With all the excitement around Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen blockbuster at London’s V&A, you could be forgiven for having missed news of another, dare I say more exclusive, exhibition of clothing. Savile Row and America, a sartorial special relationship opens in Washington DC on May 13. Running for just two days in a city 3,600 miles and five time zones away, it would most likely have passed me by… were it not for the fact that I happen to be curating it.
And so I write this from the British Embassy in Washington. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that, as well as taking place in the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, the venue for the exhibition is Her Britannic Majesty’s very handsome Lutyens-designed embassy. The exhibition catches Savile Row at a particularly interesting time, as British bespoke is enjoying one of its periodic renaissances – as happened in the 1970s with Tommy Nutter and in the 1990s with Richard James and Ozwald Boateng.
In tailoring terms, Savile Row extends beyond the thoroughfare of that name; the Savile Row Bespoke Association requires that all bespoke garments are manufactured within a 100-yard radius of Savile Row. This 100 yards can be interpreted slightly generously; for instance, Meyer & Mortimer, Beau Brummell’s outfitter, is at 6 Sackville Street (a tenth of a Google Map mile from Savile Row) but can call itself a Savile Row tailor, as can its next-door neighbour Terry Haste who has been making clothes for me for almost 25 years. But more than a single London street or even a neighbourhood, Savile Row is an internationally renowned brand, words that mean the same thing in every language: craftsmanship, elegance and unique personal service.
The idea for the exhibition came from British ambassador to the US Sir Peter Westmacott, who hosted a similar event as ambassador to France in 2007. Since then, the UK fashion industry has moved on a lot, and there is an even greater story to tell. Sir Peter believes that the attention on “modern creative design” since the arrival of London Collections: Men in 2012, and the interest taken in the graduates of St Martins is “rooted in a history of excellence exemplified by Savile Row”. Moreover, there was a particular resonance in Washington, “a town in which a lot of people wear suits for a living – it is about government, it’s about lobbying, it’s about Congress, it’s about politics, it’s about law, it’s about suits and ties”.
Drawing upon the archives and skill of the participating tailors, the exhibition explores the unique relationship between Savile Row and the US. Washington is not just a city of suits, but, at the highest levels, a city of Savile Row suits: Bush Sr and Bush Jr have worn suits by Dege & Skinner; Gerald Ford was a customer of Fallan & Harvey, now owned by Davies & Son; while JFK and Harold Macmillan were so close that they had their suits made by the same London tailor, John Morgan & Co. Nor was JFK the only president to be impressed by a British PM’s suit. Jimmy Carter was so taken with a suit worn by “Sunny Jim” Callaghan, the stripes of which were formed from repetitions of the minutely woven letters “JC”, that, in the spirit of the special sartorial relationship, a length of the initialled cloth was sent to the White House. And even those who topple presidents like to dress on the Row: Nixon-nemesis Ben Bradlee was a Savile Row customer too.
Away from the political scene, Savile Row has attracted American clients as diverse as Gregory Peck, who had his clothes made by Huntsman, and Buffalo Bill, who was dressed by Henry Poole and whose frock coat features in the exhibition. Current fans include Samuel L Jackson, who has been a customer of Maurice Sedwell; Bloomberg news anchor Pimm Fox, who has suits made by Kent Haste & Lachter; and at this year’s Met Gala on May 4, Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Met, will wear white tie by Gieves & Hawkes.
Indeed, the histories of Savile Row and the US are often so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. Take, for example, the invention of the dinner jacket or tuxedo. One version of the story involves the splendidly named Griswold Lorillard, one of Henry Poole’s American customers, turning up to a formal ball in 1886 at the Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park in a tailcoat from which the tails had been cut. Another telling of the tale involves a Tuxedo Club member called Potter who had been a guest of the Prince of Wales at Sandringham, where he was told that for dinner His Royal Highness wore a short smoking jacket of a type he had first bespoken from Henry Poole in 1865. Potter, being as enamoured of the Prince’s dinner jacket as the Prince was of Potter’s beautiful wife Cora, wore the royal-endorsed garment back home in Tuxedo Park. Either way the name stuck.
The Row’s reputation has endured across the centuries largely because the basic structure of many of the smaller firms has remained unaltered for generations; uniquely, there are no dedicated salesmen: the cutters and tailors themselves pick up the phone when a client calls. As well as the personal nature of the service there is a social element to the relationship. “Clients enjoy the experience of meeting with you and, if required, having the service of their tailor flying around the world,” says Kathryn Sargent, the eponymous proprietor of the only Savile Row firm to be run by a female cutter. The downside of this level of personal service is that the output of bespoke suits, most costing between £3,500 and £5,000 is, when viewed in terms of the global menswear business, microscopic. Sargent, for instance, makes two or three a week, and even for the mid-sized firms 200-300 suits a year is considered a respectable number.
Savile Row tailoring may be proudly British, but it is largely an export business. As much as 70 per cent of some firms’ output goes overseas, with the US often the most important market. “The Anglophilia of Americans is off the charts,” is how Melinda Goforth, the embassy’s glamorous, American-born, LSE-educated consul and head of UK trade and investment, puts it.
At Maurice Sedwell, owner and managing director Andrew Ramroop claims that “70 per cent of the suits we make are exported outside the EC”. Half of those exports go the US. “Then there’s an increasing African market for us, especially Nigeria. And China.”
China is so important for Welsh & Jefferies that owner and cutter James Cotterell (who has been a tailor for almost 50 years) has taken on a Chinese partner. “Since Yingmei came to work with me about six years ago, she’s gone out there regularly and developed a strong Chinese connection. They’re into the quality, and also the history attached to being on Savile Row.”
