Sartorial Geography: On British Ready-to-Wear

Alexander FREELING

Sartorial Geography: On British Ready-to-Wear

I. Of the role of geography in Menswear

I got into menswear through Northern Italian ready-to-wear. Suits and jackets from Zegna and Canali were my first experience of well-cut, fully-canvassed tailoring, and quality fabrics. It might seem surprising that despite living in Britain I began with Milanese brands, but I suspect my experience is not unusual. I have written before about the appeal of continental style to the British, but there is also a practical reason: Italian companies occupy much of the high-quality ready-to-wear landscape, even in Britain. From where I currently sit I can visit Ede & Ravenscroft in a few minutes, but not without passing a boutique specializing in Canali and Tombolini.

As with so many objects that capture our attention, we first see a single type, but then learn to detect levels of difference. The category of ‘suit’ splits like a gemstone into a hundred surfaces, each catching the light a little differently. Shoulder expression, button stance, vent configuration. More and more nuance. It was against the central example of understated but structured Milanese tailoring that I learned to appreciate both the softer Neapolitan style and the more imposing English cuts.

When we talk about the quality of men’s jackets and suits, there are certain ideas that we fix on: e.g., chest canvas, cloth composition, the presence of hand-stitching. The aggregation of this handiwork is not good for its own sake (there are bad suits with extensive hand work) but as a whole, the summation “stands in” for a complex feeling of delight which we cannot rightly attribute to a single feature. Similarly, when we talk about style, we often resort to a specific shorthand: geography.

Cities are a shorthand language for different silhouettes: Roman, Neapolitan, Milanese. Roads such as Savile Row, Nassau Street, Via del Gesù, Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré or Via Chiaia suggest a certain kind of merchant and customer. But locations suggest more: people’s expressions and gestures, as well as all their small interactions, the speed at which they walk, their moods and wishes. We talk about origins because they help to tell stories about garments and the people who make and wear them.

At the same time, almost no garment is purely a product of one place. Style thrives on the local and the particular, but the logic of modern business does not respect international boundaries. It’s naïve to suppose that the tangle of ownership, factory, marketing and logistics does not complicate the cultural role of tailoring, especially for big manufacturers and retailers.

Big brands spend time and money telling the story of their origin over and over…precisely because they are at an ever-greater risk of forgetting it. In some cases, such as with food and clothing, one might even say that as traditional methods, materials and workers are replaced by cheaper alternatives (in order to increase competitiveness), in turns out that we’re being ‘sold a story’ about geographical origins in place of the product itself–which once enjoyed a meaningful relation to a specific location.

Yet it is too cynical to suppose that geography no longer plays a part, and that origins are now nothing but a marketing ploy. There are companies in Britain selling teenagers their cultural inheritance in the form of sweatshop hoodies, it’s true, but at least in tailoring, there remains a connection between stylistic decisions and origins; however, the task before us is to carefully follow the geographic thread.

II. The complicated geography of ready-to-wear

The old tailors of Savile Row are quintessentially English in their design and manufacturing, even if some of their owners are foreign investment groups, the principal owner of the Row itself is a Norwegian state investment fund, and their newer neighbour is an American t-shirt retailer.

The geography of ready-to-wear is, as you might expect, more complicated. Jeremy Hackett caused controversy a few years ago by claiming that British manufacturing was incapable of good products. This is overstating the point, but it is true that there is not a huge factory capacity for quality tailored garments in Britain today, and most suits and jackets sold in Britain at all quality levels are manufactured outside of the country. The Savile Row tailors who sell ready-to-wear offer it as an extension of their brand, and they translate their house styles into factory blocks, but they typically rely on Italian factories (often Caruso, Saint Andrews or Belvest) to produce their highest-specification ready-to-wear. The same is true of smaller boutique brands. To be clear, the results can be splendid, but they are not straightforwardly British.

The tier below this is made largely by Wensum, a major British manufacturer originally based in Norwich, which moved most of its manufacturing to Mauritius Island in 2005. The Wensum factory produces good machine-made products to a range of specifications, and executes MTM orders, although its sheer ubiquity can create a distinct sense of familiarity, as it supplies many retailers in this tier—including Hackett—as well as providing made-to-measure and ready-to-wear for a number of more traditional tailoring houses.

Below this tier, there are the high street retailers, most of whom sell the same interchangeable suits that are recognizable the world over (not least through the dominance of H&M and ZARA/Inditex), although the venerable Marks and Spencer did attempt to bring back British-made RTW in 2013.

Anyone who buys British ready-to-wear will want their suits to be made as well as possible, and there is nothing wrong with designers moving supplier to best realise their designs. But transparency is important. There have been cases of tailors as well as high-street retailers having garments made overseas, and then returned to Britain for finishing, and selling the final product as ‘made in England.’ And a minority of the traditional tailors have been pushed to ‘leverage’ their names and logos, leading to some diffusion lines and licencing deals reminiscent of those made by Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent and Jeanne Lanvin in the 1970s. The problem is not that brands shouldn’t have ranges of products for different kinds of buyers—the model Ralph Lauren perfected—but that without clear branding divisions, there is potential for customers to be misled, as when Hardy Amies used his fame as a designer to sell middle-market suits for Hepworth’s department store.

When a tailoring house conceals the origins of a suit, it might indicate that corners are being cut. Yet there is nothing intrinsically superior in a ‘purely’ or ‘organically’ British garment to the more international item. A recent London venture, Anglo-Italian, has begun selling its first collection, the fruits of a marriage between English sensibility and handmade Neapolitan construction. Their suits provide a pleasing balance of Neapolitan aspects such as the silhouette and English instincts regarding cloth choice and colour palette. Their collection offers Italian style in a form better suited to cooler, more chromatically conservative London, and avoids the exaggerated flamboyance that can result when selling an idea of Italy to the British.

