The Ebb and flow of the row

Back before my time, in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Cutters of Savile Row were the kingpins. Journeyman tailors would go from place to place asking for work, if anything was available they would be given a space that they would rent from the shop. If the Head Cutter didn’t like you, you didn’t get any work, and word got around. It was, and still is – a small industry.

In the 20s, 30s and even post war, virtually everybody in the country had a tailored suit, people would go to Burtons to have a suit made for Sundays at Church, and even another for special occasions. The demand for bespoke wasn’t unusual, it was for everyone, and Savile Row was the global bastion of quality suiting.

We never used to ask for deposits or down payments or anything like that. Instead, you asked for trade references or a bank reference. We would speak to hatters around the corner and ask “we have Mr. X here, he has ordered a suit worth £80, is he good for it?” – rarely there was a problem, but business is business. There’s a saying, “The last person you pay is your Tailor…” while a comic line, it was always a challenge at the end of the month. When working with Mr. Packer at Huntsman, we had a policy of adding an extra 15 or 16% if you hadn’t paid before 30 days. This caused some friction amongst our customers at the time, but something that today seems completely normal.

Mr. Packer once said, “Customers might not pay their bills… but we don’t either…!” The attitude of customers not paying affected the whole supply chain. Sometimes it could be two or three years for a single suit as customers would stretch out their fitting because they didn’t want to pay.

I believe that this dissent contributed to the shrinking of the row, a mix of customers not used to or willing to pay for their goods. The pressure and time it took to create a bespoke suit, mixed in with rising rents just caused constant friction.

Combining this change with increased quality of Ready-to-Wear suits, the “tailored” style declined. In the post war boon for the US, we had many customers in to order sports coats instead of full suits as they were far less formal, we were witnessing style and fashion change alongside a sharp drop in revenue.

Savile Row used to be a tourist destination, I think today it’s better loved abroad than it is at home. Our American friends always used to phrase it as when they “did Europe” – The husband would have a suit or jacket from Savile Row, and the wife would have a gown made in Paris.

There were two major houses that took young people in, put them through apprenticeships. Huntsman’s was one, working and learning under Mr. Packer was possibly the greatest way to learn and train in both the trade itself, and the commercial side of the business. I discovered how the global network operated, albeit before the ease of email had joined us.

The tailoring profession used to have local and global trade associations, exhibitions in Tel Aviv, Paris, London – some of which had over 2000 companies attending. They have gone now, tailoring is simply no longer a sizeable enough.

When I was part of the Federation of Merchant Tailors, I remember going on television and requesting apprentices, we just couldn’t get boys into the profession, for a time, they didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Today, it’s different, we’re oversubscribed now. There will always be a desire for quality and individuality.

If you watch television today, the bulk of programming outside of drama and film is two things. Food, and fashion.

What we are seeing now is a resurgence in the love and joy of crafting, working with materials and challenging ideas and conceptions. Several top fashion designers today started on the Row, and now they influence global trends. Stella McCartney had an apprenticeship on Savile Row for example. Not every wonderful tailor can be a designer, there is a difference. It does take something special to make a fashion designer, not everyone who can work a sewing machine has it.

To me, what is wonderful to see is that we have young blood coming up through Savile Row again, a passion for fine clothes, cloths and style is exactly what Savile Row needs to continue to be that bastion of style.

I am delighted to have ‘weathered the storm’ as it were, throughout the more challenging times, working with Richard, Peter, Krishan, Maya, Emily and young Tom gives me great hope for the future of not only Richard Anderson, but Savile Row as an institution, a destination and a home to tailoring.