The following is a guest contribution by Savile Row Senior Cutter and Bespoke Tailor, David Ward.
Savile Row tailors are a nondescript bunch; yet, from the time their tailoring skills have been recognized as the benchmark for British excellence, most of these tailors have been out of sight and voiceless.
Down the ages, in the minds of the masses, the typical depiction of a tailor paints a picture of an elderly bespectacled gentleman sitting cross legged and working with a piece of cloth. But I can tell you as a senior cutter on Savile Row for more than 20 years, that my privileged access to this community grants me the right to redefine the misperception of these clothing savants–as such an perception couldn’t be further from the truth today.
Hailing from an array of backgrounds and cultures, tailors from the Row possess a passion for their craft and consider it a duty to apply skills which have been sharpened for more than 200 years, which is why Savile Row cutters and tailors are often credited as being the best on the planet.
During my years spent working on Savile Row, I’ve witnessed a supply of tailoring apprentices come and go with only a select few being good enough to execute the required high standards demanded by master tailors and sought by clients with soaring expectations.
Thankfully, this wonderful art is now awash with youthful bespoke tailors whom are passionate and still uphold the traditions put down before them.
Nevertheless, Savile Row is currently in a state of flux as it is borders are shrinking and its fame is being plundered by anyone with the faintest interest in presenting themselves as a “Savile Row tailor”.
Many consider the term “tailor” to denote someone who makes clothing. There’s a presumption that such a person has extensive training with many hours of instruction and a precise way of working with a piece of cloth that eventually produces a finished garment.
The real story is much more complicated. After many years of repetitive (if not rote) instruction and dedication to…steam…shrink…stretch…and manipulate a flat piece of cloth of different weights and colours—a yardage of worsted is transformed from caterpillar to butterfly, opulent and beautiful in its form.
The epicentre for this practice is still Savile Row. Having spent the last two decades as a cutter on Savile Row embedded within the company of these incredible artisans, I can say with conviction the word “brilliance” is far too reductive to quantify the ability of these craftsmen. To be addressed as a Savile Row Tailor is the preserve of a very special few and these individuals are among the best (if not the best) in the world at their craft.
Hands that have crafted iconic pieces for individuals ranging from Princess Diana to James Bond continue making suits for royalty, Hollywood glitterati, and the rock stars of the day. Enquire with a cutter or tailor about the chronological duration to acquire the Savile Row “world renowned stamp of distinction” and the standard response will be, “After all these years of doing the job I’m still learning something new everyday”. A humble reply from a clothing deity.
The tailor’s environment was historically found within sight amongst the higher floors of the houses, using natural daylight to illuminate their work.
However, over the past decade, these craftspeople have been moved too less salubrious workbenches in the depths of the assorted basements that litter Savile Row. The reason for this? Savile Row’s address has become incredibly desirable with not only ready-to-wear clothiers, but also its allure has whet the appetite for hedge fund managers and art dealers with deep pockets to accommodate the latest rent rises from landlords.
This is where the industry has been literally cut down to size. But more alarmingly there has also been an increase in those who sell themselves as “Savile Row Tailors” with no qualifications or experience to earn such an exclusive title. It would seem that the occupational mantle of “Savile Row Tailor” has become an easily tacked on moniker for anyone arriving in Mayfair intending to exploit the craft of this extraordinary location.
Savile Row finds itself in an era where plagiarists blatantly desecrate its unquestionable prestige and pay very little credit to its heritage and desperately toil to cultivate their spurious credentials through good public relations.
In spite of the ownership of a packet of nails, I do not claim to posses the knowledge and experience of a certified builder—yet there is an abundance of individuals who will use the title “Savile Row tailor” on the purchase of a packet of pins with neither proficiency to use the title legitimately and with a gross lack of humility. With no questions asked and qualifications unchecked, another tailoring star is born and signed off by the media to prey on the Row’s success whist the Row itself struggles to maintain its own identity in its natural environment.
It’s heartbreaking, yet sadly expected in this age where immediacy is king, and where we observe one of the last true citadels of British craftsmanship being distorted and pillaged to the point it appears there are more fake bespoke tailors in London than real ones.
As the craft continues to be exploited for its mastery and distinction and the word “bespoke” that was born out of the tailoring industry is corrupted by the masses, selling everything from bespoke holidays to bespoke wallpaper, what of the Row’s future? Will the term Savile Row tailor become a reference to a bygone era, as tourist guides chaperone visitors to London streets to view what is left of this once incredible location that was swallowed up and devoured by the blandness of contemporary culture?
At a grass roots level there is a bountiful reserve of the right people coming into the trade to carry on the tradition of making clothing by hand, so that’s a good starting point. But if Savile Row as an industry can defend the erosion of its territory, method and vocabulary in a legal capacity similar to the way the word Champagne is ring fenced to cease the theft of its name and produce, it might have the potential to see out another 200 years of excellence as a community of tailors, rather than a pursuit that is practiced by the few who remain. One can only hope that come tomorrow, Savile Row is left with an anatomy full of flesh rather than a corpse that has been picked over and left for dead.
As Ray Bradbury so eloquently explained in his novel Fahrenheit 451 relating to the erosion of the art of writing, “The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”
Today I’m inspired to celebrate a few craftsmen whom I know well and greatly respect. Following their portraits, each craftsman will explain his attitudes and feelings about the current climate on Savile Row. These are some of the real tailors of Savile Row…
“I had the opportunity to learn the art of Savile Row Tailoring from a master tailor with more than 30 years experience. To start, it was not a paid apprenticeship and I spent a number of years without being paid a penny. I was told once by one of the great Masters that it takes 10 years before you can truly call yourself a Savile Row Tailor. It has taken a great deal of time, sacrifice, dedication and passion to achieve the honour of being called a Savile Row tailor and after years of being taught by some of the true greats of the industry I can now justify calling myself a Master tailor in my own right”.
“It’s a pity when you see yet another individual/business using the term bespoke to entice prospective clients toward their products. There is so much time and effort put into training bespoke tailors to create a Savile Row garment, so to see sub standard items on the street is not only detrimental to the craft I love, but it also dilutes the allure of our global reputation of quality”.
“It’s a shame to see individuals who abuse the trade falsely represent an industry that has been built on more than 200 years of excellence. To dishonestly advertise credentials to potential Savile Row customers and to make substandard garments that are not reflective of a Savile Row experience is not only audacious but quite sad as it undermines the genuine aspects of the trade. All I can hope is that over time people will see through this facade and get to experience the real deal in an industry that has worked hard to maintain the quality and prestige it deserves”.
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All portraits by David Ward.
Visit David Ward Bespoke Website.