Shopping is hell—but Savile Row offers another way © Mark Allan
One of the many downsides of being a man over, say, 35, is the psychological desolation that must surely attend any kind of clothes-buying experience. In recent years, I have come to think that when it comes to shopping Dante was right and that there are indeed nine levels to hell.
First, there are all the obvious uncertainties of not knowing where to go, what to buy, how, when or even why. Then there is the instant depression occasioned by the “retail environment”—a kind of soul-cancelling crucible of human despair dreamt up by “creative” departments enthusiastically replete with the world’s least creative people. Third, there’s the merciless anti-music. Fourth, the face-melting lights. Fifth, the risible atmosphere of self-satisfaction that surrounds the absurdist theatre otherwise known as “brand values.”
Sixth (we’re descending fast now), there’s the atrocious décor forced upon your recoiling psyche by some interior designer out for revenge after being labelled a failure at school. Seventh, there’s the horror of so many semi-naked men—the delusions of the flabby, the narcissism of the thin, the dead eyes of Mammon mid-gorge. Eighth, there’s the asphyxiating choice. Why so much? Tops; bottoms; who really cares? Is pink covertly fashionable?
Ninth and worst of all, there is the secret lurking like Gollum in the darkness. That despite the bluster, despite the pooh-poohing, you come here because you still want to be cool. Even though you’re clearly not. That’s why you are standing in a closet listening to One Direction while desperately cramming your gonads into some Filipino fantasist’s idea of a trouser.
There is another way. There is yet a bastion for the beleaguered and the weary, a place of wisdom, experience and murmured reassurance, a refuge and a sanctuary: Savile Row.
Once every five years or so, by way of a birthday present from friends and family (to which I contribute), I have a suit made. I look forward to this event with a kind of anticipation that outshines all other gifts, trips, encounters or holidays.
Why? The quiet. The knowledgeableness. The sense of civilisation. And the kind of personal attention—and attention to one’s person—that seldom visits a man’s life after his childhood. From the moment I step into the shop, there ensues a fascinating series of conversations about colour, fabric, design, texture, weight, shape and detail—with an expert. And who can fail to be cheered by expertise? In a world of endless opining, an encounter with knowledge has become like an encounter with some kind of god.
Most of all, the trip is an education. It’s a pleasure to be in the well-informed company of men like Samir Suddle and Steve Powell at the tailors Richard James. And, if ever I become an oligarch, I am going to see these two once a week instead of a therapist.
First of all, I’m curious about what, if anything, makes a Savile Row suit these days. Is English tailoring still recognisable and distinctive? “Traditionally,” explains Samir, “an English cut would be more structured in the shoulders—a bit more padding. The continental suit would have more rounded, softer shoulders. In general, an English suit aims to be more exactly fitted.” But these days, Samir says, “the customer has much more influence. So it is a lot harder to say that there are definite rules.”
Steve is in his late thirties and the older of the two. “A good example of how things have changed would be the three-piece,” he says. “Traditionally, a waistcoat would be primarily about keeping warm—so we’d probably be talking heavier cloth. But now, a customer might want a waistcoat for fashion reasons and so we work on lighter weight material. But there are still tailors who think that it’s odd to want a waistcoat on a suit that’s clearly not for cold weather. In years gone by they would have just said no.”
Savile Row tailors sold roughly 11,000 bespoke suits in 2012, with each costing on average £4,000. Since I have not yet stolen my nation’s energy reserves, I am here for a made-to-measure—usually around a quarter of the price. The difference is that the tailor will not be cutting a unique (“bespoke”) pattern for me but adapting a pre-existing pattern to my exact measurements and stitching from there. But nonetheless I chose the cloth and the design details; and the craftsmanship that goes into sewing the suit is still Savile Row standard.
We start with colour. I want black. But I am quickly dissuaded. “Versatility is king,” explains Samir. “Grey and blue are usually the best place to start because they go with everything.” This is relevant since I am only having a single suit made and thus an important consideration is that it can be dressed up or down and worn with the widest possible palette of accessories.
I decide on something very dark—midnight blue—and an English weave of merino wool. The feel of the cloth is important. As Samir explains: “The heavier cloths make up better, hang better, stand up more to creasing and generally last longer.” But weight is not the whole story. The origin and the milling are significant, too. UK and Italian milled fabrics are better in quality, I learn, because of the natural environment in which they are finished. The streams and lakes in, say, Huddersfield and Biella contain soft water. This is beneficial in the finishing process and it’s why all the original northern mills in the UK were built along the banks of rivers, where they could access the natural water supply easily.
Next, Samir starts to look at my posture. “These days we see a lot of shoulders that come forward—because of the amount of time we all spend on computers. This can create problems across the back of the suit. So we’re constantly trying to take account of how you stand and move and make allowances and adjustments. Overall, the line should be as elegant as possible.”
People in fashion talk a lot about “the line.” What they mean is the line along which the eye travels as it takes in the shape of the suit—the silhouette of the shoulder to the waist and down. Here at Richard James they like to have a little “daylight through the arms”; in other words, they like the line to curve in as it comes down from the chest before “snapping” out again over the hips. (This is where we get the phrase “snappy dresser.”) And the reason behind this is that it draws the eye down and inwards—effectively slimming the silhouette.
There is a lot of myth and disinformation about how such details indicate quality. But probably the single most important factor is whether the suit is canvassed or fused. A traditional bespoke Savile Row suit is made by constructing an interior frame, the “canvas,” on to which the outer fabric is then stitched. This canvas is traditionally made of woven horsehair, which, as Samir says, “gives great memory”—it moulds well to the individual, making for a better structure and closer-fitting shape, as well as allowing the wool to hang more naturally. Needless to say, a fully floating canvas requires many more man-hours and skill.
The alternative is what is called “fusing,” where the fabric is glued to the interior panels. This is much easier to mass manufacture. But now the jacket will have a certain rigidity that can work against the hang. Additionally, the life of the suit may well be shortened since it will start to show signs of delamination or puckering if, for example, a dry cleaner uses too much heat.
What about the trousers I hear you cry? Well most of the interest here emerges on the second fitting. (No less joyful a return.) What we’re looking for, Steve advises, is “a good break”; trousers that sit just right on one’s shoe. We are also busy inspecting “the fork”—this is where the seams meet beneath the legs: too baggy and the seat sags; too tight and we’re “uncomfortably gathered.”
Two weeks later I am back for a third time to pick up the finished item and that night it gets its world premiere at a dinner at which I’m speaking. I’ve never actually read Dante’s Inferno but I assume his companion piece, the Paradiso, is set in his tailors.