Contemporary sensibilities hit Savile Row
When the winner of the British Fashion Council's menswear award was announced last December, one wonders if the stalwarts of Savile Row - the world's men's tailoring heartland - had a panicky sense of déjà vu. Just as ex-creative director Carlo Brandelli had collected the award five years ago for what was then a bold and progressive tailoring line for Savile Row pillar Kilgour, now here was another: Patrick Grant, whose day job is running traditional tailors Norton & Sons, had scooped the prize for the launch of E Tautz.
Like Brandelli's efforts before, E Tautz is Savile Row classicism given a new edge - familiar enough to be part of the hallowed environs of the street and yet current enough to move beyond the anonymity that characterises much of the Row's output to all but other tailors. And E Tautz is not alone. If the late 1990s saw the so-called "nouveau tailors" - the likes of Timothy Everest, Richard James and Ozwald Boateng - shake up the tailoring establishment with a younger, more directional style sold from stores that were more chic retail than gentleman's club, then now a second wave is in the ascendant.
Up-and-coming tailors such as Thom Sweeney are joined by the likes of bespoke tailors A Sauvage and Rake, a new tailoring-oriented ready-to-wear company, while, in a bid to create a British luxury group, Soho tailor Tony Lutwyche has rebooted his bespoke business with a move to the Row, the launch of a ready-to-wear line and the takeover of the shoe company Lodger.
Some suggest the shift is creating a split in the market, between the new progressives and the old traditionalists. "And there are two schools of thought now - emphatically classic bespoke and design bespoke," argues Richard Fuller, retail manager for Kilgour, which has undergone a gradual revamp since it was acquired by the Dubai-based JMH Group two years ago. "While other, mostly young companies have taken the more design-driven route of the kind we had under Brandelli, we, in effect, have gone the other way."
But, tellingly, not all the way: the company has kept and upgraded its ready-to-wear to be stylistically in keeping with its bespoke offer and, as merchandise director Peter Sant says, is "targeting its efforts on being the name for high net-worth individuals, which means taking a more global, brand-led perspective rather than just thinking about our own backyard".
Gieves & Hawkes - established in 1771, with Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Charlie Chaplin among its historic customers - is thinking anew too. Eight months ago the company appointed John Durnin, ex-head of Richemont brand Dunhill for the Asia-Pacific markets, to make the brand both more international and more contemporary. The flagship store has undergone a modernisation programme, and bespoke shoemaking, grooming, leathergoods and accessories lines were all introduced.
Even Huntsman, once widely regarded as one of the stuffiest companies on the Row - by itself, and proudly so - has acknowledged that "you have to embrace new ideas or get left behind because younger customers want something different", as its head cutter Patrick Murphy notes. The company has consequently undergone a series of updates for its website and premises - with more welcoming, modern retail windows - and even its staff, with younger bodies front-of-house and apprentices below stairs bringing in new ideas. "But the biggest change has been in attitude," says Murphy. "Before it was 'our way or the highway' - very dictatorial about what the customer could have. The modern consumer wants what he wants."
That may be a more up-to-date cut, service, retail environment or image. But might he also be responding to, if not the growing interest in investment shopping, then the rising appeal during the recession of brands with reassuring heritage and products of provenance, of the kind the Savile Row big guns have in spades? "But people don't come to you for the heritage now. They come for great, contemporary product - for quality, functionality and design," says Durnin. "Heritage certainly adds to the gravitas of the older Savile Row names, but you can't rest on it."
You might, however, get started on it. Indeed, not only is the old guard keeping pace with the new blood but some are even finding now is the right time for a comeback after the deaths of their influential owners. The company, for example, behind Douglas Hayward went into administration in 2009 following the death of its founder the year before - Hayward was the tailor who dressed the Swinging Sixties, with Peter Sellers, Michael Caine and Terence Stamp among his customers. It has now relaunched under new management "that is conscious of the need to be more contemporary and commercial", says director Ritchie Charlton. "Having a rich story of the kind newer tailors can't possibly have certainly appeals now. Customers new to bespoke are less impressed by the young turks in the media, but they are by the idea of following in the footsteps of true style icons."
The house of Hardy Amies - style pioneer of the 1950s, couturier to Queen Elizabeth, designer of the costumes for 2001: A Space Odyssey, who died in 2003 - has also been revived under new owners. "The fact is that the younger consumer, which we have to attract, has a strong expectation of how he wants to dress and is looking for brands - even, or perhaps especially, those in traditional tailoring - to respond to that," explains Hardy Amies's CEO Tony Yusuf. "Many of the traditional tailors aren't making the necessary change from 'country pursuits' to a more 'modern' tailoring, but others have been encouraged to recreate themselves."
There is wide recognition, too, of the changing cultural backdrop of the suit itself - that it is increasingly worn less for work and more to socialise in, for example. Or that a suit - or at least one of the traditionally bulletproof Savile Row variety - may not be the easiest garment to move in for generations raised on sportswear. Rake, for example, focuses on half-lined, super-light, crease-resistant tailoring - a more Continental sensibility that is perhaps a reflection of our increased travel, both in terms of the need for practicality and as a national cross-fertilisation of style ideas.
Rake does not even focus on suits, following a shift in menswear to the womenswear philosophy of wearing "separates". But then Huntsman, too, has gone so far as to recruit a new skills base precisely to allow the cutting of lighter garments and now makes more separates than ever. Gieves & Hawkes, similarly, has created a new line of some 14 different styles of blazer, together with an extended casualwear line. And, coming into effect this May, it launches a new, more modern silhouette for all of its tailoring - the first comprehensive overhaul in decades.
"People have tended to think of bespoke suits from the big tailoring names as being stuck in the past, as though we make suits that haven't changed at all for 50 years or more," says Gieves's Durnin, "and obviously that's a perception we have to change. The best way to do that is to make the product suit the times, which not all tailors on the Row, being privately owned businesses, want or feel the need to do.
"They still make beautiful suits and maybe that's fine for them. But the fact is that a 35-year-old guy doesn't want to look as though he's inherited his suit from his father. More and more of us are recognising that now."
Follow us on Twitter and keep up to date with the latest in arts and lifestyle news at twitter.com/LifeNationalUAE