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Savile Row tailor fears overseas threat to rich tapestry of tradition

hugh51271

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I thought this may interest some of you here:

Shirtmaker believes buyouts detract from street’s fashion cachet, with only two family-owned tailoring houses left on Savile Row

1000


Robert Whittaker traces his razor sharp knife around a paper template to cut a perfect shoulder panel for a cotton shirt.

Whittaker, 61, is one of a dying breed – skilled craftsmen who precisely measure and cut shirts for the rich, the famous and royalty.

He has been cutting shirts since 1968, leaving school at 15 to learn his trade on Jermyn Street in Mayfair, central London. He has worked at Dege & Skinner, the Savile Row tailoring house, since 1992 making shirts costing from £234-£450 each – and there is a minimum order of four.

Dege & Skinner is one of only two family-owned tailoring houses (along with Henry Poole & Co) left on Savile Row, which has been at the heart of London’s bespoke tailoring business for more than a century. Next year marks Dege & Skinner’s 150th anniversary.

This “golden mile of tailoring” has produced suits for Prince Charles, Winston Churchill, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Lord Nelson and Napoleon III.

“We are the only firm in Savile Row now doing bespoke shirt making. And I don’t think there are any left on Jermyn Street,” Whittaker mourns.

Like much of Britain’s once vibrant tailoring and textiles industries, most of these traditional skills have been lost as factories in China, Turkey and other cheap labour markets grabbed the work.

“It’s a bit of a dying art. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be kept going,” says Whittaker, who is passing on his knowledge and experience to apprentice Tom Bradbury, 20.

William Skinner is the third successive generation of his family to become managing director of the tailoring house and is committed to safeguarding the Savile Row traditions and keeping the business in the family.

It has three royal warrants – from the Queen, the sultan of Oman, and the king of Bahrain. About 25% of its business comes from military tailoring and it makes all the uniforms for princes William and Harry.

A browse through a rail of half made suits dotted with tailor’s chalk marks reveals a long grey coat with a poppy still in the button hole. A brown tag hangs from the lapel with the name Prince William scrawled on it. “Oh yes, that was the coat he wore on Sunday [for the remembrance service],” says Skinner casually.

He says the everyday customer is the core of the business, but these royal appointments are important “cream”.

Michael Skinner, William’s father and the company chairman, was at the Queen’s coronation in 1953 when he, his father and John Dege dressed the peers of the realm for the occasion.

But much has changed since. In the last 10 years several venerable Savile Row brands have fallen on hard times and been hoovered up by overseas investors.

Hong Kong’s Fung family, headed by billionaire patriarch William Fung, now owns four of the street’s best known names: Gieves & Hawkes; Hardy Amies, formerly the Queen’s official dressmaker; Kent & Curwen; and Kilgour.

Skinner is concerned that buyouts like these may affect quality. He is also worried about the use of the Savile Row brand for the sale of clothing that is not true bespoke.

“The fact that some firms up and down Savile Row are being bought is good to preserve the name,” he says. “But when that happens, sometimes the traditional values of tailoring can be diminished.”

Are some of these firms now making clothing in China? “I don’t know but I would guess that they are. Hardy Amies doesn’t do tailoring now and has no ladieswear [which is what it was famous for].”

Hardy Amies, which designed the dress for the Queen’s silver jubilee portrait, is now just a brand name to sell clothing to places like China, where the public have an insatiable appetite for British heritage products.

“Savile Row is world renowned for making clothes,” Skinner says. “So if someone can attach the Savile Row brand to a suit and knock it out around the world – it’s prestige, it adds a cachet.”

The Savile Row Bespoke Association was set up in 2004 to protect and promote the practices and traditions of the street. It has trademarked the name Savile Row Bespoke and takes legal action against those that infringe the brand.

“We could outsource tailoring to China, but then we wouldn’t be a Savile Row tailor,” Skinner says. “I believe in doing what we say we do.”

