Reinventing Savile Row

As a new generation discovers the benefits of bespoke, London’s most celebrated tailors have begun to tinker with tradition.

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Richard James and Sean Dixon.

Photo By Tim Jenkins

Norton & Sons’ Patrick Grant.

Photo By Tim Jenkins

Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue 10/18/2010

"Savile Row was having a tough time in 1992. Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto were on the scene, and English tailoring was not seen as very sexy—despite the great quality, and despite the fact that the tailors on the street had dressed everyone from Beau Brummell to the Beatles," he says.

Although James has stand-alone bespoke and off-the-rack shops on the Row —British Prime Minister David Cameron is a client, and the prime minister of Greece stopped by earlier this year to buy an off-the-rack suit—the partners are now pushing into international markets and aiming to reach a wider audience via lower price points. James and Dixon have recently launched a collection called Mayfair that sells at John Lewis in the U.K. and at Bloomingdale's in the U.S. Prices are about 450 pounds, or $648, for a suit and 60 pounds, or $86, for a shirt—compared with 1,000 pounds, or $1,440, for a Richard James off-the-rack suit and 3,000 pounds, or $4,320, for a bespoke one. The new collection, which will hang alongside such lines as Z Zegna and Boss, includes suits, shirts, ties and accessories.

"We have been copied so much that we wanted to create something with authenticity," says James, noting that he has no problems at all with the new lower prices. "We could get quite elitist, but we want to be accessible," he says. The company, James adds, is also pushing into new markets such as India and China.

Other bespoke labels, including Kilgour and Norton & Sons, are committing themselves to British manufacturing.

Kilgour's new owner, the Dubai-based JMH Group —founded by a Scottish family that made its fortune in cement and industrial building products—plans to relaunch the brand's off-the-rack collection with a focus on British fabrics. "The positioning of the brand is going up, and we're going to get the ready-towear collection as close to bespoke as we can," says Richard Fuller, retail manager at Kilgour. Off-the-rack prices will start at 2,500 pounds, or $3,600—the price of a bespoke suit at some neighboring tailors on the Row. "We believe British manufacturing has been overlooked in favor of Italy, Portugal and Shanghai," Fuller says, "and that the few remaining U.K. manufacturers have raised their game."

Kilgour has closed its former off-the-rack shop—located next door to the bespoke tailor on Savile Row—and brought its new off-the-rack collection into the main store. The former offthe- rack shop now houses Bernard Weatherill, another company in the JMH stable that sells bespoke riding and shooting clothes. The overall strategy, Fuller says, is to take Kilgour back to its "core values" of bespoke tailoring. On a larger scale, he adds, JMH wants to create a luxury group along the lines of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, with Kilgour and its sister brands Bernard Weatherill, gun maker Ray Ward and Fitriani, a women's couture label based in London.

Like Kilgour, bespoke tailor Norton & Sons wants to fly the flag for British manufacturing. Grant says he wants to stress "the Britishness" of the suits. "We use only British cloths—and we're sometimes working with one-man weavers," says the dapper Grant from his basement office on Savile Row. "All of our cloth is spun, woven and finished in Britain. We can even tell you the breed of sheep that supplied the wool and where they grazed." Grant applies similar standards to the brand's accessories collections. "We don't want 400 years of leather manufacturing to disappear, which is why we are working with a guy in the Cotswolds who sews one belt per day, someone in East London who makes our bags by hand and people in South Wales who are hand-knitting our socks."

Although they may be competing for business, the tailors on the Row are joining forces and lending their dynamism and commercial savvy to Savile Row Bespoke, an association that aims to protect and promote bespoke tailoring on the street. In July, the association marked the "graduation" of 15 apprentices who had been working in cutting rooms on the Row for the past three to five years. The ceremony took place at the Merchant Taylors' Company in the City of London, which began life as the tailors' trade association and is now a charitable institution. "It shows how important apprenticeships are to us," says Henderson. Later this year, the association will unveil a unique Savile Row Bespoke kitemark that Henderson hopes will distinguish articles that have been literally handcrafted on Savile Row from others merely making that claim. The label has a simple design and features the organization's trademark shears. Savile Row Bespoke members also plan to display the label in their windows and in-store.

Meanwhile, the brick-and-mortar of Savile Row is changing, too—and many now consider this another positive development compared with the arrival of people like Richard James and Ozwald Boateng in the Nineties, who were literally shunned by the snobbish long-time occupants of the bespoke establishments on the street. The Swiss art gallery Hauser & Wirth is opening on the Row in October. Lanvin men's wear and Rag & Bone stores have also opened, and Abercrombie & Fitch, the biggest brand name on Savile Row, has been drawing queues of hysterical teenagers from around the world for the past three years.

"Abercrombie brought a lot of young people onto the row, and their chief executive [Mike Jeffries] is a customer of ours," Henderson says. "So long as the new arrivals uphold a high level of quality, we're happy."

Richard James would agree. "Since Lanvin arrived, there's been more life on the street— people are looking in the windows and there's a lot of energy and interest and curiosity," he says, adding that some of his own customers wear Abercrombie jeans. "The street has had a renaissance," he says. "It's not just about old men in suits."

But it's still about suits. The established tailors of Savile Row are battling to protect the street's traditions of handcraft, quality and style in a world where those attributes are disappearing faster than tweets on Twitter. "So many tailors on the Row are still so keen on what they do," said Rowland. "They don't want to be big brands, and their heart is in the handmaking. We've all smartened up our game—but the old passion is still there."


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