Savile Row’s luxuries for exquisite Gentlemen’s Tailoring written by the Queen of the row Dr. Cindy Lawford lending some musings about sensuality, perfection and the art of a fine cut suite.
Amid the luxurious bustle of Mayfair, there can be few greetings of greater warmth and respect than those made every day on Savile Row, when an old customer stops by his tailoring house. Wealthy female habitues of Bond Street and Burlington Arcade can only dream of feeling so valued by sales staff members, no matter how much they have spent in the past, as their transactions do not easily lead to the depths of trusted intimacy enjoyed by the buyers of bespoke suits.
The old customer opens the door of his tailoring house looking for familiar faces and usually finds several. Regardless of the time of day, the meticulously dressed Front of House man is expected to possess both the energy to smile and the memory to greet by name the gentleman who may not even have an appointment, but just wanted to stop by.
At this precise moment of welcoming back a familiar customer, anyone else not in the business of making suits or buying them feels immediately his or her gargantuan insignificance, a status of almost being an interloper, an intruder who should disappear from the tailoring house as quietly and quickly as possible. I have often felt myself to be such an interloper, aware at that big greeting that a very special conversation is about to happen between individuals who have developed a working friendship, an artistic collaboration of sorts whose delights are all a natural part of the process of having suits made on Savile Row.
If the customer has come to discuss the next suit, then the drinks are offered and the swatch booklets laid out for long and serious contemplation. Any cloth that pricks interest soon finds itself fingered, and once the fingers have delighted in the attractions of one cloth, they are eager to enjoy handling alpaca, vicuna, cashmere, and 101 more varieties of woollen weaves. Weight and texture matter as much as the right colour. The photographic image can never fully convey the beauty of a bespoke suit whose feel buoys up the wearer while encouraging others to dare to touch his sleeve.
I have heard of such discussions intent on choosing the right cloth lasting over an hour. Sometimes, often on a first visit, a partner or trusted friend is brought along, because the customer is a little nervous about choosing the cloth for a £5000 – £6000 suit without second opinions, or maybe he is a little nervous just about entering august Savile Row environs on his own. But, in time, most customers learn they need no hangers-on; they only need to trust the advice of their cutter or front-of-house man and trust, moreover, their own instincts. They need to allow themselves to enjoy being co-creators of a masterpiece of cloth.
Richard Anderson describes the relationship well in his recently published book, Making the Cut: Stories of Sartorial Icons by Savile Row’s Master Tailor: “[T]here are two artists behind every article of bespoke clothing conceived on Savile Row: the cutter and the customer. It is the customer who chooses the fabric, the style, the embellishments or, indeed, the understated simplicity that makes the commission his own.”
At least three fittings are required for the first bespoke suit, usually spread out over a 12-week period, each one filled with the light conversation of growing familiarity as well as the deeply serious one of suit creating. In the process, relationships are also created that can last a lifetime, and customers carry away something even more precious than their bespoke suit, however uniquely precious that two- or three-piece might be.
That’s the way it has always been on Savile Row. Victorian times are full of stories of customers trusting their tailors with far more than their suits, as they often had mail delivered to tailoring houses, or left trunks of belongings with tailors, and some even arranged to meet their mistresses secretly in the tailor’s back rooms. The tailors took the greatest care of their customers, creating clothes to keep gentlemen explorers and military officers safe and warm or safe and cool as they ventured to wildly different climates throughout the British Empire, never knowing for sure when or whether they would return.
Though in the nineteenth century it often took months, even years, to collect payment from their patrons, Savile Row tailors yet commanded a unique respect in a world where an individual’s status and regard were largely determined by the class into which he was born. Savile Row’s first great tailor, Henry Poole, had a notoriously difficult time getting paid what he was due, especially by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. Yet as he lay dying in 1876, Poole made an attempt to convey to the Prince in writing “the deep feeling of gratitude, & (if the expression may be used) the respectful affection, he entertained towards His Royal Highness for the many kindnesses & condescensions he had experienced through so many years, and that in some form, he wishes to His Royal Highness, Farewell.” When the news reached Marlborough House of Poole’s death, the Prince of Wales requested that his courtier convey “how touched he feels at the messages which were left for him by Mr. Poole. His Royal Highness as you are aware had a great regard for him, and looked upon him more in the light of a friend than in any other point of view.”
Over innumerable fittings and fussings, a tailor had become a friend to a prince at a time when such intimacies just weren’t supposed to happen, as tailors were regarded very much as members of a working-class “trade”. But Poole had proven his worth to the Prince of Wales time and again, including creating the dinner jacket and the smoking jacket uniquely for him and thereby changing a gentleman’s formal possibilities forever. It was the patronage of the future Edward VII and that of Napoleon III that insured that Henry Poole and the tailors who followed him on Savile Row gained the attention of European monarchs and heads of state, and, eventually, world leaders from every reach of the globe.
These days, as part of my tours of Savile Row, I often hear stories of cutters and front-of house staff being asked to visit the homes of the great and the good, being flown to the States, Africa, the Middle East and Russia on private planes in order to refresh the clothes of some millionaire’s wardrobe. While on these visits, they can find themselves invited for lunch or dinner, for a round of golf, to a football game. They can find themselves invited again and again; the business of the clothes has become a bit of a formality — a shared passion, yes, but also a great excuse for experiencing the joy of one another’s company.
I began giving tours of Savile Row in January 2015, eight months after my tours of Jermyn Street commenced, as one led naturally to the other, and the Golden Square Mile of Menswear offered up so much material to be explored, mulled over and presented to the likewise curious. For my little groups of two or four people, getting inside the tailoring houses and meeting the staff remain a highlight of every tour. It is my distinct privilege now to know so many wonderful human beings in the exquisite menswear business, individuals dedicated to their craft and, as part of that dedication, very willing to let me bring in both fashion and tailoring students as well as people on the verge of having their first suit made.
In the last three years, I have noticed a few changes on the Row. There is definitely more interest now in making jackets and trouser suits for women, and there is more colour and texture available in the fabric choices, as people begin to rebel against a palette of only charcoal grey and dark blue (however flattering those colours remain). Also, while the tie struggles a little, the pocket square flourishes. Andrew Ramroop’s Savile Row Academy continues to grow at Maurice Sedwell, in spite of the egregious rent rises in the area. The danger that high rents might force the tailoring houses to leave Savile Row remains real, as many a house employee has attested to me. The loss of Savile Row’s tailors would be an unfathomable tragedy. If I have learned anything in the last three years, it is that the Row is enormously treasured by and significant for the entire world, and that is because of the relationships it represents every bit as much as the suits it makes.
Dr. Cindy Lawford www.cindylawford.co.uk