Monday, 3 September 2012

Savile Row: The Golden Mile of Tailoring

Last weekend I was having one of those slightly hungover, shattered Sundays, when, embracing my comfortable sofa and the entertaining charms of Youtube, I stumbled across a television series, about a very particular street in London.  I never saw 'Savile Row' when it was first broadcast back in 2009, but the three-part BBC documentary series explores the changing nature of this Mayfair address; the home of bespoke men's tailoring within the city.  Bear with me if you think that this doesn't sound particularly gripping.  The series follows a shift in the character of 'the golden mile of tailoring', and the tension between the long-established, thoroughly British firms such as Gieves & Hawkes and Chester Barrie, and the American jeanswear brand, Abercrombie & Fitch - they of the tanned and toned, half-naked doormen, designed to lure in shoppers in search of denim and y-shirts.  (Now you're more interested, aren't you?)

Savile Row, W1, formed part of my regular commute in to and out of work when I lived in South West London. Probably my favourite part, in fact.  Hopping off a bus on Piccadilly I would wind my way up through Mayfair to Soho, walking through a sleepy Burlington Arcade, to emerge into Mayfair, right next to the bottom end of Savile Row. Savile Row was then one of my possible routes up onto Regent Street, usually nicely empty by the time I reached it early in the morning, save for a few delivery-men wheeling trollies of plastic-wrapped clothes into the enormous shops waiting to open. Walking along the Row on these early mornings, I used to feel very much part of the old London, the London of vast Palladian mansions, and top hats and waistcoats worn because it was the done thing rather than because you were off to a fancy wedding.  From the pavement you can see up into show-rooms displaying suits, shirts and neckware, and down below into the workshops and ateliers where measurements are noted, cloth is marked and cut, and exquisite hand-made suits take shape.

With many of the tailors on the street having a 100+ year presence here, and others a royal warrant of appointment, the industry in this area is somewhat traditional, particularly in its approach to promotion and advertising, which appears to be kept to a minimum.  To shout about one's skills, or even simply what one does, is seen as vulgar along Savile Row. No Savile Row tailor would ever advertise their wares on the side of a bus. Perish the thought!  Unlike mass-producers of garments with their globally-distant factories (ahem, Abercrombie & Fitch), Savile Row tailors create and sell their wares within the close confines of this single street, often within a single building. Why then, did this giant American firm set up shop here, alongside this most traditional of apparel industries?  And what effect would it have upon the independent firms?

The documentary series examined the effect, highlighting worries about increasing rents, and the ejecting of the old firms from their sole premises.  Property freeholders amended leases to require that any tenants had to be practising tailors, desperately trying to protect this local industry.  There were concerns that the classy clientele might be put off by the crowds of teens queueing round the block to buy t-shirts.  I have witnessed the Abercombie fans for myself, and when walking through Mayfair have encountered foreign teenagers who barely spoke a word of English but who would nonetheless stop me in the street to demand 'Where Abercombie Fitch?'.

The financial crisis of the last few years has hit Savile Row as hard as it has hit other luxury goods manufacturers.  A two and a half thousand pound suit - the most modest of Row tailoring - is even more of an unaffordable nice-to-have now.  But last time I checked the tailors remained firmly established on Savile Row, dressing new generations of the same families it has dressed for many, many years.  But who knows how much longer they will be able to hold on...


  1. I do wonder who can afford a Savile Row suit . But then perhaps I always did wonder, really!

    1. Well quite...not the average Londoner, that's for sure, Jenny! But despite the financial crisis there are clearly enough of these wealthy suit-buyers still around to keep the firms in business.


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