Houston lawyer Samer al-Azem is an admitted fan of Giorgio Armani suits, but when he heard the designer was launching a custom-made service, the 39-year-old was unimpressed. Al-Azem, who travels to London several times a year on business, is a longtime patron of Savile Row tailors H. Huntsman & Sons, and even the cachet of an Italian designer name won't convince him to break that habit. "Armani's [bespoke] suits might ultimately prove to be almost as good," he says. "But for me, bespoke will always mean one thing: Savile Row."
When it comes to suits made by hand, many other young guns across the U.S. and Europe seem to agree that only the skill of the tailors on this hallowed British row really cuts it. Far from being dismissed as a relic of centuries past, Savile Row's business is booming. Powered by hedge-fund dollars and money from the city's financial sector, bespoke tailoring is now being embraced by a new generation of men and women. "There's a lot of money about, and if you're going to conduct business, you want to look sharp doing so," says Peter Smith, general manager at Huntsman.
The term "bespoke" originated more than a century ago on Savile Row—which is sometimes referred to as the "golden mile of tailoring"—because after customers chose the bolt of cloth from which they wanted a suit made, the fabric was said to "be spoken for."
Made specifically for the individual, to his or her individual requirements, bespoke suits are cut and stitched by hand. On Savile Row, that's usually still done on the premises. Of course, such personalization comes at a price: The average suit can take 12 weeks to make and cost upward of $6,000. Yet there's no let-up in demand: At Huntsman, sales are up 36% this year alone, Smith says. Rival Gieves & Hawkes says sales are up "comfortably" in the double digits, while others also are reporting strong order books.
What's to explain the enduring appeal of bespoke when you can get decent, off-the-rack suits for less than $300? Or, if you need to look extra sharp, you can pay about $1,200 for a "made-to-measure" factory suit that's derived from a basic pattern with alterations to improve the fit?
No comparison, say bespoke devotees. True, the suits require weeks to make. The tailor takes up to 35 measurements before a pattern is even drawn up, and as the suit comes together, there can be as many as four fittings to ensure that, in the end, the garment "fits like the proverbial glove," al-Azem says.
The hand-tailored articles are designed to last a lifetime, but that doesn't mean the tailors remain locked in the past: Huntsman's Smith says the company frequently makes jackets with a special pocket for mobile phones, and even once for chopsticks. So much for fustiness.
Tailors of Tomorrow
Though the patrons of Savile Row read like a who's who of British celebrity—from Prince Charles to Sir Lawrence Olivier to Jude Law—the street has taken its share of knocks in recent years. Armani caused a furor this summer prior to the launch of his own service, attacking the tailors on the row as a "bad English comedy." And escalating rents have forced many of the smaller players to relocate. In fact, only 19 tailors still have operations on the Row or the surrounding street. That's about half the number 50 years ago.
Undeterred, the tailors—many of whose shops have been on Savile Row for 200 years—have banded together to form the Savile Row Bespoke Assn. to fight for the survival of the industry and ensure tailors aren't forced away by exorbitant rent increases.
The association recently set up a program with a local college to train up-and-comers to the trade. Indeed, some of today's top designers, such as Gucci's Alexander McQueen, have done a turn as an apprentice on Savile Row—a testament to the quality of the training and proof that, that even in this modern age, traditions are what keeps Savile Row a cut above the rest.