Interview: Patrick Grant, Norton & Sons

A perennial topic on this site, and indeed other style fora, is how customers interact with their tailors when they have their first suit made.

The customer thinks he knows what he wants but he can’t quite express it – at least not in the terminology the tailor would use. And the tailor tries to divine the customer’s wishes from every source he has available: what he is already wearing, his facial expressions, his reactions to suggestions and things he tries on.

It’s a difficult process and one that takes time, hence the need for several fittings. Permanent Style spoke to Patrick Grant, owner of Norton & Sons on Savile Row, about this quandary as part of a series of pieces in a new project called Gentleman’s Corner (details to be divulged next week).

Among other things, Patrick agreed that tailors often resort to using house styles or fit generalisations (classic, slim, skinny) because of this very inability to communicate.


Permanent Style: What proportion of customers know enough about what they want when they walk in and answer all your questions?

Patrick Grant: Not many, is the honest answer. A lot of people have a good idea of how they would like to look. And a lot of them know that they like what they end up wearing, but that’s about it.

They know when the results are good. They can feel the difference from what they had before – but they won’t be able to say that the difference is because there is an inch more suppression in the waist, or the jacket is a touch longer. They know where they want to get to, but they can’t necessarily articulate how to get there.

PS: Is that first conversation difficult then?

PG: When you go into the fitting room, David [Ward, head cutter] will measure you up and have this conversation with you. It starts off a little bit broadly: ‘How would you liked this coat to be cut? Shaped, in a classic English style?’ And the customer will reply: ‘Well yes, quite shaped. But not too shaped.’

PS: So no answer at all then.

PG: Sure, but then it gets more focused, and the customer will say he doesn’t want it very fitted, really skinny. He’ll express one preference and then another, and we ease towards a vision.

Some people are also very happy to say ‘you’re the experts, you cut me a suit that is going to make me look as good as I can’. But it’s a process that takes a lot of time. On the first suit this conversation is repeated in three, sometimes four fittings. And the conversation becomes a little easier when there’s a coat to talk about and point to.

The first meeting is a little vague, but actually nine times out of ten we get it pretty right.

PS: Is it fair to say that one reason some tailors have a house style is that the customer knows what he is getting and has probably come there for that reason – saving everyone the first, vague conversation?

PG: Yes, I think that’s quite right. If you left the shape entirely up to us, you would get a suit that looks like the one on the mannequin in the shop window. That’s why the models are there, so the customer can say ‘that’s what Norton & Sons looks like, that’s what Henry Poole looks like, that’s what Huntsman looks like and this is the one I want to look like.’

PS: Do people come in and just browse sometimes? On this site we have discussed how much men would like to do that more at tailors.

PG: Absolutely, we have people come in and try suits on and have a conversation about the style, just to get an idea. It’s quite normal for people to try three or four tailors before they order.

In fact, we picked up a new customer a few weeks ago that had a suit made at ourselves and two other tailors on the Row, to see which he liked best. I won’t say who the other two were, but he had exactly the same suit, same colour same cloth, just so he could decide which he liked best.

PS: That sounds pretty meticulous. He sounds like he’s going to be a serious customer.

PG: He said he just wanted to find the best tailor for him and be able to make a real comparison.

PS: That’s what makes it hard for many newcomers to this area to get an idea of what they want – not many people, no journalist and no one on the various style sites has tried all the tailors.

PG: That’s fair. And the main reason people switch between tailors, as we’ve seen since I took over, is not an objective comparison like this customer made but just a simple feeling. They’ve been with someone for years and have a good relationship with them, but suddenly something’s just a little wrong. It’s changed and it’s not like it used to be.

Cheap Bespoke – Too Good To Be True?

Entirely handmade shoes are not cheap. The high-end benchmade shoes are hand-clicked and hand-lasted, but not hand-welted. In this country, most of the entirely handmade ones are made bespoke. And that makes them even more expensive, as the shoe is being made unique to your foot, as well as being constructed by hand.

Most entirely handmade shoes are pushing £1000 or more. Laszlo Vass of shoemakers Vass in Hungary is one exception, but then unless you want a pair of shoes you haven’t tried on, you have to go to Budapest.
One exception has recently popped out of the brickwork. His name is Clifford Roberts and he worked for one of Northampton’s biggest shoemakers for 30 years (though he won’t say which for the sake of discretion). Having left that firm, he now makes handmade shoes from his house, just outside the town. And they start at £290. Less than £300 for entirely handmade shoes.

Since he was first discovered, on eBay and by the members of a discussion here, the timeline for the work has extended for six weeks to twelve. But that is still a lot quicker than the five months it takes, for example, for a pair of made-to-order Gaziano & Girling shoes.

Several members of the forum have made their own orders and reported their results. The quality of the leather seems to be good, the fit equally good and all the work (noticeably, the welting) all done by hand. There have been one or two criticisms that the lasts Cliff works on are ‘blobby’, but this is only one of the three or four shapes he works with – and besides, it is a question of taste.

