There are few commercial streets in the world with sufficient reputation to conjure an image in the mind before you have even stepped foot into them; the likes of Fifth Avenue, Faubourg St Honore, La Rambla, Rodeo Drive and, of course, Savile Row.
The Only Street Dedicated to Men’s Tailoring
London’s Savile Row is arguably more famous than its glittering neighbour, Bond Street – home to some of the world’s most prestigious brands.
Savile Row is also the only street in the world entirely dominated by men’s tailoring. Other cities have their ancient tailoring shops, their gentlemen’s emporiums; splendid islands of whisky-and-leather-scented bliss amongst the handbag boutiques, ice cream parlours and tacky shops selling miniature souvenir landmarks.
But Savile Row is the Mother Church of classic tailoring. Its avenue, stretching from Burlington Gardens to Conduit Street is an overwhelming river of English sartorial history.
Tailors who dressed the greatest names in English military history with uniforms that graced famous battlefields – as well as the hundreds of maharajahs, kings, industrialists and Hollywood celebrities of the last two centuries have all visited “The Row.”
But, like a widow clinging to her bridal portrait or an ageing general to his medals, there is a sad decay about the old street. What was once a hotbed of style innovation, fashion and dynamism has become a dusty boulevard of former glories.
Is the garment Really 100% Savile Row-Made?
One of the saddest things about this is the fact that the Row’s tailors, bending to the realities of commerce, have had to stretch the cottage industry nature of tailoring to its limits.
For a 21st century obsessed with the ‘origins’ and ‘method’ of things, bespoke tailoring is a very attractive concept – and one which the name of Savile Row appears to offer in spades.
However, scratch beneath the veneer of its Victorian dressing room doors and you will see that Savile Row has had to make compromises. Where once the hidden bellies of these great tailoring houses used to throng with coatmakers, waistcoat makers, embroiderers and seamstresses, now only a few boast complete on-Row manufacture.
In other words, much of the actual stitching and sewing of the garments is sent out to workrooms in nearby Soho or workshops around the country. That said, the garment will still be measured and cut at the Savile Row’s shop premises.
“This is the way it’s done now” a tailor told me recently “the skills aren’t concentrated here as they were. They’re all over. And we have to make it work somehow. It’s sad, but it is what it is.”
Many critics have pointed out that this proves the ‘Savile Row Made’ label is phony; that it really means ‘Savile Row via Surbiton’ given that the modern delivery and transport services enable much of the actual ‘making’ to be done well away from Mayfair.
I remember attending a soiree four years ago on the first floor of 13 Savile Row with Cad & The Dandy, where the tailors actually made a suit – including looming the wool fabric – entirely on the premises; all weaving, measuring, cutting, basting, sewing and fitting done within metres of the giant looming machine.
It was a publicity stunt but one which revealed something: yes, it was a first, and a tongue-in-cheek one-upmanship to the history of the most celebrated houses on the Row, but it also provoked more questions than it answered. The query on everyone’s lips was; what’s so special about something made entirely on the Row?
The thing is, the Row tailors do not advertise their coat maker’s suburban address or who sews the lining into its jackets. These artisans are the most skilled in their craft and yet the Row fears highlighting their brilliance lest there be a backlash. Much in the same way that Bond Street jewellers might hide the fact that their cheaper pieces are made in *gasp* Thailand.
It’s Best to Suspend Disbelief Because the Quality is Still Amazing
So what’s the answer? Is this Machiavellian trickery?
Or is it that the truth would be too much for this venerable street and their customers who aspire to the podium of owning ‘a bonafide Savile Row suit’?
Ultimately, Savile Row aficionados are likely to happily suspend disbelief and accept that Savile Row’s tailors – and other luxury retailers – have had to change from this perfect Dickensian world into something more commercially realistic. ML