The Dege & Skinner boss is also concerned that the Fung takeover may encourage landlords to raise rents on the Mayfair street. “A bigger conglomerate, with deeper pockets, can afford to pay higher rents – so any rent rise would hurt them less than it hurts us,” he says.

The firm signed a 15-year lease on its base at 10 Savile Row in 2011 and has a rent review in June 2016. There is always a battle between tenants, the council and landlords about how to categorise Savile Row – is it a retail street, or not?

Skinner has no doubts: “Savile Row is not an A1 retail street (which command higher rents), like Bond Street or Regent Street. It’s a destination street. We are maintaining the rich culture and tapestry of this city.

“It could be quite easy for me to say ‘I’m fed up of paying rent here’ and move a mile away or wherever, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

Dege & Skinner is certainly preparing for the future. A tour behind the scenes at 10 Savile Row reveals a warren of rooms, stairs and corridors.

Skinner proudly points out the young people – the next generation of Savile Row tailors – who are busily measuring, stitching and cutting. Some are already fully qualified tailors and cutters; others are apprentices who are learning their craft under the tutelage of more experienced practitioners.

“That highlights our belief in the future of the bespoke tailoring business. We have invested in the future of the trade, because we are confident about the future of the trade. We have a good business model; we make money and we reinvest it in the company. We are not a museum piece by any means.”

Preserving traditional skills is one thing. The bigger problem for the artisans of Savile Row is its brash, young neighbours on Bond Street, home to London’s designer brand elite.

A suit from Dege & Skinner starts at £3,800 and could take 10 weeks to make; a buyer could be in and out of Prada or Armani within 10 minutes with a suit that cost half that.

“Some people feel very at home with that and Bond Street has been very successful,” Skinner admits. “But if you have something made for you – that’s the ultimate luxury.

“A lot of people don’t want to go into a high street shop, they want the relationship and the service that we give. As long as we can maintain that, there’s every chance of surviving.”

The sharp-suited tailor recalls learning about well-known places in London when he was at school. The teacher asked the class which trade or profession was linked with areas such as Harley Street, Fleet Street, Hatton Garden.

“When the teacher said Savile Row, my hand shot up,” he smiles. “I felt immensely proud of that and I want to maintain that. We’ll do our damnedest to keep it going.”

http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2014/nov/14/savile-row-tailoring-foreign-buyout-threat-hong-kong
 

jedwards

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Great article, thanks for link.

Worst newspaper in the world to publish it - already the extreme left wing guardianistas are decrying the fact that some people can afford this bespoke stuff and therefore won't be sorry to see the demise of it.
 

papa kot

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Relationship is the key. Good luck to them.
 

Bounder

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FWIW, Harvie & Hudson, which is both family-owned and on Jermyn Street, still does bespoke shirts in-house.
 
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FlyingMonkey

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Worst newspaper in the world to publish it - already the extreme left wing guardianistas are decrying the fact that some people can afford this bespoke stuff and therefore won't be sorry to see the demise of it.

The Guardian is probably Britain's best newspaper, and one of the best in the world, regardless of its politics (which are pretty soft left / liberal BTW). And some of us 'extreme left wing guardianistas' are all in favour of skilled, dignified labour, and get our suits made on the Row too. And we're very much agains the kind of unfettered neoliberal global marketplace that allows such skilled and trained artisans to be replaced so easily by cheap factory labour.
 
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EliodA

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The Guardian is probably Britain's best newspaper, and one of the best in the world, regardless of its politics (which are pretty soft left / liberal BTW). And some of us 'extreme left wing guardianistas' are all in favour of skilled, dignified labour, and get our suits made on the Row too. And we're very much agains the kind of unfettered neoliberal global marketplace that allows such skilled and trained artisans to be replaced so easily by cheap factory labour.


