Visitors to 10 Savile Row are greeted by photographs of the Sultan of Oman in full military regalia. Deeper inside the bespoke tailor shop Dege & Skinner, above a rack of silk handkerchiefs, hangs a smaller picture of Prince William.
There’s a reason for the sultan’s pride of place: Half of Dege & Skinner’s revenue comes from outside of the U.K. and it’s steadily growing. The tailor turned this year to advertising and e-mailing clients for the first time in its 148-year history as wealthy foreigners seek out a piece of British tradition from Savile Row’s first maker of bespoke shirts.
After losing a fight to keep Abercrombie & Fitch & Co. off their Mayfair street that has been home to Britain’s best tailors for nearly 300 years, Savile Row tailors are catching up to modern times. Dege & Skinner and neighbors like Henry Poole, which cut the first dinner jacket, are fighting to stay relevant in a global marketplace where their British clients are increasingly likely to buy from the tailored offering of Italian luxury powerhouses like Ermenegildo Zegna SpA.
Savile Row, synonymous with British suits since 1733 and outfitter to the Emperor of Japan and Charles Dickens, is a shadow of its former self. There are about 17 tailors now on the street in the upmarket London district, about half as many as 50 years ago. They’ve had to contend with criticism from designers such as Italy’s Giorgio Armani, who in 2006 accused them of falling behind the times, while companies like Burberry Group Plc push into the market by offering their own tailoring in 70 stores globally.
The street suffered a setback this year when the Savile Row Bespoke Association lost its battle to keep Abercrombie from opening a children’s outlet at the former Beatles London headquarters at No. 3 Savile Row, where the band performed for the last time. The U.S. retailer will have to concede to no promotional events, models at the entrance, loud music, blacked out windows or crowds outside the store. Still, the Bespoke Association said the store is “out of keeping with the Row and its iconic status,” according Gieves & Hawkes Chairman Mark Henderson, a spokesman for the group.
And with companies like Suit Supply offering personally tailored suits for $899, outlets like Dege & Skinner are simultaneously modernizing and touting their bona fides.
“We’re true, proper Savile Row tailors as opposed to those who call themselves ones, who wouldn’t know scissors from shears,” Managing Director William Skinner said in his oak-paneled store, wearing one of his 25 tailor-made suits. Beyond the pampered bespoke experience, the appeal of Dege & Skinner, he said, is its appeal to “male pride, the peacock coming out. Our job is to bring out the peacock side in men.”
By the way, scissors are used to snip thread and shears cut fabric.
Dege & Skinner, a family business since 1865, is steeped in British heritage. Its tailors dressed the Peers of the Realm at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953, and today it outfits cadets at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy, including Prince Harry and brother William.
Skinner, 44, spends three months of the year outside England, setting up shop in hotels in New York, Chicago, Boston and Houston. In Suite 1206 of the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel in midtown Manhattan, Skinner lays out swatches of pricey fabric like Highland Glen, classic Worsted and gray herringbone for guests who come by invitation-only for fittings.
The top end of the $16 billion U.K. menswear market suffered from a “clear drop-off” in 2009, said Mintel retail analyst Richard Perks. Since then, demand for bespoke suits has far outweighed the growth of the overall market, driven by demand from Asia, Perks said. The overall U.K. menswear market climbed 2 percent last year, according to Mintel.
It’s not easy money. It takes about two months for Skinner’s team of 21 cutters and tailors to make a 3,500-pound ($5,410) suit. That includes 55 hours of labor.
Dege & Skinner, whose dressing room contains a blocked double-barrel shotgun for sportsmen to hold while trying on their 2,000-pound hunting blazers, isn’t the only tailor relying on overseas customers.
Demand for a “whistle and flute,” the Cockney rhyming slang for a suit, is increasingly coming from young Chinese men, some attending U.K. schools, who “aspire through reading literature to the finer things in life,” said Simon Cundey, director of Savile Row neighbor Henry Poole.
Middle Eastern shoppers, particularly from Qatar, are also growing, while Russians and Ukrainians have been a strong market for over five years, said the executive, whose firm is known for making tuxedos and dinner suits worn by Winston Churchill.
“They tend to look for the finest quality,” Skinner said of his foreign customers, who favor fabrics like cashmere silk blends, which can push the cost of a suit up to 11,000 pounds. In contrast, Britons tend to buy for the “long-term,” such as classic-cut suits in woolen or cotton fabrics.
Foreigners often buy into the British heritage, too, Skinner said, with its more traditional offers like the 2,500-pound Leicestershire country cricket blazer in forest green with a yellow and sky blue stripe.
To lift demand for his sports coats, shirts, ties and cufflinks and bring back more Britons, Skinner has employed some modern marketing tactics. He’s e-mailing invitations to the tailor’s latest trunk shows like the one in the New York hotel room, rather than sending them by post. Dege & Skinner is also advertising for the first time this year, in specialist publications like American riding journals. That’s after over a century of building the business mainly by word of mouth and referrals. Skinner has even resorted to celebrity endorsements, normally the preserve of more downstream clothiers like Gap Inc.
Skinner says he’ll make suits at “an agreed rate,” lower than his normal fee, for men who are in the “right circles,” in exchange for knowing they will recommend Dege & Skinner to other potential clients. That has included a young banker who recommended his boss and some professional sportsmen that he won’t name.
Some things don’t change: On Savile Row, discretion, as always, is of the essence.