- Women rising through the ranks in a British male bastion
- ‘The expectation of a client is a man with gray hair’
Worsted wool or cashmere. Pinstriped or solid. Pleated or plain. Anyone with $6,000 to spend on a suit has plenty of options on Savile Row. Now there’s one more choice: selecting a male or female tailor.
In April, Kathryn Sargent became the first woman to open her own bespoke shop on the London street that clothed Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill and James Bond. At her store, across the street from Savile Row institutions such as H. Huntsman & Sons and Henry Poole & Co., customers can get the same fine fabrics and attention to detail -- minus the mounted animal heads, military regalia and other totems of traditional British masculinity.
“The expectation of a client when they walk through the door is a man with gray hair,” Sargent recalled being told by one of her peers a few years ago. “I’ve had that all my life, really. I’ve tried to prove that I could do it.”
Sargent, 41, is in the vanguard of a generation of women who are redressing Savile Row’s gender imbalance and helping rejuvenate British custom suit-making. Nearly two thirds of the 60 or so students to receive a Savile Row tailoring diploma since it was introduced about a decade ago are women.
Luxury menswear could use a boost. Italian tailors Zegna, Brioni and Canali have parted company with creative directors this year, while fashion brands such as Prada are focusing on their women’s lines as sales stall.
“We get kicked around in the economic wind like anyone else, perhaps even more so,” said Philip Parker, vice chairman of Henry Poole, which counts Napoleon III and Charles Dickens among its former clients. “Things are a bit slower.”
Two decades ago, Poole turned down Sargent when she applied for an apprenticeship as a cutter, who takes a client’s measurements, gives style advice and cuts cloth for garments. One reason, she and Parker said: Because she was a woman.
So Sargent stayed at storied Savile Row tailor Gieves & Hawkes, which she joined as a trainee after receiving a university degree in fashion design. In 2009, she became the street’s first female head cutter.
“She’s earned her right to sit at the table,” Parker said. “Everything needs to evolve.”
Sargent left Gieves & Hawkes to set up her own business on a nearby street in 2012 before making the move to Savile Row. By then, a new wave of tailors such as Richard Anderson and Ozwald Boateng had moved into Savile Row, bringing with them more modern styles.
Sargent says she set out on her own to take advantage of a gap in the market. While some Savile Row tailors have sought to strengthen their brands by developing house styles that change little over the years, she said she wanted to make clothes that reflect clients’ differences.
Younger customers, in particular, are more style-conscious and less rigid when it comes to things like jacket length, said Sargent, who charges 2,970 pounds ($4,300) for a classic bespoke jacket and 4,200 pounds for a two-piece suit.
“You’re not creating a Kathryn Sargent-style suit and making it for everybody,” she said. “I always make it about the clothes. It’s not about me.”
Sargent’s new shop, at No. 37 Savile Row, reflects that philosophy. Instead of going for the clubby look, she had the walls painted beige and cream and hung pictures showing the garment-making process. About 30 percent of clients are female, she said, compared with about 10 percent at Huntsman.
Her store is around the corner from an atelier where a team of five spends as much as 80 hours tailoring a suit. Sargent said her business has been profitable since its first year and business is growing.
Stuart Skelton, an Australian opera singer, recently ordered an Edwardian-inspired frock coat from Sargent, requesting a cut that was roomy enough for him to expand his chest while performing without compromising a sharp silhouette. “That’s exactly what she delivered,” said Skelton, a tenor with the English National Opera.
Other women are also breaking the Savile Row mold. Anette Akselberg, 46, is one of two female cutters at Huntsman, out of a handful on Savile Row. When she applied to work on the street in the late 1980s, there weren’t any women in client-facing roles. They were restricted to sewing button holes and other behind-the-scenes tasks.
After Huntsman turned down Akselberg for the role of apprentice, it hired her in 2007 as a cutter for women. The Norwegian now looks after men as well. The change “is probably a revolution to the people who used to work here,” she said.
Antonia Ede, who joined Huntsman two years ago and was recently promoted to cutter, said women on Savile Row can’t employ one of the street’s favorite marketing tactics -- wearing a suit they think a client might like to own. But there’s an advantage, the 27-year-old Ede said: “Whatever women pick, men will buy,” she said.