The Art of Savile Row’s Bespoke Tailors

The Art of Savile Row’s Bespoke Tailors

Beatles fans know of the street as the venue of the band’s last performance, drivers know it as a single lane that isn’t easy to park on, but for most, Savile Row is known for its tailors.

Since the late eighteenth century, Savile Row tailors have made bespoke garments for men – many of whom we learnt about in our history books at school – to work, dine, celebrate, perform, worship, and win battles in.

A few quick facts: the making of a bespoke garment does not start with shears or fabric. Instead, after measurements – and there are a lot of them, at least thirty-five for a simple jacket – a pattern will be made for a first-time customer, and this pattern will be reviewed whenever a new order is placed. At Henry Poole and Co. (established in 1806, and arguably the oldest tailoring house on the Row), you can still find the patterns of notables like King Edward VII, Napoleon III, Sir Winston Churchill, and many more. The bespoke garment requires at least three fittings, created almost entirely by hand by at least three highly skilled tailors working for no less than sixty hours.

Bespoke tailoring is much more than just making a garment. It is about making a garment that is specifically designed for how its owner intends to use it, whether that be for specific events, climates, or simply for the way he wears it or what items he carries in his pockets. Understanding of the client is therefore essential. As David Taub, the head cutter at Gieves and Hawkes (the military and civilian tailor on No. 1 Savile Row who still look after the uniform of Her Majesty’s Bodyguard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms) put it, keeping an open mind is the key to understanding the customer. As a tailor, you need to be a good listener, and at the same time able to ask the right questions.

Savile Row London Lamppost
Savile Row with H.Huntsman & Sons in the foreground. Image courtesy of H.Huntsman & Sons

The final garment is not just made for the customer, but to a certain extent made by them. Variation is endless, even just for a simple shirt. Robert Whittaker, head cutter of the shirt department at Dege & Skinner (established in 1865, and holding the Queen’s royal warrant to make both civilian and military attire), started his career in tailoring in 1968, and has much to say on the subject, taking me through how one starts by finding the styles you like or don’t like. Once you have the style it’s a question of how, if at all, you want to adjust it; longer or shallower, or pushed forward or pushed back. Even after this there is more to decide upon. He explains to me the process of choosing the collar shape, and then there’s still the fabric and cuff to choose!

The fascinating thing is that, as a client, you are part of the design of your own garment. This can lead to all sorts of creations and innovations; the elements of formal black tie attire now regarded de rigeur were championed and developed in the 1920s by the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, and his tailor on the Row; although some Americans may disagree with that.

More recently, a second-generation client of Gieves presented his tailor with an old leopard hide inherited from his grandfather, which he wanted to be made into a waistcoat, and a few months later, the game in Gloucestershire was a bit unsettled, spotting a “big cat” on horseback.

The tailors, of course, are the experts, so they are there to provide guidance to customers. The title “master tailor” is only granted to those with more than twenty years’ experience; once Gordon at H Huntsman, one who bears the accolade, had finished up with a returning customer of his from the Orient, I asked for his opinion on striking the fine balance between adapting to the customer and taking the lead.

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A Jacket under construction by Henry Poole & Co. Image courtesy of Henry Poole & Co.

“[As a tailor] you are going to be stronger. You cannot have the customer walk all over you. We get people that are used to having it their own way. There is a way of doing that. You get different types of customers so you are gonna assist those different types of customers. You can get a customer that doesn’t really know what he wants. It’s his first time in. And they need a lot of guidance without being made to feel foolish. And you get other customers who know what they want. They don’t want someone to be looking for the pattern bunch. They want the pattern bunch put there and open to the right page: yes I will have that one, and then decide in the fitting room. If you try to fix someone like that, you can’t say yes, ok, let’s do it.  I will say: Could you please stand in there? That’s quite difficult to do sometimes but you have to do it. When you do that you get respect. Once you get respect they don’t question you anymore. We are not cutting to fit you; we are cutting to make you look good.”

I somehow feel reassured to hear such a statement, but I was thrown at the idea that “tailoring is all about hiding” to Gordon, and I enjoyed the next fifteen minutes or so as he tried to explain to me how he had been trying to make one of his clients look great at his workshop on the first floor (such a workshop is a rarity thanks to ever rising rents in central London; most tailors have to work in basements these days).

There are simply no manuals to follow. A tailor meets with a customer, takes some measures, and is then left with a piece of paper and chalk to create some “magic” from. In the case of the client Gordon was telling me about, “his measure is 10½, and for his height he should be 9¾.  Why is that? Because of the head being forward. So when I’m cutting his pattern, I know where to adjust it.” That is the creative side of tailoring. Such creativity is understated and should be invisible in the finished product, but it literally creates value.

That is not only the beauty of bespoke tailoring, but also makes it a very hard trade. “It’s all right for us when you are at the top. But it’s very hard getting there. Even now you’ve still got to perform every day… from the year that I started tailoring, I’m the only one left. Probably twelve started in the same year”, reflected Gordon.

According to William Skinner, the current owner of Dege, the training of a cutter can take between five and ten years. It is all about shadowing and practice. Like the maturation of Scotch or brandy, there is no short cut to it. It’s not hard to see why Gordon’s father, himself a master tailor, wanted his son to become an accountant instead.


Part 2 – Learning to Create Style as a Savile Row Tailor

For more on Savile Row and it’s tailors see Savile Row Bespoke

Cover image courtesy of H.Huntsman & Sons

This article is a reworking of an article first written in 2015 at which time all details were correct.