Savvy Tailors on Savile Row
There is something about wearing a tailored garment that feels like a delicious secret, exclusive to the two of you. When your jacket knows you better than the room you’re working, it’s wickedly comforting. As the Beyoncé of bespoke, Savile Row in Mayfair, London, is the place to go in search of a suit or alteration.
Built in the early 1730s and running parallel with Regent Street, the first crucial mark of tailoring was made by Henry Poole in the late 1840s. It is here where Joe Holyoak has worked for three years as an under-cutter, training to be a cutter . They are essentially the bones of the industry and are responsible for advising the client on the style, cloth and trim of their garment. They construct and cut patterns, and conduct fittings.
Joe is admirably passionate about his craft, though when the pandemic hit, was one of the many forced on furlough. The business as he knew it imploded, as the majority of clients came from overseas – many will be surprised to hear that America is the biggest customer of classic English tailors. They were also unable to do ‘trunk shows’, where employees fly out to meet customers on arranged trips, to the East and West Coasts of America, Japan, Europe and The Far East. Typically, a customer is seen with an initial consultation, followed by at least two fittings before completion and delivery. Because of a halt in various stages of production, a large amount of work in-progress is unable to be finished. This industry needs a vibrant, mobile market and vibrant, mobile creators.
Losing a tailor is like losing a limb for a shop. ‘It’s a delicate one,’ Joe notes. ‘There’s not many streets in the world that can make a suit like we do. So when we start losing staff, it’s not a case of “oh we can advertise and grab another coat maker”. We have to try and retain the talent as much as possible.’
Fluctuating business rates paired with high rent costs meant that Savile Row began to show cracks before the major market shutdown. Bespoke tailoring brand Kilgour shut a month before the first wave. In order to survive, Savile Row has had to adapt and branch out. In September 2020, lifestyle concept store The Service opened. Serving Fresh Coffee Company beans, the shop aims to showcase tailoring as an accessible luxury; the icing to everyday clothes.
During lockdown Joe took on a variety of other projects, fashioning suits for himself and friends, as well as scrubs for the NHS. He made children’s hospital gowns out of cotton sourced from fabric producers, ‘Liberty kindly gave us a load of paisley prints,’ he explains. Following on from the gowns, he helped Henry Poole develop a range of facemasks. Here, undeniably, is man with a resourceful and generous personality. However, an anticipated backlog of events such as weddings and races sees him heading back to practise a more regular line of duty.
The suit has a diverse demand these days. Whilst it was never exclusively the preserve of men – ladies riding jackets needed tailors for centuries – it is no longer only associated with them in business environments.
It’s colourful history in the world of womenswear has seen the suit transcend from a political statement as the Suffragette’s uniform; to a fashion statement in the form of Coco Chanel’s loosely woven pieces that liberated women from corsets; to occasion-wear that replaces gowns, such as the Le Smoking tuxedo by Yves Saint Laurent, a version of which was worn by Bianca Jagger on her wedding day.
‘We’re at the first period in history where, as women are reaching higher positions and gaining more equality, they’re not being dictated to regarding what they should wear in the workplace, or in society more generally. Women are opting to wear tailoring more out of choice than feeling they have to,’ says Joe. Molly Anderson, an under-cutter for Richard Anderson adds that pre-existing male clients often bring their wives or girlfriends into the tailor, and infect them with the heady world of bespoke.
CHANGES IN SILhouette
There’s been a fall in demand for the traditional British suit, indicated by Marks & Spencer in 2019, when the retailer reduced its stock in line with a market-wide 7% fall in suit sales. However, at Henry Poole, Joe has noticed a recent rise in separates (jackets, trousers or skirts sold individually, not as a pair). Along with how the suit is worn, the way they’re made has changed too.
‘Typically, an English jacket would be very structured with a load of canvassing inside,’ Joe tells us. ‘It would have a very strong shoulder line and roped sleeve head. But we’ve adapted this over the pandemic. Last year we released what we call a soft construction jacket. We removed the domette – which gives structure – from the middle of the jacket and used different tailoring techniques to create a nice drape. We’ve relaxed the shoulders a lot too,’ he continues.
A move is being made away from using wool fabrics (medium to heavy weight) and more towards blends which are more breathable and cooler to wear. They boast the comfort of a cardigan and mirror the desire of prioritising convenient, flexible clothing after people have become accustomed to working from home for so long.
At Richard Anderson, there is a superb soft jersey fabric available, which is becoming more popular with clients, according to Molly. ‘It feels almost like you’re wearing pyjamas which a lot of people got used to wearing throughout the pandemic but it looks like a really structured garment. We’ve seen people going towards softer, velvety, opulent fabrics.’
As the way we worked and lived changed, so did our body shapes. A lazier lifestyle lead to weight gain for some, while others took the time to build upon their physique and improve fitness. ‘We’ve had to let out a few trousers here,’ says Molly, ‘because some people have used this time to really bulk up, which totally changes the silhouette.’
Less is More
With less material being used, this means that the Savile Row suit jacket is now arguably one of the most sustainable items on the market. It fits a ‘less is more’ aesthetic, high quality over low, and minimal waste. More ‘checked boxes’ on the modern buyers’ list of demands.
‘We make sure 100% of the fabric we use is recycled. All of the offcuts we don’t use get sent off to a company that blends them and puts them into mattresses. Also, about 90% of our products and 90% of our fabrics are British. They’re all milled in the UK so they’re not shipped in from another country. It’s good quality fabric,’ says Joe.
As the market pivots away from fast fashion, the beauty of bespoke is becoming clear again. And as we become wiser, the bombast of attention-grabbing social posts and paid partnerships with tv personalities evaporates, and we are left with a newly refined appreciation of quiet quality. We’ve learnt it’s better to have nice things but fewer of them, we focus less on brand names and more on brand ethos.
Taken on a big-picture scale, we might argue that the rise of technology and automation has made people hanker for more personalised products. On an individual level, it is becoming clear that true luxury is in the care trained professionals like Joe and Molly can give a garment. They can make you a jaw-dropping suit for a one-off event, or an heirloom piece that will endure for 3 generations. So, here’s to being in the hands of experts… and consider this your latest tip on how to shop local.