Sunday, 13 March 2011

The tailors putting Savile Row back on the map

Television presenter George Lamb is lounging in the attic headquarters of men's outfitter A. Sauvage, just north of Oxford Street, fingering sample neckties and ruminating on his wardrobe epiphany a couple of years ago. 'I'd made a lot of sartorial mistakes,' he sighs. 'Many of them on television.'

David Gandy and Patrick Grant wear clothes by E Tautz ( at Patrick Grant's Saville Row studio.

Enter Adrien Sauvage. A lean and lanky ex-England basketball player, he's wearing spectacles and Dr Martens boots. An out-stretched hand is offered by way of introduction. 'Sauvage,' he says. The Ghanian-born 27-year-old had been working as a stylist and personal shopper for wealthy private clients from the Middle East and Russia when he met Lamb three years ago and the pair became business partners; self-taught designer and dish-about-town respectively. They launched a collection of clothes cut for artistic sorts with a nod to the elegant Sunday best attire you see promenaded by elderly West Indian gents on Harrow Road: short double-breasted jackets, long slim pants in Loro Piana cashmere, fitted white shirts. The customer base was immediately stellar including Arctic Monkeys, Mark Ronson and Bill Nighy, and fashionable comparisons were made to Rick Owens and Lanvin. Matches and Harrods stock the line (with suits from £875 to £1,500 for a mohair tuxedo), and in May there will be a pop-up at The Shop at Bluebird on the King's Road.

But Adrien Sauvage desires not to be merely a designer but a menswear polymath; a pre-cocious auteur who, like Lagerfeld before him, fancies his chances as a photographer and film-maker also. He's pretty good, too: there are offbeat, black and white shots of well- known A. Sauvage customers; a promotional campaign called 'This Is Not A Suit'; a short film that got shown at Sundance; and an arch clip posted on YouTube espousing the fine art of 'D.E.' (Dress Easy, that's 'never having to wear a belt', 'no cufflinks, no nonsense', 'not constrained by seasons or trends'). The film borrows liberally from Danish director Jørgen Leth's 1967 film The Perfect Human and is narrated by an aurally unrecognisable Larry Lamb (aka George's 'housewives' favourite' dad) doing an American accent.

Unlike, say, the chaps at Ede & Ravenscroft or Maurice Sedwell, Adrien and George hang with the new pop aristocracy, they tweet, blog and Facebook. This is, one suspects, the future of British menswear. Could any other city outside London have nurtured and embraced a multimedia menswear conceit such as A. Sauvage so openly and quickly? It's doubtful.

London, now more than ever, with the likes of Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane, Anya Hindmarch and Matthew Williamson involved in or announcing men's lines, is the world's menswear capital. From Chelsea to Shoreditch via Savile Row and Oxford Street, London's open-minded men swing their pants and shoot their cuffs with a swagger that is unlike any other city's. Topman's design director Gordon Richardson, a supporter of new menswear talent, agrees. 'No other city's men have such an appetite for fashion and for fashion information,' he says. 'London men have an instinctive and educated understanding of what looks good, what the parameters of menswear are and how best to break out of its constraints.'

In 2005, Patrick Grant was at New College, Oxford, studying for a Masters in Business Administration, writing a thesis on luxury brands (with particular focus on Burberry's recent phoenix-from-the-flames revival) when he saw an advertisement in the Financial Times: 'Bespoke Tailor for Sale.' Norton & Sons, established in 1821, had a reputation as outfitters to explorers and outdoor types, its owner once having been granted the freedom of the City of London 'for services to rugged tailoring'. But by the mid-2000s, next to the newly revamped Kilgour down the road and the upstart likes of Spencer Hart opposite, it looked old-fashioned and distinctly unadventurous. Grant, now 38, sold his house and car, persuaded a few friends to invest and found himself, with no formal training in fashion, the owner of a bespoke tailor. He painted the walls white, stripped out all the carpets, uncurtained the window and polished the floors. The tailoring was stripped down to beautiful basics, with each suit hand-cut and hand-sewn using British materials, and costing from £2,980 for a two-piece suit. Today, Norton is once again a Savile Row success story, making over 200 suits a year, and counting Amanda Harlech as a champion.

