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NAVIGATING SAVILE ROW: HOW TO ORDER A CUSTOM TAILORED SUIT

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 21 NOVEMBER 2008 - Although some may deny it, everyone likes to shop. Shopping is useful, it can be entertaining, it builds bonds between the shopper and the shopped and among the shoppers themselves, and it's even therapeutic. But shopping, as practical and enjoyable as it may be, has a serious limitation: to shop for something, it has to exist. That is, you only can buy and carry away what has already been made.

That works well enough for hammers and cupcakes, but when it comes to something as intricately formed to the human body as a well-tailored suit, trolling the prêt-à-porter racks doesn't work that well, even with a nip and tuck courtesy of the alterations department.


Prince William
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

That is the premise underlying The London Cut: Savile Row Bespoke Tailoring, by James Sherwood (Marsilio, 256 pages). If tailors are for men who want to look their best but who don't want to shop for readymade clothes, Sherwood's book is for men who don't even want to spend too much time shopping for a tailor. When I picked my own Savile Row tailor, it required that I fly from New York to London and conduct scheduled interviews. Sherwood's book will help jump-start the process; it serves as a virtual walk down the quiet London street that sets the world standard in men's tailoring, helping you narrow your selections before you are airborne.

It can therefore be seen as a guidebook, but it earns a worthier place on the bookshelf by offering up a brew of history, shoptalk and sartorial gossip. It does that by profiling each of the famous tailors of "the Row" in sketches of about six or seven pages. Each sketch tells the tailor shop's story and gives a brief description of its house style. Rounding out each entry is a list of the shop's "famous/infamous customers." Here we learn that Kaiser Wilhelm and "the Red Baron," Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, shared the same tailor (Norton & Sons) with Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. I also see that I share the same tailor (Henry Poole & Co.) with Benjamin Disraeli, J. P. Morgan and Emperor Haile Selassie.


Cary Grant wearing a Prince of Wales checked jacket. Tailor Kilgour, French, and Stanbury
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

Mr. Sherwood correctly heads his sketch of Henry Poole "The Godfather of Savile Row" because the shop, which has been in the same family since it started in 1806, had the first Savile Row storefront. That happened in a literally backwards manner. The shop fronted on Old Burlington Street until Henry Poole built a new entrance at his back door, which was on Savile Row, thereby making it easier for customers to pull up in their carriages. From such a small convenience was history made.

Sherwood quotes Angus Cundey, of the family's sixth generation, as delighting in repeating, "Poole leads and others follow." Just as memorably, when a Japanese camera crew asked Mr. Cundey if the trend seen in the red sweater and blue jeans worn by an interviewee at Arthur Anderson would have an affect on his business, he replied, "I think it more likely that it will affect Arthur Andersen." After the demise of Arthur Andersen, the comment became part of the folklore of the Row.


Ozwald Boateng, 1997 (Vanity Fair)
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

Sherwood, a style writer for Financial Times and fashion critic at Royal Ascot for the BBC, also manages, in his simple profiles of the shops that line the Row, to capture something of the exclusive world of British tailoring. That is important because, in the end, the Row is a club formed by tailors and their patrons. In going for fittings, you will run into any number of novelists, financiers, yachtsmen, philanthropists and men about town - men of great achievement and men who had it all since birth.

As with any club, the Row has its own language, and Sherwood includes a short glossary. Bespoke means "custom made" - that is, a scratch-built garment, made to order, without relying on a stock pattern. The cutter "measures, cuts and fits the garment," and he is assisted by a striker. A pig is an unclaimed garment, a pork is a misfit that the customer rejects, and a tab is a difficult customer - probably the one who got the pork. To that we can add the use of department store as a pejorative, as in the warning overheard on the Row that, "satin on a dinner-jacket lapel simply screams department store, sir."


John Porter
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

Sherwood's entry on Richard Anderson, tells how, in 2001, he broke away from Huntsman and took with him as his managing director Brian Lishak, an éminence grise of the Row. While he was still at Huntsman, Mr. Lishak liked to tell the story of two American customers who were strangers to each other until, standing together by chance at a doorway in New York, one looked at the suit on the other and said, "Huntsman."


Jude Law at the premier of The Talented Mr. Ripley, London 1999
Tailor Kilgour
© Camera Press/Gary Calton
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

That's not as improbable as it might first appear. Sherwood carefully describes the look given by each of the tailoring establishments, from the traditional to the avant-garde. Simon Cundey, of the seventh generation at Henry Poole, says that you can boil them all down to three basic models: the Huntsman (a regimental cut, trim, with padded shoulders) the Anderson & Sheppard (the draping, soft-shoulder look, with a dimpled sleeve head) and the Henry Poole (a padded but natural shoulder, high waisted, with a clean sleeve head - the classic British cut). Those distinctions might matter to you, or they might not; if they don't, Sherwood's book will probably mean nothing to you. If they do matter, you will likely find the book a cotton-candy good read.


Anderson & Sheppard
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

After you pick your tailor, a paper pattern is cut to mimic your contours. You and the pattern will grow old together; it will gain bulk (by Scotch tape) if you do, and if you shed pounds, scissors will do their work on your doppelgänger. Also over time, you will get to know your cutter; you might send holiday cards; you might exchange family stories. And you will tell others about it, which is one of the reasons that tailors don't do much advertising. We all recommend our respective shops to others, and they pass that along, and so it goes: across the world and down the generations.


Kilgour
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

As simple and practical as that all may be, there is a social message underlying what Sherwood has done. Contemporary menswear designers are having good fun creating exaggerated ensembles - outfits that, if they don't often get sold and worn, at least make for lively runway shows. That is forgivable because, compared to what a womenswear show offers up for media attention and public scrutiny, dressing a man is rather dull stuff: give him pants and shirt and, if it's chilly, throw on him a sweater or jacket and send him on his way. But Savile Row understands that equality between the sexes does not mean that the social and cultural influences upon their clothes will ever be the same. Because men initiate courtship, it is for women to allure and for men to show that they can provide and commit; and because men judge each other on things other than sartorial inventiveness, no points are scored among them by wearing exaggerated clothes. The Row, in its collective and ancient wisdom, knows that style is a privilege for all but that fashion remains mainly a sport for women. The ground rule for men is at all times to look healthy, prosperous and consequential.


Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Batman, USA / UK 1989.
This suit was one of the last projects overseen by Tommy Nutter prior to his death in 1992.
© SNAP Photo Library / GraziaNeri
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

Sherwood closes with a list of what you might call allied trades: John Lobb, for bespoke footwear; Swaine Adeney Brigg, which custom makes umbrellas; Hilditch & Key (shirt maker to Karl Lagerfeld and other notables), James Lock & Co., and so on. It is all good information, solidly researched, and well presented. The book affirms that the world of custom tailoring is indeed a club that you enter in the hope of looking your best; because fine clothes are as much about emotion as protection, it is also about adding a touch or so of personal joy.

The London Cut: Savile Row Bespoke Tailoring
By James Sherwood

Paperback 256 pages
Marsilio (February 2008)
ISBN-10: 8831791559
ISBN-13: 978-8831791557
$24.95

Alan Behr is a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, where he practices intellectual property law. He heads the firm's Fashion and Luxury Goods Practice. Alan Behr last wrote After Bush, Are Responsible Libertarians Better Off With Obama? for Culturekiosque.com

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