III – The story of Chester Barrie

Although there is comparatively little British-made ready-to-wear menswear today, I want to spend the remainder of this article discussing three interesting examples.

I’ll begin with the story of the old Chester Barrie factory in Crewe, Cheshire, which has produced ready-to-wear suits and jackets for its own brand and numerous others since the 1930s. Over the years I’ve been exploring Britain’s stocks of vintage tailoring, I have seen suits from practically every quality British brand—from pure retailers like Harrods to tailors like Huntsman—carrying the Chester Barrie factory tags. (They began making Huntsman’s ready-to-wear in 1981.) Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label ‘Made in England’ line originated in Cheshire. Many of the old British department stores once had their top line made there, and some small London boutiques still do. If you have bought a quality factory-made suit from England in the past half-century, it is most probably from Chester Barrie. The brand (and its products under other labels) were known for extensive handwork and fidelity to traditional methods of construction.

The company was founded in 1935 by Simon Ackermann, a Briton who had long sold tailoring in America. The aim of the Crewe factory was to adapt the famous British handmade suit to a ready-to-wear block, which would still be handmade—to sell in America. In this way, Chester Barrie established the model of quality ready-to-wear workshop that would be copied—and perfected—in Italy. (D’Avenza’s operation was originally set up by Chester Barrie.) Ackermann died in 1959, and in 1978, with the American family business flagging, the British factory was sold to a British retailer, Austin Reed. One can find garments from this period labelled ‘Chester Barrie for Austin Reed,’ although they are generally made to a considerably lower specification.

Note the absence of the term ‘hand made’ or ‘hand tailored’ on the label, a subtle signal of quality.

By 1999, Austin Reed was under pressure too, and announced job cuts. The factory was saved in 2002 by splitting the retail brand, Chester Barrie, from the factory, which then operated as Cheshire Clothing. Further changes have occurred since 2002, most significantly the brief period in which Marks and Spencer ordered English-made suits; the intervention of tailor Tony Lutwyche in 2006, and the final separation of the Chester Barrie retailer from the factory thereafter. Suits from the factory, happily, are still available from Tony Lutwyche’s (confusingly named) Lutwyche Bespoke. Lutwyche has, in a way few would have predicted, returned the factory to its original role: making British handmade ready-to-wear for sale in the United States.

The retail brand Chester Barrie still offers many items of interest for Anglophiles and tailoring connoisseurs: business suits with classical British sensibility, linen jackets that manage to avoid the old British impulse towards colonial bureaucrat aesthetics, and a surprisingly daring eveningwear range. But the offering is highly diversified. To illustrate: the flagship gold label line is now made in Italy.

The mid-level black label is made by Wensum, and the mass-produced ‘Chester by Chester Barrie’ is a completely different product, not aimed at the enthusiast.

IV. “Made in Britain”

My other examples are two much newer brands, both of which make casual ready-to-wear in Britain. S.E.H. Kelly was founded by Paul Vincent and the eponymous Sara Kelly in 2009. Both previously worked on the Row, and preserved their previous relationships with local suppliers. Their clothes are quite unlike the military-derived shapes of traditional Row tailoring, yet they are still unmistakably English. Their work jacket (which serves as an English response to the Teba jacket) has the country feel of a shooting jacket, but is closer in formality to a peacoat. It is made of thick melton wool from Yorkshire, a heavy, napped cloth that does not resemble flannel so much as felt. The horn buttons are made in a factory in the English midlands.

The most iconic S.E.H. Kelly product is another jacket, the SB1, which sits half-way between workwear and tailoring. It is unstructured and boxy, but its pockets, lapels and cloths suggest English country tailoring. The pin-point linen comes from Northern Ireland, the buttons from the same midlands factory. It is, to my eye, an equally British garment to the pinstripe worsteds of the Row, but it conjures a different kind of place: the Britain of small towns and long conversations, open moorland and beers with names like woodland mammals. These are new and interesting garments that give an unpretentious sense of always having been there—quite unlike the multinational retailers endlessly advertising their ‘heritage.’

Finally, Private White V.C. makes coats and jackets in Manchester, in the North of England. The brand is named after a decorated soldier of the same name, who was the great-grandfather of James Eden, the managing director. The house style plays on a sense of mid-century heroics, as well as practical British country wear. The Twin-Track waxed jacket, for instance, takes cues from military belted jackets, and is more suggestive of a motorbike chase than a stroll to fetch a wayward sheep.

The Manchester factory is capable of producing more traditional tailored jackets with canvassing, but also produces interesting cross-over items, using materials and construction more suited to the outdoorsman. The Ventile combat travel blazer, for example, is a lightweight, showerproof jacket, cut like a tailored jacket, albeit a fairly sporty one (a little shorter, narrower lapels). Cotton Ventile provides the benefits of rainwear without the need for synthetics. Inside, a bright metallic strip can be seen: the copper sealing tape which closes the seams to provide waterproofing. Copper zips close internal travel pockets.

It is an unfortunate fact—of which a Manchester manufacturer must be well aware—that Britain can be somewhat wetter than other parts of Europe. The featherweight cottons and linens of Italian casual tailoring are perfect for their environment, less so for much of the year in the British Isles. As well as drawing on the history of British manufacturing and tailoring, garments such as this are British in another sense: they are adapted to local conditions and practices. (As long as he is dressed for it, being caught in the rain is not hardship for the Englishman; it is a week’s worth of conversation material.)

I will close, then, with a final degree of geographic complexity to consider another time: destinations, as well as origins, give clothes their meanings.

Style is a trajectory.

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