LONDON (Reuters) - With a blazing fire, leather sofa, and a half-empty bottle of single malt whisky by the door, London bespoke suit-maker Anderson & Sheppard feels more like a gentlemen’s club frozen in time than a 21st century luxury retailer.
At the back of the shop a number of impeccably dressed tailors cut cloth on wooden work benches much like they have been doing for the last 100 years. One can almost imagine past customers like Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso or some faded Victorian gentleman turning up at any moment.
This Savile Row tailor, where first names are banned and customers are always “sir”, may feel like a museum to Britain’s faded imperial glory but the bespoke menswear business on “the Row” is enjoying a remarkable resurgence.
Anderson & Sheppard is just one of the names on London’s most renowned street for high-end tailors.
Alongside Gieves & Hawkes, Dege & Skinner, Henry Poole & Co and others, tailors on “the Row” have been dressing royalty, aristocrats, statesmen, great warriors and the wealthy since British dandy Beau Brummel first introduced trousers to fashionable London society at the start of the 19th century.
Behind the fusty facade “the Row” is attracting a new generation of less exclusive young clientele despite suit prices starting at 3,800 pounds with a combination of client discretion, a subtle online presence and absolute attention to detail and quality.
Anderson & Sheppard had a 2012 turnover of 4 million pounds and growth has been over 13 percent every year since 2009.
A number of other houses on Savile Row have also enjoyed over 10 percent growth in recent years with total revenue for the informal group of suitmakers now estimated to be 30-35 million pounds.
“We’re doing very well actually. We’ve found that business has picked up in the last few years, and we couldn’t be busier,” Anderson & Sheppard manager Colin Heywood said as he showed Reuters around the shop.
The renaissance of classic British menswear is a dramatic turn-around for an industry that was left on the ropes by the rise of decent quality ready-to-wear suits and shirts in shops during the 1970s and 1980s.
Clothes that were then dismissed as old fashioned, over-priced and going the way of bowler hats, are now the subject of renewed interest reflected in sartorial blogs and forums from India to the United States.
“We’ve noticed that we get a lot more younger customers coming in. I think that’s particularly the result of the internet. There’s so much more written about bespoke tailoring now in books, magazines and online,” Heywood said.
The celebration of Savile Row’s handcrafted suits in online forums, top men’s magazines and promoted by its own association on the Savile Row Bespoke website (www.savilerowbespoke.com) has allowed tailors on the Row to make a centuries-old tradition irresistible to well-off modern men seeking top quality.
“People find it a lot more accessible and I think it takes away that fear element of people coming in for the first time,” Heywood said.
One customer, 38-year-old James Massey who runs a public relations firm, said a bespoke suit was impossible to match.
“I could probably go and spend the same amount of money in Selfridges on a Zegna suit that’s made in a factory in Italy with a bit of handstitching, but this is actually made specifically for me,” he said.
Dylan Jones, editor at GQ UK, puts the renaissance of British tailoring down to the way men now shop for clothes.
“It’s a generational shift. Men today consume far more like women. They’re far more sophisticated consumers than they used to be and they expect very good produce at every entry level,” he said.
“Menswear is starting to approach 50 percent of a lot of people’s business. It’s a real growth industry.”
Savile Row is particularly popular in international circles where the classic British look is increasingly fashionable.
“One thing that plays fantastically well with foreign press and buyers is the heritage aspect of what we do and there is so much interest in Savile Row,” Jones said, referring to the events he runs as chair of the menswear committee for the British Fashion Council.
Within this overall growth market where men are spending more on clothes and demanding higher quality, Savile Row remains uniquely placed in a global industry which luxury consultants Bain & Company estimated was worth more than $34 billion in an October 2012 note.
“London is the home of menswear. We invented the suit and Savile Row is the most important men’s shopping street in the world which offers a quality and aspect of heritage that you simply can’t get anywhere else,” Jones said.
While big fashion brands such as Tom Ford, Dior, and Paul Smith, invest heavily in marketing, distribution and staff, Savile Row tailors remain a cottage industry employing only a few dozen people who produce suits on site.
With fewer overheads and an international reputation from generations of suit-making which does not cost a penny in advertising, Savile Row is a surprisingly competitive and durable business model.
“Any of these big fashion brands will have a much bigger mark-up than the Savile Row tailors. No one goes into bespoke tailoring to get rich,” said James Harvey-Kelly the menswear designer for French brand Vicomte A who also runs his own made-to-measure company.
“The quality is sensational and that’s what Savile Row trades off. They use sensational cloths and its sewn together by absolute experts. They last for generations.”
On the other side of Piccadilly the manager of traditional shirtmaker Budd, Andrew Rowland, said his company was reaping rewards for sticking by its principles through the tough times.
“We’ve never done anything different, but the others have weakened,” he said in the cosy shop just off Jermyn Street above which bespoke shirts are still scissored by hand.
Jermyn Street used to be the home of London’s bespoke shirt-making industry, but many of the old stores such as T.M. Lewin and Hawes & Curtis expanded into mass sales, pushing down the price by producing shirts in Vietnam and Turkey.
One long-term customer is British actor Edward Fox, who played the title role in “Day of the Jackal”. Before sitting down to a cup of tea with Rowland, he explained why he has been coming back for 55 years.
“This is a Budd shirt. It must be at least 10 years old. Just as good today as it was 10 years ago. You don’t actually have to spend that much on clothes, you have to look after clothes and you have to buy well originally”.
However, traditional tailoring is not always ideal for more design-conscious people, according to Harvey-Kelly.
“Everything for them (Savile Row) is about it falling perfectly with no creases. But in the modern day people sometimes want it to look a bit uncomfortable. They want it to be slim and curl on the sleeve and a lot of tailors refuse to do that”.
Heywood at Anderson & Sheppard when asked about modern fashion trends said he had noticed a “slight lean towards narrower trousers”.
“We’re not fashion-led. Fashions change very quickly and what we like to do is create a suit that’s a timeless classic that you can wear in any decade”.
Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer
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