Savile Row is a name synonymous with masculine elegance, time-honoured tradition and discreet luxury. For almost five hundred years, this quiet and civilised street in Mayfair has played host to generations of the most talented artisans, lovingly dressing gentlemen and ladies of taste in some of the finest bespoke clothes the world has ever seen. From Winston Churchill to the Duke of Wellington, and from Fred Astaire to Elton John, the countless list of statesmen and celebrities to have graced the Row goes on.
No small part of this reputation for sartorial excellence is due to Savile Row’s long and illustrious history. The tailoring establishment started to take up residence on the Row during the 1630s, before the street had even taken on its current name, with some houses still being able to date their origins back to the 17th and 18th centuries today. Norton & Sons for example was founded in 1821, whilst other tailors like Davies & Son were established at the very turn of the eighteenth century. Gieves & Hawkes can trace its roots back to 1771, when one Thomas Hawkes set up a tailor’s shop around the corner from the Row on Brewer Street, catering to both London society and the British military alike, moving to take up premises at No.1 Savile Row in 1912 with the help of Gieve’s Ltd, purchasing the former headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society in the process. Henry Poole’s records commence in 1806, and show that by 1815 the firm was dressing a number of British officers that fought at Waterloo. The house can also lay claim to the invention of the dinner suit, when in 1865 the soon-to-be Edward VII commissioned a short, dark smoking jacket without tails to be worn during informal dinners in his private residences.
Following even this brief snapshot of Savile Row’s pedigree, it is perhaps difficult to convey just what a remarkable feat of design a true Savile Row suit is. Many tailors would say that the expertise and workmanship that goes into a bespoke suit can only be truly understood once it has been experienced in person. The feeling of slipping an immaculate bespoke coat (note that on Savile Row a tailored jacket is known simply as a coat – hence the complementing terms ‘waistcoat’ and ‘overcoat’) over one’s shoulders is extraordinary. Many competing tailors, high street and designer menswear brands claim to offer a ‘bespoke’ product – but none come close to a handmade Savile Row garment.
Every Savile Row suit starts life as a two-dimensional length of superfine suiting cloth, transformed over time to fit the customer precisely to his requirements, fulfilling entirely an individual’s vision for their own clothes. Every suit is unique, made to the customer’s exact measurements (typically around thirty measurements will be taken across the customer’s body), drafted into an individual paper pattern from which his chosen or ‘bespoken’ cloth is cut. The suit will then be handmade, with the cloth shrunken, stretched, pressed, stitched and structured into a perfectly form-fitting three-dimensional garment. Apprentice tailors can train for up to six years to be considered a specialist in but one area of bespoke tailoring, whether this is cutting a customer’s pattern or trouser making. The skillsets of several different specialist craftsmen combine into every suit and an average of fifty man-hours, three intermediate fittings and some three months from commission to finished garment characterise the Savile Row bespoke process – a process that has changed little since the seventeenth century.
Savile Row Bespoke Association
With such an incredible product receiving little by way of deserved recognition in recent years, The Savile Row Bespoke Association was formed in 2004 through an alliance of five like-minded houses – Anderson & Sheppard, Dege & Skinner, Gieves & Hawkes, H. Huntsman & Sons and Henry Poole & Co. – tailors which understood the need for a trade association capable of safeguarding Savile Row’s unique bespoke standards. Today, the SRBA has twenty-two member and associate member houses, who work together to protect and champion this understanding of bespoke tailoring and to promote the ingenious craftsmen that comprise the community of Savile Row. The SRBA sets the standards that define a Savile Row bespoke tailor, and all members of the Association must conform to the above definition of a bespoke suit and much more besides. A Master Cutter must oversee the work of every tailor employed by a member house and all garments must be constructed within a one hundred yard radius of Savile Row. Likewise, every member must offer the customer a choice of at least 2000 cloths and rigorous technical requirements are expected. For example, jacket foreparts must be entirely hand canvassed, buttonholes sewn, sleeves attached and linings felled all by hand.
In addition to promoting and securing the working practices of Savile Row tailors, the SRBA has played a key role in promoting Savile Row’s continued relevance as an international centre of modern, luxurious men’s style. Since it was founded in 2004, the SRBA has initiated and taken part in a number of events throughout the world, including presentations at the British Ambassador’s residences in Washington, D.C., Florence, Paris and Tokyo, the Friday Late exhibition at the V&A in London, the British Fashion Council’s London Collections: Men men’s fashion weeks and it’s own, widely celebrated, Savile Row Field Day. These showcases serve to both celebrate the art and craft of Savile Row and demonstrate to the fashion industry and international press how the Row remains at the zenith of its trade through its enthusiasm and willingness to contemporise and innovate. Many SRBA member houses design and tailor specific pieces for these events to convey their place at the centre of modern men’s style to a young, dynamic and diverse audience.
The SRBA is not only connecting the Row with a younger audience, but with a younger craftsman too. The Association has introduced over fifty new apprentices to Savile Row since 2004, ensuring that the lifeblood of The Row – the extraordinary skills of its master tailors – can be passed onto the next generation. Every member house must employ a salaried apprentice at all times, whose work is overseen by the Technical Committee of the SRBA, staffed by the Head Cutter of each member house. Crucially, through this initiative, the Association not only ensures that Savile Row’s future is secure, but also that the community of Savile Row retains a valuable connection to a younger, more contemporary customer, as well as its traditional, established clientele.
In the same vein, the SRBA promotes greater innovation within the industry through a connection with its associate members. Foremost amongst these are the abundance of world famous British woollen mills and cloth merchants that create the superior fabrics which each and every tailor uses. Firms such as Huddersfield-based Dugdale Bros & Co. and Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, historic London-based merchant Dormeuil and Harrisons of Edinburgh work closely with the SRBA to ensure that the tailors’ fabrics are not only of an appropriate standard, but that they too are innovatory. These mills work upon the feedback of the SRBA, producing ever more engaging and elevated cloths whilst still using the appropriate traditional weaving methods.
With the balancing of tradition and innovation in mind, it should be noted that although the Association’s primary objective is to promote Savile Row bespoke tailoring at its finest, it would be a mistake to ignore the continued modernisation of Savile Row’s retail practices. A number of houses have introduced beautifully conceived and crafted ready-to-wear capsule collections to complement their core bespoke offering, whilst others have transformed into extraordinary international retail destinations – expanding the appeal of Savile Row still further, without compromising The Row’s central values of quality and service, nor neglecting its core bespoke product, which every member tailor retains as the heart of their business. With the work of the SRBA, Savile Row has undergone a timely renaissance, retaining its global reputation for quality whilst developing a new vibrancy and dominance in the luxury retail sphere. Excitingly, the Association itself is continuing to grow alongside the Row, with three more member houses joining this year alone, helping to secure Savile Row’s enduring identity in an ordinarily fickle and changing industry.
In such an environment Savile Row continues to grow from strength to strength, demonstrating its relevance and confidence, promoting British style and retaining its reputation as a global icon of men’s luxury; a reputation which the Savile Row Bespoke Association is proud to play a dominant role in upholding.