To have a pair of skilled hands is only the beginning. An appreciation of style and an understanding and good eye are key. “The sleeve looks right but you can’t see why. Then all of a sudden one day you can see it. It’s like your own eyes are opened up and you can see for the first time”, says Gordon at H Huntsman, pointing at a jacket that he recently made. We settled in to discuss his experience of teaching apprentices.
A good memory is probably not something one would associate as being among the requirements of being a good tailor, but for Carol, the General Manager of Huntsman, it is. “I went through every customer and Gordon said, oh yes I know this customer. He knew every single one: the body shape, what was in work at the time, where was that, what was the stage, without any reference”.
So, given the time, conditions, and relatively poor pay, what inspires the tailors to take on the trade? For Gordon, William and Simon Cundey, it’s a family thing – it’s in their blood, but there are also newcomers.
Emma is a young coat (tailoring jargon for jacket) maker at Dege. She was previously a fashion designer, but decided to become a tailor instead. ‘Personally I wanna learn something that is mine, like it’s my skill and I can touch it … You are not really just creating a piece. It’s kind of creating a sculpture of someone and it’s kind of like art, really. Coz every little stitch I do will determine what happens to the coat. Also you never ever stop learning with this trade. Not just like you learn different styles of coat but different cloth, different shapes … I think that’s what I like it. No day is the same.’ She shared with me her story whilst gracefully stitching a jacket on her stall, which would require another few hours work before it would be ready for the first fitting.
Recent years have seen an increasing number of young applicants to take on apprenticeships on Savile Row, and when I asked Simon, who has been putting a lot of effort into encourage the younger generation to take on bespoke tailoring as their career, the reason behind such increased popularity he replied ‘Tailoring is a proper skill… Unlike many other professions, in bespoke tailoring you follow the work from start to finish.’
I can never forget the immense passion behind the soft tone of Paul, the senior coat maker at Henry Poole, when he told me how much he enjoyed this trade; a skill, a tradition and a unique relationship with the clients. Emma once received an email from a client to compliment her on her style of stitching, and specifically asked for her to make all his future orders. For all those proper tailoring houses on the row, it’s not just a single customer that came back to them from time to time; it’s the customer’s children and grand children that come back too.
So, bespoke tailoring is all about the customer? For me, it is ultimately about the tailors. ‘Sometimes there are 2 to 4 pieces for a collar pattern. It can (also) be 11 pieces for just a collar shape. That’s the attention to details.’ said Robert to me whilst drawing a pattern for a new customer.
The dedication of these tailors is immense ‘It fits nicely, but I’m not happy with that. The sleeves are coming out, the shoulders are coming out, the collar’s coming out and the back’s coming out.’ Gordon said and did this knowing full well it meant an extra 5 hours to ‘put it right’ on top of the 25 to 30 hours work the garment would usually need, and he did spend that extra 5 hours to ‘put it right’ in his workshop on a weekend. I do not believe that the majority of the customers would be able to detect all those finest details, but the tailors are pursuing the state of excellence to please themselves, and that to me is craftsmanship.
‘Some people think the style is the type of pocket you have-that’s not style. Style is how the coat hangs off your body. It has nothing to do with the single button. It is the pattern construction… people recognise the garment rather than the logo. It’s construction of the pattern.’ That was the reply, or more precisely a correction I got from Gordon when I made the comment that Huntsman’s style is all about notched lapel, one button single-breasted jacket with articulate shoulders.
So what is fashion and style to the tailors? ‘ … pin collar which is really popular now. But it’s nothing new. It’s already there in 1920s and 30s. If you’ve been around as long as I am you will see the cycle happen,’ said Robert.
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.