Splendid response. :)
 

blackbowtie

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The Guardian is probably Britain's best newspaper, and one of the best in the world, regardless of its politics (which are pretty soft left / liberal BTW). And some of us 'extreme left wing guardianistas' are all in favour of skilled, dignified labour, and get our suits made on the Row too. And we're very much agains the kind of unfettered neoliberal global marketplace that allows such skilled and trained artisans to be replaced so easily by cheap factory labour.


Hear, hear.
 

LA Guy

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The Guardian is probably Britain's best newspaper, and one of the best in the world, regardless of its politics (which are pretty soft left / liberal BTW). And some of us 'extreme left wing guardianistas' are all in favour of skilled, dignified labour, and get our suits made on the Row too. And we're very much agains the kind of unfettered neoliberal global marketplace that allows such skilled and trained artisans to be replaced so easily by cheap factory labour.


There is a false dichotomy here. There are plenty of very skilled artisans working in those cheap factories.
 

FlyingMonkey

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There is a false dichotomy here. There are plenty of very skilled artisans working in those cheap factories.


Luckily, I'm not making that dichotomy. Or, what I mean is that my point was about the effects of structural economic forces on both traditional skills and workers' wages and conditions. I'm in favour of well-paid, skilled, dignified jobs for all workers.
 
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Coxsackie

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FM, I may be competely misinterpreting your argument here, but it seems to me that the internationalisation of previously arcane skills such as bespoke tailoring brings benefits as well as pain.

The rise of bespoke in Asia (in particular) has allowed new blood such as Korea's B&Tailor, or HK's Ascot Chang, to enrich our lives with superbly made menswear at an attractive price. This is particularly important for those of us living places such as Australia, far-flung from Savile Row, but serviced by both of the above houses in the form of annual trunk shows (AC) or on-site expert fitters (B&T).

I can get semi-bespoke shoes made for less than £150 in Shanghai whose quality is only limited by the makers' restricted access to the very finest leathers. This is a family-owned company who take pride in their skills and their product, and who employ local people who thirty years ago would have slaved in rice paddies for a tenth of their (still meagre) present salaries.

Savile Row may have invented and/or perfected many of the finest tailoring skills, but as with all intellectual property, the patent has eventually expired and now those skills belong to all of mankind. Savile Row still has the tradition and the head-start. If they're clever and adaptable, they will find a way to capitalise on their heritage and survive. However, this may require a radical re-interpretation of what the "Savile Row" brand really means.
 

LA Guy

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FM, I may be competely misinterpreting your argument here, but it seems to me that the internationalisation of previously arcane skills such as bespoke tailoring brings benefits as well as pain.

The rise of bespoke in Asia (in particular) has allowed new blood such as Korea's B&Tailor, or HK's Ascot Chang, to enrich our lives with superbly made menswear at an attractive price. This is particularly important for those of us living places such as Australia, far-flung from Savile Row, but serviced by both of the above houses in the form of annual trunk shows (AC) or on-site expert fitters (B&T).

I can get semi-bespoke shoes made for less than £150 in Shanghai whose quality is only limited by the makers' restricted access to the very finest leathers. This is a family-owned company who take pride in their skills and their product, and who employ local people who thirty years ago would have slaved in rice paddies for a tenth of their (still meagre) present salaries.

Savile Row may have invented and/or perfected many of the finest tailoring skills, but as with all intellectual property, the patent has eventually expired and now those skills belong to all of mankind. Savile Row still has the tradition and the head-start. If they're clever and adaptable, they will find a way to capitalise on their heritage and survive. However, this may require a radical re-interpretation of what the "Savile Row" brand really means.
+1.

I would also like to add that the top tier manufacturers in China can put out a product that are very good, and very consistent, but any standard, and that the workers are highly trained and have "dignified" wages and standards of living. Even Kilgour, for a long time, had a "Shanghai bespoke" program that was only recently shelved, and not because the product was substandard, but because the house decided to concentrate only on the luxury market.

