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HOW A SAVILE ROW TAILOR IS BORN
THE BENCHMARK FOR BRITISH EXCELLENCE
Photography by David Ward
Savile Row tailors are a nondescript bunch. Since their skills became the benchmark for British excellence they have generally been out of sight and voiceless. Down the ages, a general depiction of a tailor in any editorial was of an elderly bespectacled gentleman sitting cross legged, working with a piece of cloth. As a senior cutter on Savile Row for over 20 years, David Ward's privileged access to this community has offered him an opportunity to redefine an outdated perception of these clothing savants, as the reality of what one looks like couldn't be more different. From an array of backgrounds and cultures, all of them posses a passion to dutifully apply the skills that have been sharpened for over 200 years and credited as the best on the planet.
During his many years spent working on Savile Row he has witnessed a supply of tailoring apprentice’s come and go and only a select few have been good enough to execute the required high standards that are sought. This wonderful art is now awash with youthful bespoke tailors, incredibly passionate, and still upholding the traditions put down before them. However, Savile Row is currently in a state of flux as it is borders shrink and its fame plundered by anyone with the faintest interest in presenting themselves as a Savile Row tailor. David's close relationship with these individuals and his interest in portrait photography has provided a platform to present these individuals for who they are and allow them to communicate their feelings and attitudes to the current climate that Savile Row currently finds itself.
Throughout history the word “tailor” has been used to describe an individual who simply makes clothing. There is a presumption that the person had engaged in extensive training, encompassing many hours of instruction and a set way of working with a piece of cloth that would eventually produce a finished garment. After many years of repetitive instruction and dedication to steam, shrink, stretch, and manipulate a flat piece of cloth in a variety of weights and colours, a yardage of worsted is, metaphorically speaking, transformed from caterpillar to a butterfly, opulent and beautiful in its form. The epicentre for this practice is still Savile Row.
Having spent the last two decades as a cutter on Savile Row and embedded within the company of these incredible artisans, David can truly say that the word “brilliance” is far too reductive a word to quantify their ability. To be addressed, as a Savile Row Tailor is the preserve of a very special few and without doubt, these individuals are the very best in the world at their craft. Hands that have crafted iconic pieces for everyone from Princess Diana to James Bond are still making the suits for current royalty, Hollywood glitterati and the rock stars of the day. Enquire with anyone of them about the chronological duration to acquire their world renowned stamp of distinction and a response generally sounds like the following, “After all the years of doing this job I’m still learning something new everyday”. A humble response from a clothing deity.
The tailor’s environment was historically found out of sight amongst the higher floors of the houses, using natural daylight to illuminate their work. However, over the past decade they have been moved too less salubrious workbenches in the depths of assorted basements that litter Savile Row. The reason for this, Savile Row’s address has become incredibly desirable with not only ready to wear clothiers, its allure is now appetite for hedge fund managers and art dealers with deeper pockets to accommodate the latest rent rises from its landlords. This is where the industry has been literally cut down to size. But more alarmingly there has also been an increase in the amount of individuals who are revered as and sell themselves as “Savile Row Tailors” with no qualifications or experience to honour such an exclusive earned title.
It would seem that the occupational mantle of “Savile Row Tailor” has become an easily tacked on moniker to anyone arriving in Mayfair intending to exploit the craft of this extraordinary location. Savile Row finds itself in an era where plagiarists blatantly desecrate its unquestionable prestige and pay very little credit to it's heritage and desperately toil to cultivate their spurious credentials through good PR. In spite of the ownership of a packet of nails I do not claim to posses the knowledge and experience of a certified builder yet there is an abundance of individuals who will use the title “Savile Row tailor” on the purchase of a packet of pins with neither proficiency to use the title legitimately and lack humility. With no questions asked and qualifications unchecked, another tailoring star is born and signed off by the media to prey on the Row’s success whist the Row itself struggles to maintain its own identity in its natural environment.