Wei Koh is co-owner of The Rake, a menswear magazine he founded in 2008 in Singapore. It now has offices in London and Japanese, Middle Eastern and Russian editions, and has enjoyed spectacular growth founded on an appreciation of exactly the sort of values that flourish on the Row. “We have extraordinary admiration for a culture that British people are shy of expressing their reverence for. The British are by nature a very understated nation. The post global financial crisis consumer is also looking for items that are perennial and timeless, and when people bespeak a garment they want something that will become more beautiful with time, rather than be out of date in a few months.”
In addition to providing customers of, and commentators on, Savile Row, east Asia is increasingly supplying owners of the tailoring houses themselves. In 2013, Kilgour was acquired by No 14 Savile Row, owned by Hong Kong-based Fung Capital and complementing Fung’s other Savile Row asset Hardy Amies, a menswear label now worn by the likes of Eddie Redmayne.
But the most high-profile acquisition was in 2012, when Gieves & Hawkes of No 1 Savile Row was bought by Hong Kong-based Trinity Capital, and American-born Jason Basmajian, formerly Brioni artistic director, joined as chief creative officer. “While firmly rooted in Savile Row tradition, we are now positioned more as an international brand,” says Basmajian, under whose direction Gieves & Hawkes has emerged as a slick, sophisticated menswear house.
Some would argue that this is no bad thing. Savile Row is a complex cocktail of cultural and commercial values that is evolving constantly, and although there are concerns that these acquisitions are putting a British institution under threat, Koh for one believes that the Row is safe in these new owners’ hands. “In the past, the perception was that you would get an Asian investor who was titillated by the name and prestige but not completely aware of the culture, or went to the other extreme and was too reverential about the past. But today the people who own these brands have an extraordinary grasp of the subtleties of Savile Row culture and a way of bringing that history into the present and making it relevant to the modern consumer. You only have to look at the way Jason Basmajian has used Donegal tweed, which is about as traditional as you can get, to make bow ties for eveningwear. That is so cool.”
The same spirit of respectful modernisation is to be found a few doors down at Kilgour, where last year Carlo Brandelli, a man I once dubbed the Tom Ford of Savile Row, returned to the tailoring house he left in 2008 when the business changed hands. During his sabbatical Brandelli got into contemporary art and his current take on Savile Row is a radical and minimalist revision of the architecture of the suit. For example, his thinking about the lapel is so advanced as to be almost revolutionary: notches are miniaturised, collar overlaps lapel and wings disappear altogether.
However, experimental lapel design is not a business model on its own and Tony Yusuf, managing director of both Amies and Kilgour, explains that ready-to-wear will be an important part of the future of both brands. “On acquisition, both brands had the majority of their business in bespoke. We are now building the ready-to-wear side as part of our long-term strategy” says Yusuf. “Within the Italian-dominated contemporary formal menswear market no one was taking market share from the Italians. Savile Row has the integrity to occupy that space.”
Cutter, designer and recent How To Spend It Aesthete interviewee Roubi L’Roubi acquired Huntsman with his partner Pierre Lagrange in 2012. Since arriving he has expanded ready-to-wear menswear, but he is in no doubt as to where the heart of the business lies. “Ready-to-wear was always a side thing. It’s not the main business and I don’t think it ever will be. But if you come in and have something made, like a beautiful suit, and a coat catches your eye, I want you to be able to pick it up and wear it out of the shop. So it’s a supplement or complement, rather than a replacement.”
Indeed, in an increasingly brand-dominated world, ready-to-wear clothes, if handled correctly, can act as a gateway to bespoke, as I enthused in these pages in 2012 with regard to the Clifford Street ready-to-wear store of Anderson & Sheppard.
Even the arrival on the Row of fashion brand Alexander McQueen in 2012 did not inflame the bespoke/ready-to-wear debate for long. Some Savile Row leases require that manufacturing, as well as the selling of clothes, takes place on the premises, which is why when you walk down the east side of the Row you will see basements full of tailors, and McQueen has more than respected the tradition of having a workshop in the basement, on top of which it has hired one of the most talented cutters in London, Richie Charlton (formerly of Hayward and Kilgour).
Naturally, some of the smaller firms fear the spending power of wealthy new arrivals, particularly in an era of fast-rising rents, when they feel at a particular disadvantage (bespoke tailors require relatively large premises because much of the production process takes place on site). It was to protect the interests of traditional tailors that the Savile Row Bespoke Association was formed in 2004. Among the projects being considered as part of the SRBA’s mandate to protect the intellectual property and promote the expertise and quality of Savile Row is to seek its recognition by the EU in the manner of a fine wine.
The Association, which numbers around a dozen tailors big and small, is now chaired by veteran financier Pierre Lagrange, and he believes that the influx of investment into Savile Row, of which he became part when buying Huntsman, has parallels with other traditional British businesses. “In my investing experience I have seen many English companies benefiting from a foreign injection of capital, and there is no better example than Bentley [a sponsor of the exhibition]. Volkswagen’s money has not only preserved Bentley but made Bentley cars better than ever.”
The fact that the Asian-owned houses of Gieves & Hawkes and Kilgour, along with Kering-owned fashion brand McQueen, are among the participants in the show reinforces Sir Peter Westmacott’s earlier comment that much of the strength of British menswear is rooted in the traditional craft of Savile Row bespoke tailoring. It is a view that is echoed by Sarah Burton, creative director of McQueen. “This new menswear store is like a homecoming for Alexander McQueen, since Lee [as McQueen was known] was himself an apprentice on Savile Row, and tailoring has always been the backbone of the label.”
McQueen’s return to its roots has just given me an idea. When Savage Beauty closes at the V&A, perhaps I should sit down with the museum’s director Martin Roth and have a chat about putting on a major Savile Row exhibition.