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Twenty years—and just a few prime Ministers—ago, Savile Row was a street filled with opaque windows, snobbish shop assistants and silver-haired clients who treated their tailors of choice much like private gentleman's clubs.
"They were so grand, they didn't even talk to us—except once to say that our drains were smelly," says Richard James, who arrived on the Row in 1992 and was immediately scorned by his fellow tailors. "They called us ‘sheer parasites' and accused us of not knowing one end of a needle from the other," recalls James, whose shop offered bespoke and ready-to-wear clothing—something previously unheard of on the street, which has been a men's wear hub since the early 19th century.
James isn't the only one who recalls the Row's stuffier times. "In the Eighties, there was this feeling of despondency; people were no longer paying for quality," says Mark Henderson, head of the Savile Row Bespoke Association, which aims to protect and promote traditional bespoke tailoring on the street, who is also deputy chairman of the tailor Gieves & Hawkes.
Faced with constant pressure from the bottom end of the market, such as low-cost operations that claim to offer "bespoke" goods made on Savile Row but are really madeto- measure suits sewn far from the street, and the top end, in the form of slick designer labels such as Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, Savile Row's tailors had a choice —evolve or go extinct. And while several of the street's oncefamous names have disappeared, those that remain have changed with the times. They're no longer content to be tailors—they want to be brands.
"We've moved with the market and transitioned from a dying, craft-based industry into a luxury product," says Henderson. "We're like all the great brands out there: We're founded on craft. I think the quality of our product today is the best it's ever been."
The strategies have been as myriad as the cut of each house's suits. Some, like Richard James and Spencer Hart, are becoming lifestyle brands, while others, like Anderson & Sheppard, pride themselves on a more narrow, specialized offer to customers.
Meanwhile, Patrick Grant, owner of bespoke tailors Norton & Sons and the off-the-rack label E. Tautz, is waving the flag for British industry—and the environment—by using only British fabrics for the bespoke collection. Many tailors are working to introduce the Internet generation to the luxury of choice, consultation and face-to-face conversation, while others have begun to experiment with innovative fabrics or offering an increasingly environmentally minded clientele a sustainable product that will last a generation or more.
Not that there still isn't an amber light flashing—the reinvention of Savile Row remains a work in progress. "We need to change people's perceptions of what can be done on Savile Row, and we need to get across that we are not about newness, but about choices," says Anda Rowland, managing director of Anderson & Sheppard, which her family has owned since 1980.
It is a sunny day in Mayfair and Rowland, dressed in biker boots and a long, skinny black dress, is seated in her tiny shared office overlooking the cutting-room floor. She's clearly enthusiastic about the future of bespoke. "Men are waking up to what they have lost with ready-to-wear. They want more detail—they send us pictures of the lapels they want—and they're not ashamed about being interested in dressing up," she says, pointing to clients' recent requests for lightweight tweed suits to be worn with T-shirts and sneakers, or to the thick, heavy corduroy coat Bruce Weber recently ordered, and the trousers with a two-buckle waistband that Ralph Fiennes favors.
Tailors on and off Savile Row are tapping into that same momentum, taking a client base that's increasingly interested in dressing well and offering them more. "People want nostalgia, but they also want their clothes to be relevant to now," says Timothy Everest, whose headquarters is off the Row, in an East London town house. Everest points to a recent, multitasking travel blazer he made for a beauty executive who practically lives in a first-class airline cabin. It's made from a creaseresistant blue wool Fresco fabric, and has a strap for the International Herald Tribune, specially sized patch pockets for a boarding pass, pens and two cigars and a loop for hanging his eyeglasses. Like Rowland, Everest wants to push the limits of contemporary bespoke. Together with Betty Smith, the Japanese denim company, he has been taking traditional tailoring fabrics and putting them through denim processes—resulting in Prince of Wales, pinstripe, cavalry twill and houndstooth denim fabrics.
Other tailors are leveraging the success of their bespoke labels and moving into the lifestyle-brand territory. Later this year, Spencer Hart's Nick Hart, who has just secured new funding from a clutch of current clients and one Chinese investor, plans to open two flagship stores in London. Hart, who until now funded his bespoke business himself, will sell off-the-rack clothing, accessories and nonfashion items in the stores. His bespoke shop on the Row, he says, will remain open. "We want to put Spencer Hart out there as a lifestyle brand and have the company create real profits over the next few years," says Hart, whose design muses include the Rat Pack and jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson. Uttering words that would make many of the past denizens of the Row blanch in horror, since they prided themselves on discretion to the point of invisibility.
Hart, who counts Kanye West, Jay-Z and Damon Dash among his clients, says the new stores will most likely open next year. "I want to introduce an uberlevel of luxury and include nonclothing items in the stores, although I'm not thinking Dover Street Market or the Dunhill town house," he says, adding there will be a "dynamic approach to packaging, something that involves the art world." Over the next year, Spencer Hart also plans to roll out a new shop-in-shop concept—there is currently one shop-in-shop at Liberty for Spencer Hart ready-towear— and unveil the company's first ad campaign.
Savile Row stalwart Richard James and his business partner Sean Dixon believe that now—as a younger generation is discovering the lure of classic clothing that can be worn for years—is an ideal time to build their brand. "I think young people especially have reacted against fashion—there is a backlash against the frivolity of it," says James over tea and biscuits at his bespoke shop. Times have certainly changed: When James opened on the Row in the early Nineties, men were in the thick of their love affair with designer fashion.