the reality behind everything “Made in Italy”, where vast swathes of butter-soft leathers are unfurled and cut by Neapolitan artisans wielding huge haberdashery scissors. Its own range includes wonderful women’s burgundy and purple nappa gauntlets (£95) with contrasting top stitching and inter-finger flashes.

In the UK, Lewis Leathers has courted its cult appeal in Japan: Junya Watanabe commissioned reworkings of the classic leather biker jacket over five seasons to sell under his own label, while Watanabe’s parent label, Comme des Garçons, released a range of Lewis Leathers baseball trainers last year. The strength of the design and quality at Lewis – which opened in 1892 and where you can get a made-to-measure leather jacket (£625-£700) that will last a lifetime and beyond – is equal to its refreshingly unfashiony, practical cool.

Back at John Smedley, creative director Dawne Stubbs has been overseeing a new tailoring line for this season, as well as a capsule collection of ultra-fine cashmere with Chanel-inspired ladies’ twinsets and men’s black V-necks (from £400). As she checks the new samples, she recalls a recent visit to Tokyo, where Smedley is held in such high regard for its history that Margaret Howell adds its name to her knitwear labels. “I was looking at the pieces we’d made in her store and the shop assistant came up to me and told me the whole story about this wonderful 225-year-old factory in Derby called John Smedley that made all these amazing things.” Sometimes, it seems, the fashion world’s artisan wizards do receive the recognition for adding more credibility and authenticity to a garment than any amount of advertising could ever do.