“To be frank, things went downhill when bankers and solicitors stopped wearing frock coats to work,” says Angus Cundey, the 77-year-old patriarch of tailoring house Henry Poole & Co. “It’s rather disappointing that City men today can go to work wearing an anorak. An anorak!”
Cundey is one of Savile Row’s depleted old guard. He has never owned an anorak, his staple uniform is a bespoke three-piece Worcester, and he can’t bring himself to say “Austin Reed” out loud. Though he does admit to shopping in Marks & Spencer once. “I bought a shirt and slacks. I mean, you can’t wear a tweed suit to do the gardening.” So what did he think of the offerings at M&S? “It’s probably best I don’t say,” he laughs.
Savile Row used to be an enclave of taste in a sea of vulgarity, but now the vulgarity is creeping in
But the gradual dilution of the traditions and culture of Savile Row is no laughing matter for insiders, many of whom are furious. It may be perceived as a quaint London institution to outsiders, but to many of its kippers, cutters and tailors, Savile Row is the pinnacle of Britishness. “People come to Britain for Savile Row,” argues Glenys Roberts, councillor at Westminster City Council, who was married to the late Douglas Hayward, head of the eponymous tailoring empire that counted Michael Caine and Roger Moore as customers. “Savile Row used to be an enclave of good taste in a sea of vulgarity, but now the vulgarity is creeping in,” says Roberts.
Vulgarity is thinly-veiled code for Abercrombie & Fitch, the American retailer that is setting up shop on Savile Row selling mass-produced children’s clothes. Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, tells economia: “They make ready-to-wear children’s clothes not bespoke men’s clothes so they should be on Regent Street.”
Writer and broadcaster Robert Elms agrees. “I’m not one of those who says Savile Row should be frozen in aspic but I hate the idea,” he says. “It’s lowering the tone.”
And Cundey adds: “We’re going to have perambulators and heaven knows what going up and down Savile Row. It’s a disgrace to turn that wonderful building into a kid’s shop.”
In fact, one of Cundey’s chief concerns for decades has been the rising number of suits, many of them ready-to-wear, being made far away from Savile Row, but sold on it.
“Gieves & Hawkes was the first company to introduce ready-to-wear on Savile Row, so right from the start it wasn’t popular, especially with my grandfather,” says Cundey.
But Roubi L’Roubi, creative director and co-owner of H Huntsman & Sons, is adamant that ready-to-wear is crucial to the survival of the Row. Huntsman’s ready-to-wear collection (made in Italy) accounted for 10% of its turnover last year, but sales are rapidly rising. And Gieves & Hawkes’ ready-to-wear has been worth more than its bespoke arm since the 1970s.
“There’s a way of carrying the traditions and modernising. They are not mutually exclusive,” he argues.
Cad & the Dandy, one of the Row’s newest tailoring houses, also sends certain suits overseas for finishing work. Former banker and co-owner Ian Meiers won’t confirm which two countries they are sent to, but does say they are sent outside Europe.
Meanwhile, the proportion of female customers has dwindled from the early 20th century, when Henry Poole was flooded with orders for female riding costumes and when Katharine Hepburn’s wardrobe was almost entirely cut by Huntsman.
Women want instant purchases. They want to buy it, take it home and wear it that evening
By the 1980s, female custom comprised just 10% of Henry Poole’s turnover and today it accounts for less than 5% at Poole, Huntsman and Gieves & Hawkes. “It’s because women want instant purchases,” says L’Roubi. “They want to buy it, take it home and wear it that evening.”
Yet certain changes have been unanimously welcomed. Richard Anderson began stitching BlackBerry-shaped pockets into jackets 10 years ago and, more recently, iPhone-shaped pockets – a practice Cundey has also adopted. L’Roubi has issued his staff with iPads and is developing an app that allows them to see exactly where a bespoke suit is in the production process.
And even the décor in the shops is brightening from the traditional dark, antler-clad gentleman’s club atmosphere to lighter, contemporary styles. Modern artworks by Sean Scully and George Grosz hang on the walls of Richard Anderson’s shop: “Customers I knew in my old life [at Huntsman] behave very differently here,” he says of the change in décor. “Without a doubt they’re more friendly.”
Meiers also believes that the old guard has been influenced by Cad & the Dandy’s website, which includes photographs of customers wearing their suits. “Some tailors didn’t even have websites when we first came to the Row in 2008,” he recalls.
But both the old guard and new arrivals agree on one thing: 3D body scanners and other mechanical measuring devices, adopted by some tailoring houses, have no place on Savile Row. “I’ve seen the results and some of the suits are shockingly bad,” says Meiers. L’Roubi agrees: “I don’t believe in that. I want to measure with a measuring tape.”
Anderson, who still measures customers in the same way he was taught 30 years ago, explains that human judgment is crucial: “The measure alone won’t tell you if a customer has a high shoulder or his neck is forward or he’s bow legged.”
Yet the culture behind the scenes has changed immeasurably. Cundey points out that it is a far cry from the days when he joined the family firm, which was established in 1806.
“My headmaster summoned me to his study on my last day at boarding school and said, ‘What are you going to do when you leave?’” he recalls.
“I told him I was going to join the RAF but he said, ‘Cundey, have you not heard of your wonderful family business?’ He said it was one of the most famous tailors in the world, which surprised me, as my father had never spoken of it in that way.
“I thought hard about what he had said during the journey home, and by the time I met my father at Liverpool Street station, I’d decided. I said: ‘Father, would there be a place for me in Poole?’ He gave me a big smile and said yes.”
Cundey’s son and business partner, Simon, showed an interest in men’s fashion at just 12 years old, but the future of the family business now hinges on whether Cundey’s grandsons, currently 13 and 14, decide to take up the tape measure. “I hope they will,” says Cundey, though he adds they haven’t shown an interest yet.
However, the formal relationship between tailor and customer has barely relaxed – Cundey insists on calling customers “sir”, even during their tailor-client lunches, which remain a steadfast tradition. Nor has the relationship between tailor and apprentice deformalised. “It’s still very hierarchical,” says Anderson.
The atmosphere in the cutting rooms is similarly time-warped. “Tailors were just like hairdressers,” says Roberts. “They were incredible bitches and gossips.” And that remains the case today, according to Meiers. “You have a group of people in a small room sewing suits for hours and hours,” he explains.
For the newcomers, at least, this balance of traditional and modern is positive. As L’Roubi puts it, “Savile Row has kept its legacy and heritage while keeping up with the times. The shops are being revamped, there are better communications, social media is used… It’s keeping up, but at the same time the measuring and fitting and cutting room are the same as they always were.”
And many of the business owners, from those at the helm of traditional businesses such as Gieves & Hawkes and Huntsman, to those who founded newer houses, Cad & the Dandy and Richard Anderson, agree that some degree of change is necessary. After all if Savile Row were to go, says Elms, it would be terrible. “Like losing Jaguar, Aston Martin, Bentley and Rolls-Royce at the same time.”