As promised, here is the complete version of the article I penned for the last edition of Polka Magazine.
To make a long story short, when the editor-in-chief told me how long my article had to be, I wrongly assumed, inexperienced as I was in print media, that the number he gave me was for “words” instead of “characters”.
Hence, Polka printed a much shorter article than what I had written and am sharing with you today.
Here we go :
To the outsider, the name might only bring to mind a (very) small and rather (very) quiet street in the (very) chic and (very) expensive Mayfair neighbourhood of London, not very far from Westminster, Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus. The kind of area where it is impossible to drive and park for free or to find a decent place to live for less than £5000 a month. Those familiar to its less-than-one-square-kilometre area call it the Golden Mile.
Its “insiders” are numerous, and most often men. For the past 200 years, they have seen SAVILE ROW as a Mecca, a place of pilgrimage, the top of the world, their very own Everest. A Nirvana of style of some sort, of the stuff dreams are made of for gents seeking discreet and immaculate elegance.
As James Sherwood, journalist extraordinaire, creator of The London Cut exhibition (about Savile Row) and prolific writer on the small world of men’s style, has just delivered the flamboyant Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (Thames & Hudson), it makes no doubt that THE most famous street in the world for men’s style remains the object many wishes – a place where fantasies come true.
For Oscar Wilde, Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. On Savile Row, there is no trace of the fleeting or the elusive: it’s all about timeless style and discreet personal elegance.
This square kilometre, hushed and quiet even on the doorstep of the most famed of tailors, is unique in that no other place in the world rivals its concentration of highly traditional bespoke tailors.
To give you an idea of its power of attraction, let’s start with the premise that the English are often said to dress as well as the French eat. Then, let us imagine a small Parisian street where 80% of the Michelin-starred chefs have a restaurant…
I always disliked the word “luxury” confesses James Sherwood. To me, it has always reeked of vulgar showiness… “Luxury” has become a mainstream term for just about anything. You can take a slightly finished item, plate it in gold, wrap it in mink and call it luxury. Luxury is the exact opposite of bespoke, which is the incarnation of discretion, softness and a certain serene self-confidence.
Bespoke ? You could say it is almost a synonym for made-to-measure, used to refer to the apex of masculine sartorial art, like the male equivalent of haute couture for women. Both couture and bespoke imply the creation of unique pieces.
But unlike couture, exceptional bespoke suits and coats are not created for the purposes of flashy catwalks, nor are they destined to be worn by unrealistically thin models under the frenzied flashes of fashion photographers.
On the contrary, a bespoke garment is made in the intimacy of a hushed salon where a client, “speaks” of his next suit (hence the word bespoke) in detail with the master tailor. On this small London street, the very notion of “detail” takes an almost supernatural dimension. Indeed, in any shop on the Row, every single part of a suit is the fruit of a long deliberation process, selected strictly with the client’s input: the fabric, of course, but also the size and shape of the lapels, of the armscye, the shoulder assembly (which should be more or less structured depending on your body shape), the number and position of the buttons, embroideries (if any), the shape and style of the buttonholes, etc. The list is almost endless…
In other words, bespoke refers to the making of an entire garment, most likely a suit, by hand, and the drafting of a personalized pattern that will forever remain exclusively yours.
Recently, to highlight their incredible legacy and the extremely precise technical specifications that comes with it, some of the tailors on the Row have founded the Savile Row Bespoke Association, with the mandate to protect and promote its unique ancestral skill, through, for instance, the presentation of The London Cut exhibition in Italy and in France.
To step into a Savile Row bespoke workshop like Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman or Henry Poole, is an act of faith that goes well beyond the mere aspect of your financial means.
In fact, to be entitled to “speak” of bespoke on Savile Row, two virtues are required, that happen to be quite rare in the very wealthy: humility and patience.
Bespoke salons; like Kilgour’s or Norton & Sons’, are indeed particularly cosy, soaked as they are in a discreet and reserved atmosphere where genuine politeness is the norm and where patience is raised to an art de vivre. You must wait for the tailor, already busy with fitting another client. You must be patient during the weeks between your 4 or 5 fittings, and then wait again for a few months until your suit is finished.
In addition, whether you are prince or pauper, movie star, former trader or simply an elegant homo sapiens, you will be treated the same on Savile Row. All men feel equal stripped down to their underwear and socks, left to the wisdom of the master tailor who will measure, alter, adjust, correct and memorize ALL the details of your anatomy, even the most often concealed (including those around and below the waistline), and those you were unaware of yourself. Like many other men, one of your shoulders might sit higher than the other, or your left arm may hang lower than the right.
But the most important aspect of the experience is to be found elsewhere. It is in the intense satisfaction of wearing, for the first time in your life, a unique and discreet garment that you have co-authored and that no one will notice as such.
