Women cut their way into the manly world of London tailoring
There are, perhaps, only so many times you can hear a wink-wink joke about taking an inside-leg measurement without its wearing thin. But when you are an oddity - a woman in a man's world, dealing almost exclusively with men - it is perhaps to be expected.
"It's banter and a way of breaking the ice, but there is always a bit of joking," says Susannah Hall, who quietly established her business a decade ago. "It was awkward to begin with but now it's no big deal. The secret is to spend not too long doing it ..."
If London's historic bespoke tailoring has traditionally been an almost excessively male environment - all calculated deference, pinstripes and chesterfield sofas, with the puff of cigar smoke lingering in the air and a special, often intimate relationship between a gent and his cutter, much as between a man and his barber - then the pioneering Hall, if only for her sex, might seem out of place.
Indeed, Hall - who trained at the esteemed Central Saint Martins art and design school in London - is one of a growing band of female tailors, shirtmakers and shoemakers making it in these manly circles. Savile Row, the spiritual home of tailoring, has especially seen a redressing of the balance between trousers and skirts: last year Gieves & Hawkes, one of its oldest establishments, appointed Kathryn Sargent as its head cutter, the first woman to hold the position; Huntsman, another tailor on the Row, has also employed its first female cutter; and the tailor Richard Anderson is training a female apprentice.
There has, of course, been resistance, which has meant those businesses with a woman "front of house" or as their figurehead have had to work especially hard to convince dubious clients. Some believe that women are simply not built for the job. Deborah Carré is one half of the bespoke, hand-sewn men's shoemaker Carré Ducker - "and the fact that it is very physical work means there are very few women in the business", she says. "You're something of a rarity in a world with very entrenched thinking - you can tell that suppliers are all used to dealing with men. The fact that I'm co-owner of the business gets a certain respect - it's hard to say what reaction I'd get without that credential."
Others believe that it is simply subversive. "There are certainly still many, mostly older, men out there who think a woman in tailoring isn't proper," says Hall. "This is such a masculine business, it's hard for women to get into it in the first place."
But both add that there are advantages. Without seeking to apply a stereotype - women are more nurturing than men; women are not cut out for the masculine crafts, that kind of thing - Carré and Hall both suggest that their femininity gives them certain insights closed to a man. It is a counter-intuitive idea that the intimacy of dealing with different aspects of the male body - from his sloping shoulders to his bunions - is more benefit than hurdle, but "some clients are just much more ready to share their concerns with a woman," Carré argues. "Maybe it is a reflection of women dominating the caring professions, that they make more emotional connections - though my husband laughs when I suggest that. But certainly, finding out more about what a client wants is critical to the success of any bespoke product."
Hall suggests that being a woman in this man's world may even provide a competitive edge: "Some men come to us just because it's unusual," she says. "But they stay with us because we offer something most bespoke operations cannot: not only a woman's eye for design, colour, fabric, which makes us well-placed to give a less traditional take, but a woman's opinion. Men definitely say that they like to have a woman's point of view when it comes to their clothing."
The shirtmaker Emma Willis - the only female-run business on Jermyn Street, London's shirt-making heart - adds that, while some male customers initially find it uncomfortable, she is willing to engage in discussion of the more esoteric, perhaps unmanly appeal of a good shirt. "The feel of the cloth against the skin is not something men are in the habit of thinking about," she says. "And yet, when it's on, that's typically the main part of its appeal." Being a woman also helps them to engage with what remain vital customers of menswear: other women. "I get calls from wives asking me to 'please keep my husband away from those orange shirts he keeps buying' and to help them steer him towards something better suited," says Willis.
"But, given that it's time the imbalance of men historically designing for or dressing women was redressed, generally I'm surprised that there aren't more women in the traditional men's clothing market," she adds. "That is changing, though, especially since that market has been seen in a more fashionable, glamorous light in recent years."
Certainly new players are breaking out all the time. Carré Ducker, for example, which runs a training programme, has seen its graduates Jesse Moore and Marika Verploegh Chasse, under her Kookies & Shoes label, both launch men's bespoke shoe businesses in the US. Carina Eneroth is a men's bespoke shoemaker based in Stockholm and making for the Swedish royal family under her Skomakeri Framat brand, while Lisa Sorrell is now well-established as a leading maker of custom cowboy boots.
This change might even foreshadow a major shift for the traditional men's craft industries, argues Kathryn Sargent. "It's true that my father, who's conservative, wouldn't be comfortable being measured or advised on what to wear by a woman. But the fact is we have more and more younger customers now who don't think twice about it," she says. "Perceptions of women in certain roles are changing radically throughout society, even if tailoring has been a rather late developer."
Certainly some, like Sargent, are making it in such masculine territory in a big way. Anda Rowland - daughter of the late British businessman Roland "Tiny" Rowland - is now the vice chairman of Anderson & Sheppard, one of Savile Row's most prestigious names, counting Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, among its customers.
"There was a scepticism that, being a woman, I could even understand the business - that what tailors did would mean nothing to me," says Rowland, who has inculcated what she calls a "more feminine presence" that has resulted in nearly half of all apprentices at the company now being female, and women accounting for 40 per cent of the behind-the-scenes tailoring staff. "I was expected to prove myself in a way that wouldn't have been expected of a man. I like to think I've done that."
Updated: January 8, 2012 04:00 AM