Made to treasure
When you visit Savile Row, you know you are looking at something unique: the finest tradition of bespoke tailoring on a London street dedicated to the craft for more than 200 years, the sense of style and the whisper of money. But there is something else; the rare sight of men happily absorbed in the art of shopping.
For many men, shopping is more like a military operation - with carefully pinpointed items being liberated from stores in targeted raids. But here among the remarkable tailors that line both sides of this street, men seem completely at ease. They pore over swatches of cloth, mull over silk jacket linings, huddle with their tailors in earnest discussions about drape and shape. They are given discreet, personal advice about how best to present themselves. Ladies, if present at all, take a back seat.
To enter the gilded world of Savile Row, you need money. Suits start at GBP3,000 (HK$38,300), and if you choose expensive cloth, the price can go up to GBP8,000. Clients - whether blue bloods, bankers, judges, business magnates, accountants, art dealers, artists or musicians - all have one desire in common: to invest in the best tailoring that their money can buy.
So let's take a closer look; and where better to start than the elegant Georgian premises of No 1 Savile Row, home to Gieves & Hawkes.
Established in the 18th century, Gieves & Hawkes is owned by Wing Tai Properties, a Hong Kong-based company, whose majority shareholder and chairman is Christopher Cheng Wai-chee. Its bespoke suits are hand-made on the premises, but its reach goes far beyond Savile Row.
China is the No 1 market for Gieves globally; by the end of this year, it will have a total of 100 retail shops serving its Chinese customers.
'Many of our personal-tailoring customers in mainland China are having fittings taken either at their offices, a hotel or in our shops in China,' says Ray Clacher, Asia-Pacific brand managing director for Gieves & Hawkes. 'While all of our personally tailored suits are made in England at our factory in Norwich, true bespoke is hand-made on the premises at No1 Savile Row. They then like to travel to London to have the final fitting and meet their cutter and craftsmen to make their suit by hand on the premises.'
Clacher adds that there's a current trend towards dressing smartly without a tie; a look that's being driven by Chinese consumers. 'Deconstructed, half-lined or unlined jackets with wool/silk or vicuna from Britain's or Italy's super-luxury fabric mills are the trend,' he says.
It's a mentality well understood by Patrick Grant, who recently returned to London from a trip to Hong Kong. Five years ago, he left his lucrative City career to become the director of Norton & Sons, a bespoke tailor that launched in 1821. It has to be said that Grant is a perfect advertisement for Savile Row. His suit exudes classic, understated elegance reminiscent of a character from the pages of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
His preference is for people to be smartly dressed, but he believes that London has become much more casual. His advice for men? 'If you wear a suit, put a tie on. If you don't want to wear a tie, wear a jacket and trousers with a shirt that is cut to be worn without a tie. Don't just unbutton your shirt.'
Hong Kong, he observes, has a 'dress standard altogether smarter than here'. Grant notes that it is his Chinese customers who are most likely to buy the most expensive 'super, super luxury' fabrics. 'I think there is a growing population of very discerning customers in China; men who understand that obvious, mass luxury is not luxury at all, because anyone can buy it; it's available everywhere and produced in enormous quantities. Real luxury is about scarcity.' Norton & Sons, he says, makes only about 250 to 300 suits per year on Savile Row.
The company also has a ready-to-wear collection, E.Tautz, that's sold in Tokyo, New York and London, and Grant adds: 'With a fair wind we might be selling it in Hong Kong soon.'
Alan Bennett of Davies & Son (Court Tailors and Breeches Makers, established 1801) says that the hallmark of a well-made suit is that the wearer, 'shouldn't be aware that he's wearing it'. He shouldn't be fiddling with the collar or tugging at the sleeves.
He described how one of his clients always likes to dress impeccably for business meetings: he is invariably the best dressed in the room, better dressed than his bosses. This knowledge, the client maintains, gives him confidence and a psychological edge in negotiations.
Davies & Son designed all the uniforms worn by former governors of Hong Kong. There is a picture on the premises of David Wilson decked out in his full regalia complete with plumed hat. Christopher Patten refused to wear the full dress uniform, preferring to wear a lounge suit.
Simon Cundey, director of Henry Poole (established 1806), is the seventh generation on Savile Row. (The Pooles are cousins of the Cundeys.) He is proud that all the cutting and making of clothes is done on the premises of his shop, which ranks in the top-three tailoring establishments in terms of calibre, quality and scale of operations. There are plans to expand to Hong Kong and Shanghai depending on 'timing and location'.
Cundey has a Chinese partner, Lu Xinghai, of Hanloon Tailoring, who sells the Poole label alongside his own brand in his stores in Beijing and Hangzhou, Zhejiang. Cundey regards Lu as having a similar mindset: 'He lives and breathes tailoring. He thinks long term and wants to partner with a house that is family owned, much the same as his own company.'
Today, Cundey says, there is an increasing demand for hand-crafted clothing. 'Clients are asking: 'What am I buying into? Why am I paying GBP5,000 for a designer suit when for GBP4,000 I can have something bespoke?'' he says.
He adds that leading London firms have come to realise that the dress-down culture epitomised by casual Fridays that characterised the 1990s had gone too far.
'Standards had to be put back again,' he says.
The scruffy look of the dotcom era saw young men in jeans and T-shirts carrying a campus look into boardrooms. For a while it wasn't hip to wear a suit. Those days, he says, are gone. Firms such as Morgan Stanley, J.P.Morgan and Goldman Sachs decided to reintroduce a dress code when staff would be seen hastily changing into a suit when important clients appeared for meetings.
As for the future of Savile Row, the omens are good. Its tailors say there is demand for apprenticeships through which the detailed knowledge of cutting and making will be sustained. It's a rigorous training, taking six years to become a coat maker. To progress to cutting, further training is required. The cutters are all-important as they are the architects of the garments.