According to an old Savile Row saying, a compliment on a new suit denotes poor tailoring. More than anywhere in the world, on the Golden Mile, understatement is de rigueur.
The Great Jean Cocteau used to say that Elegance stops when it gets noticed.
That said, walking on Savile Row is a unique experience for anyone interested in men’s style. Even if the art of restraint (showing less to convey more) is pushed to the extreme, it makes no doubt that gentlemen who discretely walk out of Gieves & Hawkes or Dege & Skinner are – O, sweet euphemism – stunningly elegant.
The most surprising element of the history of Savile Row is how these artisans have always successfully adapted to the change of times without ever altering anything about their work style, right up to – and including – the present day.
After WWI brought on the first timid steps of ready-to-wear, before it truly took hold following WWII, Hollywood came to the rescue of Savile Row. During the Roaring Twenties, style icons started to come from a different world than before, and movie stars swiftly replaced the monarchs and aristocrats, the icons of yesteryear, in our collective mind.
It was then that houses that have become legends since, like Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman and Henry Poole, started to cut suits for the Kings of the New World, like Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Fred Astaire.
In the 50s, ready-to-wear definitely became mainstream, pushing Savile Row in one of the darkest decades of its history, when many workshops had to shut down for lack of business.
With the arrival of a new hybrid breed of tailors-designers in the 60s (that is, designer who could properly handle a pair of scissors), the Row came back to the front stage with enfants terribles like Douglas Hayward and Tommy Nutter. With their more contemporary and imaginative approach to sartorial meanderings, they attracted giants back to Savile Row: Steve McQueen and Michael Caine for the former, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for the latter.
Trivial Sartorial Pursuit: on the world famous cover of Abbey Road, where the Fab Four crosses the street, John, Paul and Ringo all wear Tommy Nutter bespoke suits, while George goes against the current and chooses jeans…
Even now that the gap is narrowing between the new players on the Row and their traditional, more conservative counterparts, the transition was not seamless. Despite this, it is still undeniable that it was the traditional wing who propelled the Golden Mile into its future and allowed it to continue developing by resisting the continuous waves of mass manufacturers that swept the market in the 80s.
The new map of the Row is shared by traditional labels and designers-tailors who form a new local institution.
The leaders of the traditional faction include Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman, Henry Poole, Gieves & Hawkes and Dege & Skinner.
The new wave is represented by names such as Richard James, Thom Sweeney, Norton & Sons (a heritage house recently acquired by the much publicized Patrick Grant) and Ozwald Boateng, but also by two labels located slightly off the Golden Mile: Edward Sexton and Timothy Everest.
Of course, the modern wing creates bolder cuts. Ozwald Boateng plays with colours and lines that are every bit as imaginative as the creations of today’s designers, with the added value of traditional tailor culture. And it makes no doubt that this cultural heritage is THE main driving force on Savile Row.
It’s precisely that legacy that James Sherwood endeavoured, with an almost sacred sense of duty, to record and protect in his recent book(s) and exhibitions, and through the tedious work he took upon himself to conduct for years, mining and salvaging through the archives of tailors like Gieves & Hawkes and its thousands of unique patterns.
The historical legacy is priceless. Ralph Lauren would do anything for such heritage. I feel the shops of the Row have finally understood its value and that their ancestral skills protect them from having to fight a costly battle against international luxury brands to maintain their place at the top of masculine elegance. (This is an excerpt from a recent article published in The Rake, who honoured Sherwood with a cover titled James Sherwood, The Guardian Of Savile Row.)
Another source of pride for the Row ? An entirely green and emission free production. Indeed, NONE of the suits assembled in the area travel more than two kilometres and the vast majority of the operations are still done by hand.
So Savile Row is doing relatively well, but caution remains de rigueur: it is becoming more and more difficult for local property developers to resist the siren songs of the millions of pounds offered by mainstream manufacturers to get as close as possible to the Golden Mile.
Recently, Abercrombie and Fitch set shop a few meters off the Row. Its gigantic ultra-modern flagship is plastered with ridiculously buffed shirtless models while horrid lounge music plays tirelessly from dusk to dawn.
With its new store located at 7 Burlington Gardens, the megabrand has no qualms about bragging of its new Savile Row location to cheaply hijack a credibility that it has not earned.
So it is true indeed that the battle between traditional houses devoted to discreet elegance and multinational sportswear companies is far from being fought on equal grounds…
Yet, an experienced Savile Row tailor recently shared with me a statement full of sense, cynicism and typically British composure: “It is true that the battle will not be easy. But we all know that David has always had more style than Goliath.”
In 1920, Tailor and Cutter magazine wrote that “A true gentleman can only make love convincingly if he is wearing an overcoat made less than one kilometre from Picadilly”.