I've been following the debates about Savile Row for years now, and all the arguments, imo, boil down to people decrying that the world is changing, and that they are being forced to change with it. There seem to be regular protest about rent hikes on the Row. I'm not sure what to say, except that London is becoming a more and more expensive city. To ask that they be accomodated, without having to provide any accomodations of their own, strikes me as both entitled and unrealistic. Certainly, other traditional manufacturing industries have been much more proactive in showing the world why they are worth consideration. For example, I think that the Aran sweater trade, which enjoys much less name recognition than Saile Row, and in particular through companies like Inverallan/Strathlay, and Inis Meain, have shown that their stories have value and their products can command a premium. And it should be noted that they have not had toe outsource their labor. English shoe brands like Trickers and Edward Green certainly do not seem to be suffering from "the new economy".

Finally, I find that many of these articles have a not particularly well disguised vein of xenophobia. That foreign companies are buying the houses and changing everything, destroying traditon, etc... This sounds to me a lot like the high end tailoring version of grousing about immigrants.
 

Bounder

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There is a false dichotomy here. There are plenty of very skilled artisans working in those cheap factories.


Not so much, really. The whole point of a factory is that you don't need artisans. You may employ workers who are highly skilled at a particular task, but in a modern clothing factory, whether in China or anywhere else, it is extremely unlikely that there is anyone who could actually make you a suit.


I've been following the debates about Savile Row for years now, and all the arguments, imo, boil down to people decrying that the world is changing, and that they are being forced to change with it.  There seem to be regular protest about rent hikes on the Row.  I'm not sure what to say, except that London is becoming a more and more expensive city.  To ask that they be accomodated, without having to provide any accomodations of their own, strikes me as both entitled and unrealistic.  


I'm not complaining about the rent increases, I'm complaining that Abercrombie & Fitch moved in. Bleh.

The situation in London --and on Savile Row in particular -- isn't that simple. First, there isn't a lot of competition on rents because the whole area is owned by a single landowner. Huge swaths of central London are still owned by a single estate that was granted the land several hundred years ago.

Second, Savile Row is actually regulated under a Special Policy Area. This is a sort of like what Americans would call zoning. It's supposed to protect tailoring on Savile Row. So there is a lot of back-and-forth about whether some particular use/retailer ought to be allowed a Savile Row address under the SPA rules.

http://transact.westminster.gov.uk/.../Mayfair & StJamess FINAL for publication.pdf

As much as I like free-wheeling capitalism, it's not just a question of supply and demand and best use. Savile Row is much more complicated than that.
 

IndianBoyz

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Savile Row will always be there but their operations may "shrink".
 
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LA Guy

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Not so much, really. The whole point of a factory is that you don't need artisans. You may employ workers who are highly skilled at a particular task, but in a modern clothing factory, whether in China or anywhere else, it is extremely unlikely that there is anyone who could actually make you a suit.

I'm not complaining about the rent increases, I'm complaining that Abercrombie & Fitch moved in. Bleh.

The situation in London --and on Savile Row in particular -- isn't that simple. First, there isn't a lot of competition on rents because the whole area is owned by a single landowner. Huge swaths of central London are still owned by a single estate that was granted the land several hundred years ago.

Second, Savile Row is actually regulated under a Special Policy Area. This is a sort of like what Americans would call zoning. It's supposed to protect tailoring on Savile Row. So there is a lot of back-and-forth about whether some particular use/retailer ought to be allowed a Savile Row address under the SPA rules.

http://transact.westminster.gov.uk/.../Mayfair & StJamess FINAL for publication.pdf

As much as I like free-wheeling capitalism, it's not just a question of supply and demand and best use. Savile Row is much more complicated than that.
It's not as though a single tailor makes your entire Savile Row suit either.

It always seems to be one complaint after another. First it was the zoning. Now it's that foreign firms are buying up the old houses. Ultimately, something has to change. And it seems like some of the most vocal people are not wanting to make any changes at all, something that is clearly not tenable given that society and technology keep on changing.
 

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