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March 3, 2005

why english cut?

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(Open surgery on a jacket shoulder. Notice the soft wadding, which I and a few other top tailors use, as opposed to the far more common ready-made shoulder pad.)

One great thing about Savile Row is there's usually plenty of work for all the tailors. Sure, it comes and goes, but the fact is, there aren't that many proper bespoke tailors out there, and the market, once you've reached a certain level, is amazingly steady and robust.

So when somebody buys a suit from say, Kilgour's or Welsh & Jeffries instead of from me, I'm always perfectly happy for them. Both these tailors are world-class, and the clients are usually very informed about the market, so I know the choice was probably a good one. And like I said, there's plenty of work out there. My turn will come around soon enough.

But recently a lot of English Cut readers have been sending me e-mails, asking the dreaded question, "Why should I buy a suit from you, instead of the other bespoke tailors you've mentioned?"

It's a perfectly reasonable, straightforward question. To save everybody's poor typing fingers, including my own, I thought I would just answer them here directly.

I would list four main factors. They're not so much "Reasons To Buy", more "What Makes Me Unique". Drum roll, please...

1. Mobility and Economics.

The most singular difference between myself and the other tailors I rate highly, is that I’m not permanently based on Savile Row. Though I do the lion's share of customer measuring and fitting on Savile Row, I do my cutting at my workshop in Cumbria, near the small village where I grew up. But because of my Anderson & Sheppard, background, I only use sewing tailors who have been trained to sew "The Anderson & Sheppard Way", which means the majority of the tailors I use are currently used by A&S as well. So there's no loss of quality for my customers in my business model, just an improvement in the quality of life for one humble tailor.

This benefits my customers in two major ways. Firstly, basing my workshop outside of London saves me the huge overheads. This allows me to sell my suits at about 20-25% less than the big houses on Savile Row. This is something I’m sure nobody would complain about, especially our American cousins, who are not encouraged by the current exchange rate.

Secondly, staying mobile has made my business far more flexible than my competition, mentally as well as physically. I don't wait for customers to visit London, to visit Savile Row before I 'condescend' to take an order. No, I happily travel to them. If they live in Paris, I can go to Paris. Or New York. Or Chicago. Or San Francisco. Wherever the market dictates.

And of course, if the client is wanting more than just the suit, and desires the full-on, real-time Savile Row experience with all the local history and colour, I happily meet them there at Number 20, where I have my London offices. [UPDATE: As of January 2006, my London Offices are at No 12 Savile Row.]

To me, Savile Row is a proper business, not a tourist attraction.

I know the grand houses of Savile Row are wonderful institutions, and they have a big part to play, but Savile Row's tailoring heritage was formed on that street simply because, frankly, the the Well-to-do of London "Society" lived in the immediate vicinity.

Two hundred years ago, if you wanted the Well-to-do's custom, you had to set up shop where they actually lived. Making sure your customers didn’t have too far to ride in their horse & carriage. Savile Row is in Mayfair, the West End residential neighbourhood that occupies the top slot on the British version of "Monopoly" (i.e. where "Boardwalk" lies on the original American version). Savile Row evolved there for perfectly mundane, ordinary, economic reasons. That is where all the business was.

But now my market is global. Some of my customers come to London now and then, but seriously, they live and travel all over the world, and it's my job to keep track of them. However grand and magical Savile Row can appear on an early morning walk, all that's really needed to do the job is skill, a tape measure, a cutting table, a sharp pair of shears and the ability to keep one's word. I'm as happy meeting my clients in a Manhattan hotel suite as I am meeting them in London.

Ergo, I’m open for business, anywhere on the planet. Who wants a suit?

2. Credentials.

Without tooting my horn too much, here are a few anecdotes to help illustrate my worth.

After I had decided to leave Anderson & Sheppard, I got a bit of a rush of people, who suddenly wanted to work with me. Stephen Hitchcock, who was an apprentice, became my striker {undercutter) for a few months before my departure. Gieves & Hawkes headhunted me, offered me a great package. This I turned down, as they said I could cut any style of coat I wanted, should I have taken the position. This I found flattering, but utterly bizarre.

More interesting was when Anderson’s first found out I was leaving, they made me train their present Managing Director, John Hitchcock [the father of Stephen]. This I found rather strange at the time, as Mr Hitchcock was nearly twenty years my senior.

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[An old photo from circa 1990: My teacher, the great Dennis Hallbery. Click on image to enlarge.]

But the best bit of all is that Mr Hallbery, who was one of Anderson & Sheppard's most respected cutters of all time, gave me Mr Sheppard's shears, which were handed down to him a generation before by his teacher, Mr. Cameron, who was given them before that by Mr. Sheppard, the man with his name on the door. Yes, you could credibly argue that Mr Hallbery was one of the greatest tailors of the twentieth century. I have no problem going on record with that belief, especially as his work is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

So if you like the Anderson’s cut, I guess you could say I'm the one currently wielding Excalibur. At the time, it felt like Obi Wan Kenobi was handing me over his lightsabre. It certainly made me smile.

Any tailor I've so far mentioned- Messieurs Hitchcock, Anderson’s et al- are all great, world-class tailors, not to mention the rest of the Row. To have their collective respect is the by far the greatest achievement of my life.

Also via the Row, I have recently been asked to give a pattern-cutting "masterclass" (their term, not mine) for one of the Universities here in London. It's nice to get the occasional bit of outside recognition, as long as nobody gets too carried away.

Sure, with my globetrotting, mobile ways I may seem to be a bit of a heretic, but the fact is, I know this business. And best of all, I know the best bits of it. First hand.

In truth, I’m as hardcore Savile Row as you’ll get.

3. Temperament.

I love Savile Row, and love being there. But I know myself, and know the rest of London doesn't suit me nearly as well.

I don’t want four hours of commuting on tubes and trains, every day. Nor am I particularly interested in getting my name in the right glossy magazines. I can’t be bothered with the trendy parties. You never get a decent drink, anyway.

Call me old fashioned, but I have an independant streak. Yes, I prefer to rough it up here based in beautiful Cumbria and keep visiting my customers where they need me, not where it’s 'cool' to be seen.

4. My Age.

There are a very few top tailors left on Savile Row, realistically, maybe a dozen left on the very top shelf. I am the youngest one I know of, and I think I know most of them. I am not yet forty. Most of them are in their sixties. I know one person who is considered one of "the younger ones". He is in his late fifties. More than a few of them are set to retire within the next couple of years.

A decent wardrobe, built as a collaboration between the client and his tailor, takes a long time to build up. Like English Cut, the plan is for me to still be around in 20 years.

Thanks for reading. Should you wish to discuss any of this further, here are my contact details.

Posted by tom at March 3, 2005 2:00 PM

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