A Conversation with Savile Row Tailor Richard Anderson

London's Savile Row is famous for its independent tailoring shops that have been selling bespoke men's clothing along the short street since 1623. But in an era of outsourcing, e-tail, and mass production, these storied operations, which rely on skilled artisans to make their costly suits by hand, seem to belong to a different world.

It's a world Richard Anderson knows well. At 17 he became an apprentice at famed tailor Henry Huntsman & Sons, a fixture on the Row. For the first three months, Anderson says, he did nothing but arrange lays on fabric, eventually becoming the Row's youngest master cutter. He recalls tailors who had been at Huntsman for 30 to 40 years, including one who was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work for the Queen. Anderson was fascinated by the fact that each tailor had a specific role, affixing either collars or sleeves or doing nothing but cut trousers.

After 25 years at Huntsman and convinced there was still a market for quality custom-tailored suits, Anderson in 2001 opened his eponymous shop at 13 Savile Row, with the idea of carrying on the old techniques with a modern twist. Today he says his 22-employee business is profitable, with revenue around £1 million ($1.65 million) and clients including Simon Cowell and Benicio del Toro. He recently published Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed (Simon & Schuster; September 2009), which has been described as a kind of Kitchen Confidential set in the world of tailoring. Anderson, 44, spoke to BusinessWeek Staff Writer Stacy Perman. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

In today's world, does bespoke tailoring still have appeal as a career choice? Actually there has been quite a strong swing back with young kids going into the trade. We're now seen as fashionable. The BBC did a documentary, and it portrayed [Savile Row] in a really good light. A lot of the kids are sort of seeing the trade and apprenticing as a good way go. Tuition fees to go to university are exorbitant, [so] this holds good appeal.

What made you decide to start your own company? Basically [Henry Huntsman & Sons] had been taken over. New management came on board, and it really was a signal to me. I was still at a young age. I felt that I had gone as far as I could at the time and thought I could take all that I had learned and put it in a fresh new setting.

What did you bring to your own house that set you apart from the other more established Savile Row firms? When we moved into No. 13, the clientele had changed a little bit. We wanted to mirror what we learned at Huntsman in terms of quality, customer service, and the tradition of teaching young people, but put it into a mod context. We had younger customers, and we didn't want them to feel intimidated by the surroundings of a traditional shop. But we also didn't want to upset our older clientele. We created an inviting clean, white, bright, modern shop. We put the workshops in the center so customers could see us working and not hidden away in the basement like many of the shops.

We were a new name on the Row that experimented with slightly different, modern fabrics, and vibrant, brighter colors. We experimented with cotton and velvet, and we did big polo overcoats in check tweed. In a way it was more fashionable than some. When you first opened you put an ad in The Wall Street Journal announcing that you would be traveling to the U.S. to receive clients in 11 cities, and you came back with £75,000 ($123,948) in orders. This was a winning strategy—what was your thinking? There is a kind of gentleman's agreement that if you leave a shop you don't go ring up all your clients and bring them on. But my partner had been traveling since he was 16 and had a good following. One guy ordered 10 suits to be supportive. That first trip we came back with a strong book of work before we even opened the shop.

Today most people buy their clothes off racks in stores or online and barely speak to the salesperson. You obviously have deep relationships with your clients— you travel to the U.S., Europe, and Asia for fittings. Is this something that keeps this kind of trade alive? No one suit is the same. You are taking 19 measures on a person. You chat and get to know the customer, and you put all those ingredients into a pattern and make something quite beautiful for them.

I have always traveled to clients. It is extraordinary and it is niche. I have to have a person to measure—I can't fit someone online. A bespoke suit has to be done in person. We are happy to go to the customer—that's what has always been done on Savile Row. We do have an online business, but we only sell things like ties, handkerchiefs, and socks.

Just a couple of years ago Savile Row tailors' business surged on a client roster of hedge funders and investment bankers. With the global recession and over half of your business coming from the hard-hit U.S., how is business? Yes; we've been hit. The last year to 18 months, business has slowed about 15%—it's not been disastrous. During the last recession, in the '90s when I was at Huntsman, we were very quiet for 18 months—and there was also the Gulf War. I remember my boss saying he'd hardly seen a customer for a year. Then it got a bit better, and people came in and ordered three suits at a time. They'd say, "Life is short; I'll have three cashmere jackets." We went from bust to boom in a very short period of time, and I think that will happen again. We had a very good week last week.

Another challenge you have is growing competition from cheaper ready-to-wear suits, knock-offs, and even other designers like Giorgio Armani who announced he was adding a custom suit business a few years ago. How does that impact what you do?

Armani did tell us that Savile Row was stuffy and out of touch, but what he does is not a bespoke suit—it is a machine-made garment. Ready-to-wear has made a dent. Over the past 20 to 30 years, it has come on in leaps and bounds. We have to do it better than them, and it keeps us on our toes. One thing about a bespoke suit is that it is expensive, but you are buying quality and longevity. A suit may cost £2,500 ($4,131) but it will last 20 to 25 years. What we do first and foremost is make a beautifully cut suit and [provide] customer service. We endeavor to keep that going.

You write about your own children being rather blasé in their interest of working on Savile Row. If you were 17 in today's world and had the chance to do it again, would you? I think I probably would. I love this. It is almost like going on a stage every day—there is drama. I still enjoy the wonderful craft of making beautiful clothes for people.

For snapshots of other centuries-old businesses that still rely on high-skilled manual labor, flip through this slide show.

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