It is heart breaking, yet sadly expected in this age where immediacy is king, that we can observe one of the last true citadels of British craftsmanship being distorted and pillaged in this way, it would appear, there are more fake bespoke tailors in London than real ones. As the craft continues to be exploited for its mastery and distinction and the word “bespoke” that was born out of the tailoring industry is corrupted by the masses, selling everything from bespoke holidays to bespoke wallpaper, what of the Row’s future? Will the term Savile Row Tailor become a reference to a bygone era, as tourist guides chaperone visitors to London streets to view what is left of this once incredible location that was swallowed up and devoured by the blandness of contemporary culture?
At a grass roots level there is a bountiful reserve of the right people coming into the trade to carry on the tradition of making clothing by hand, so that's a good starting point. But if Savile Row as an industry can defend the erosion of its territory, method and vocabulary in a legal capacity in the same way the word Champagne is ring fenced to cease the theft of its name and produce, it might have the potential to see out another 200 years of excellence as a community of tailors, rather than a pursuit that is practiced by the few who are left. One can only hope, that come tomorrow, Savile Row is left with a carcass full of flesh rather than a corpse that has been picked over and left for dead. As Ray Bradbury so eloquently explained in his novel Fahrenheit 451 relating to the erosion of the art of writing, “The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”
“Savile Row is one of the last jewels in British industries crown that is known throughout the world as a centre of excellence. As long as people with a vested interest treat it so and not as a museum piece or a branding exercise, long may it live, giving youngsters a chance to perfect their skills that will serve Britain craftsmanship for many years to come.”
“I had the opportunity to learn the art of Savile Row Tailoring from a master tailor with over 30 years experience. To start, it was not a paid apprenticeship and I spent a number of years without being paid a penny. I was told once by one of the great Masters that it takes 10 years before you can truly call yourself a Savile Row Tailor. It has taken a great deal of time, sacrifice, dedication and passion to achieve the honour of being called a Savile Row tailor and after years of being taught by some of the true greats of the industry I can now justify calling myself a Master tailor in my own right."
“It’s a pity when you see yet another individual/business using the term bespoke to entice prospective clients toward their products. There is so much time and effort put into training bespoke tailors to create a Savile Row garment, so to see sub standard items on the street is not only detrimental to the craft I love, but it also dilutes the allure of our global reputation of quality.”
“It’s a shame as the individuals who abuse the trade falsely represent an industry that has been built over 200 years of excellence. To dishonestly advertise credentials to potential Savile Row and to make substandard garments that are not reflective of a Savile Row experience is not only audacious but quite sad as it undermines the genuine aspects of the trade. All I can hope is that over time people will eventually see through this and get to experience the real deal in an industry that has worked hard to maintain the quality and prestige it deserves."
“The individuals who abuse the title Savile Row tailor are a poor representation of a craft that has taken me years to refine. Its an insult to the trade as they haven’t earned the right to use such an exclusive title that takes years to acquire”
“It took many years of personal dedication to fully master the art of bespoke tailoring. Its been a journey where I have needed to sacrifice long hours to meticulously absorb all of the intricate characteristics that go into creating a Savile Row jacket. There is a great deal of personal satisfaction in realising that it will be my turn to school the next generation of tailors for the future and recite what was taught to me which will help the trade stay alive”
“Tailoring means everything to me. To be able to create something from a piece of cloth that is unique for the owner to cherish and enjoy for a lifetime, is an irreplaceable experience for me as an individual. It has taken many years for me to perfect the art of tailoring, but the vast knowledge that I have gained in my training was worth all the hard work. This is a profession that I want to survive and be a part of In spite of the hardships it faces.”
“The name Savile row is like champagne, when you talk about champagne there are synergies with Savile Row as there are always people who will blatantly try to imitate our produce. Bespoke tailoring is a skilled trade, it is a lifetime pursuit which took me 10 years before I could call myself a tailor, yet that was the first step of a very long journey and I am still learning. I love working in Savile Row and I am still as passionate today as I was 38 years ago when I first picked up a needle and thimble”.