The Battle for Savile Row
For 200 years, Savile Row had stood alone, a byword for handcrafted quality and style. But over the last decade there have been stirrings on the "golden mile of tailoring": new boys have moved in, eager to bask in the glory of the street's hallowed name. Arguably this migration corresponded with a backlash against the grunge style of the early Nineties. The late-Nineties crew, epitomised by director Guy Ritchie and his Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels cohorts, made it fashionable to be suited and booted again. This trend was echoed in their espousal of "best of British" brands - think Aston Martin, Jaguar, Bentley and Purdey shotguns.
The first of the new breed to move in was designer Richard James, whose style is characterised by vibrant, eye-popping colour. I ask if after 11 years on Savile Row he has finally been accepted. "God, no!" he says. "I think it would take about 150 years to be considered part of the establishment. When we first came here, Savile Row tailors looked intimidating, like a club - it certainly didn't look like you could just wander in and have a browse."
Recently, Richard James' 10th anniversary windows flicked a massive V-sign at the disapproving old guard of Savile Row tailors. Huge quotes all over the shop's frontage reminded the neighbours what they said when James first opened for business: "It'll never last!", "VERY dubious" and "At least they're not Boots the Chemist."
By contrast, Henry Poole & Co at number 15 is the oldest established tailors on The Row. In 1806 James Poole came to London from Shropshire and joined an army volunteer corps who had to make their own equipment. By the battle of Waterloo, he and his wife were doing such good business sewing military tunics that they opened a shop on adjoining Old Burlington Street. When Charles Dickens died he allegedly owed Henry Poole & Co some money, but then, traditionally, a gentleman never paid his tailor until the last possible moment.
While he admits the new breed have brought in new business, Angus Cundey, current Henry Poole & Co MD, has some reservations: "They don't all manufacture in Savile Row - they send out business to Leeds, Shanghai, even Strasbourg. Companies like ours are desperate to continue cutting, sewing and trimming in Savile Row and if that stops then the old traditional companies will disappear, and with them the cachet of working in Savile Row."
He is optimistic, however, that old and new can coexist, and optimistic for the future of Henry Poole. His son, Simon, is the seventh generation of Cundeys to work there, and Cundey Senior says there have never been so many young people waiting to put in the seven years' training needed to become a tailor.
Designer Alexander McQueen trained at Savile Row's Anderson and Shepherd and Gieves & Hawkes - he is famously said to have scrawled something not entirely complimentary inside the lining of one of Prince Charles's jackets. Last year McQueen returned to Savile Row when he began a collaboration with H Huntsman & Sons (established 1849), unveiling a new bespoke menswear collection available in London at McQueen's new shop in Bond Street. The suits are lined in distinctive Arctic white and take about five months to complete after four to six fittings. "It gives me the opportunity to design true menswear tailoring - beautifully cut suits in fine fabrics, made to fit the individual," he says.
Thirty-five-year-old designer Carlo Brandelli was already well established with his own modernist label, Squire, when he came to Savile Row in 1998 to join Kilgour French Stanbury. Kilgour, while being very much of the old school, is one of the most forward-thinking of Savile Row tailors: Tommy Nutter, one of the more avant-garde tailors of the Seventies, once did a stint there. Brandelli agrees that there is a split between old and new school in Savile Row: "I was talking to one old boy and there was a lull in the conversation. Then he blurted out, `I tried a pair of those blue denim jeans once. Couldn't get up the stairs in them!' Savile Row has always been very guarded - they will only give you information if you do 10 or 20 years' apprenticeship. They'd start you sewing buttonholes for a year. It's an outdated, mean way to work."
Brandelli has supplied Hugh Grant's clothes for the forthcoming film Love, Actually, and has introduced Kilgour to stars from the worlds of music and entertainment such as Noel Gallagher, Bobby Gillespie and Jude Law. "These are people who are interested in bespoke but didn't have access to it anywhere else. Traditional Savile Row tailors weren't very accessible - and still aren't."
Having said all this, Brandelli has fitted in seamlessly to his new home. Sure, he's brought in new ideas, and his ready-to-wear collection for Kilgour (now in its 11th season) is as bold as it is traditional, but he knows his limits. "The thing is, I don't break the rules. There are proportional rules, which you must adhere to when you're making a suit." And what are the rules? He can't tell me unless I spend seven years as his apprentice.
Further down the Row, Gieves & Hawkes is moving with the times. Scalextric toy cars in the window display are hardly the sign of a traditional tailor - although Gieves has three Royal Warrants and still has a thriving bespoke business. Design director James Whishaw, 37, was previously senior designer at Calvin Klein and Reiss. He joined the business five years ago to "give the retail stores some life. An old customer who's just about to die is not good enough." This year, the Gieves & Hawkes ready-to-wear collection, called Gieves, was launched as a wholesale business, and it's decidedly more Selfridge's than Savile Row - beautiful leather jackets and, yes, denim jeans.
Savile Row seems to be gradually assimilating the new boys. Ozwald Boateng set up shop at the south end of the Row on Vigo Street in 1995 and now almost seems part of the scenery. Jil Sander has a store just off the main strip in Burlington Gardens, Japanese rare clothing specialists Oki-Ni have their hi-tech shop in The Row, and The Duffer of St George moved there in 2000. The Duffer's Eddie Prendergast says any talk of a war between old and new is "a load of old bollocks - a storm in a thimble. We're not trying to compete with Savile Row - we don't do made-to-measure."
So perhaps the war is becoming a truce, with both old and new factions realising that they hold the future of a national institution in their hands, and they'd better look after it. The new neighbours have brought in a fresh generation of customers and attracted the press, while the established residents seem happy to go about their work much as they've always done. As Henry Poole's Simon Cundey told me: "The new guys might get the pop stars and the footballers, but their managers come to us... And they're so much less trouble."
By Bill Dunn