It was a brave move for the Scot, who had previously worked in manufacturing and technology, as well as playing rugby to an international level and being a modern pent-athlete. That said, all through his adult life Grant had been a bona fide clothing obsessive. While at school at Barnard Castle, Durham, for instance, he had enjoyed an almost daily corridor walk-off against his classmate Giles Deacon as to who could have the nicest shoes and best trousers. 'When I lived in Edinburgh, my friend used to walk a few steps behind me to avoid being associated with a man wearing a big Panama hat with a silk scarf tied around it,' he recalls. The wider allure of men's clothes became all too evident to Grant while he worked at the Princes Street Gardens café and watched Italian tourists get 'taxed' for their pristine Stone Island by local scallies.

Like George Lamb, Patrick Grant believes in the notion of a wardrobe epiphany; that moment around 30 - post-youth, pre-midlife crisis - when a chap decides to start dressing in mature and proper gear. Grant's friend and Norton & Sons' customer, the Dolce & Gabbana model David Gandy, has just been through it. 'I turned 30 and suddenly the idea of wearing really nice suits seemed right and very natural.'

During his career Gandy has noticed that home- grown tailoring isn't talked up by his compatriots. 'The British are the only people in the world who think that if you go British it's old-fashioned, stuffy and unsexy. To everyone else - Americans and Italians - British clothes are cool and desirable.'

Gandy, who recently launched his own Style Guide app, admits that some of his jeans-and-leather-jacket model pals weren't sure about his new English gent style (he is currently more famous for swimming trunks than suits). 'But after a while they were like, "Where did you get your suits done?" Most of the time men know what they want, but they just have a problem verbalising it. They need someone to help them say, "I don't want anything too weird, I just want to dress in a simple, grown-up and elegant way." '

Coming to Savile Row provided Gandy with a gentle counterpoint to the madness of the catwalk. 'It's so civilised, here,' he says.

Grant, who has also successfully revived the sleeping heritage label E Tautz, which was part of the Norton & Sons portfolio and famous for making luxury sporting goods for Edward VII and Winston Churchill, was talking to the restaurateur Mark Hix recently about the reputation of the Row. 'We agreed that our professions are actually very similar; the right ingredients, simple preparation and careful presentation... it's all about the execution really. But with Savile Row it is as if all the best two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants are on the same street, which means that it's very important that you have a very strong sense of who you are.'

The new simplicity? Celebrity clients? Media-friendly proprietors? Richard James and his business partner Sean Dixon invented all that back in 1992. With £10,000 and a bargain deal on a condemned Savile Row shop 'the size of a changing room', they started off selling mainly ready-to-wear: nice jumpers, dashing silk ties and off-the-peg suits in slightly outré colours. Early customers included American Vogue's European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles and David Linley. Hugh Grant and Elton John followed. Suddenly Savile Row was chic and sexy again. Well... sort of. James is at pains to point out it wasn't any new generation of tailors that suddenly made Savile Row fashionable. 'Throughout the 1960s and 1970s it always had been so,' he insists. 'This is where The Beatles had their Apple office. Tommy Nutter made suits for Mick and Bianca Jagger. Savile Row was the destination for fashion-conscious men… until Armani came along in the late 1970s. Armani changed everything because they made these sexy suits that had a sort of multi-practicality. Pretty soon, fathers weren't bringing their sons to Savile Row any more.'

Richard James's customers, those thirty-something men who had grown out of the shapeless chic of 1980s minimalist Nipponois-erie and certainly hadn't been recommended to Savile Row by their fathers, were different. 'We had one customer come in and order 30 suits. He didn't have much of an idea of the style or cut he was after, he just told us that he wanted suits not like his father had.' So the Richard James silhouette - sharp but un-spivvy - began to take shape. 'We wanted a slimming, flattering cut, so we got rid of anything that added unnecessary bulk.'

Richard was the anointed tailor of the Cool Britannia set; Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit were customers, as were Madonna and Guy Ritchie. A decade and a half on, the customer base continues to evolve with younger customers such as Calvin Klein model turned Britain's Next Top Model presenter Charley Speed, a former Richard James 'fit model' and the face of its advertising campaigns, now enjoying his first taste of bespoke. There's a new store in Tokyo and James is pleased to report healthy sales on the menswear website Mr Porter, which launched only last month and hopes to do for upscale menswear what its sister site Net-a-porter did for womenswear.

'The 1980s were all about labels,' continues James. 'It was considered a huge compliment if someone said to you, "Is that Comme?" or "Is that Gaultier?" We were finding that when customers wore one of our suits people would come up to them and say, "You look good" or "You've lost weight." The silhouette and the skill of the cutter... English tailoring, not the designer, is the story now.

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