Now, the dream of any shoe geek is to be able to get bespoke handmade shoes at an affordable price. If Cliff can make handmade shoes, is there any way he can do bespoke? Well, in theory yes.

hm-spring-line1All the lasts in this country are made by Spring Line in Northampton. The only remaining last-maker in Britain, the company makes wood and plastic lasts for everyone from Nike to Edward Green. They will make you a bespoke last for around £190 – just send them a 2D foot draft or a 3D foot scan.

The first of these methods of measurement should be done after requesting specific instructions from Spring Line. Or, ideally, by getting an experienced shoemaker to make a draft of your feet. The second method, though, is pretty easy to accomplish. Just go along to Lodger, the new shoe company on Clifford Street. They use an electronic scanning and imaging machine to build up a 3D picture of your foot. It’s for their shoes, but they won’t mind doing it for your own use as well.

So measurements from Lodger, a bespoke last from Spring Line and then handmade shoes on that last from Cliff Roberts. Bespoke shoes for less than £500?

Well, not quite. You see, bespoke shoemaking is not that straightforward. No one gets your last and shoe right the first time. If you have a bespoke pair of shoes made at, say, Foster & Son, the process will involve several fittings. First you will get a trial shoe, only half made or constructed in a cheap leather than can be thrown away afterwards. You try that, you make a few comments and the last is adjusted accordingly. Even when the final shoe is constructed it can be altered, and often the last will be tweaked slightly for the next order.
So to recreate this experience at Spring Line would take more than one visit to Northampton. For someone in the UK, this makes it a little tiresome. For someone in the US, it makes it impossible or very expensive – particularly given the extra steps and communication between the two craftsmen, of lasts and of shoes, that wouldn’t be needed at a bespoke shoemaker.

The other catch, of course, is that your last could only be in one toe shape. If you are at all interested in design, this could be a constriction. You could have another last made, but it would cost another £190.

Now if you already have a bespoke last you are happy with, you’re sorted. Just send it to Cliff with some instructions. Very few shoemakers will do made-to-order shoes on a bespoke last – they would rather you went through their bespoke service. But Cliff will do it for the same price.

Also, if you have very unusual feet (and live in the UK) it is still probably worth the effort to work with Spring Line and Cliff to get a last you are happy with. If you don’t, then (blasphemous as it is to say) ready-to-wear shoes are a good bet. The advantages of bespoke are not the same for everyone.

Cultural Differences: Black Tie At Weddings

Considering the violent and convincing manner in which the redcoat troops were defeated in the last quarter of the 18th century, with the assistance of French gold and weaponry, the very existence of what is famously termed the ‘special relationship’ seems inconceivable but the similarities between the peoples either side of the Atlantic Ocean are well noted and undeniable. Indeed it could be argued that Britain has now maintained a friendly and understanding relationship with America longer than she has with any other nation. However, the grandiloquent pretences of the 19th century – the dream of America and the Imperial mother nation uniting together in mighty union – have, perhaps fortunately, vanished.

The Old World has been in decline since the ‘disagreements’ of 1781, the New has risen steadily to outmuscle, outshine and outdo the parent but, like all offspring, has slowly developed an appreciation for the Old. In art, architecture, fashion and music there have certainly been examples of American uniqueness; innovations of the continent itself. However, there has been, and still is, a connection and a reverence for the European way of doing things. This is by no means an embarrassment for Americans, nor is it overstatement of the greatness that lingers from a bygone age. Between two continents we have forged what has become to be known by all as ‘The Western World.’

However, there are some peculiar aspects and traditions of modern America perplexing to me. The most popular sports are played little elsewhere in the world; there is a strange arrangement in calendars of months, days and then years and of course, there is a tradition to wear ‘a tux’ at one’s wedding – no matter that it may be a morning ceremony followed by a lunchtime reception. Some American readers may think it terribly old fashioned, and Old World, to question a tradition that most Americans have known for at least a generation. However, it has always seemed to me rather strange when looking at American wedding photos – the bride and groom, extremely neat in appearance; well groomed, coiffed and with gleaming smiles but in contradicting attire.

The bride is invariably wearing what some refer to as the ‘meringue’ – a mound of creamy white that corresponds to the ‘fairytale’ of the wedding ceremony. It is essentially a period design, although what period it directly represents isn’t always clear. The gentleman stands next to his bride in a severe black tuxedo, usually with satin-faced lapels, and wears the white shirt with, typically, a black clip on bow tie. It is usually a case of ‘day meets night’ – it would be correct to wear black tie (or, as it is a formal occasion ‘white tie’) in the evening, after six o’ clock, but usually, the same dress is adopted for morning and afternoon wear. In the shining sun, the ‘tuxedo’ looks odd to this traditionalist European. Commanding and appropriately attired he might be to American eyes; to me he looks more like a Parisian waiter who has lost his tray. It might be that Americans don’t understand the rule of when to wear evening dress, do not care to follow such a rule or even that they are unaware of it being ‘evening dress.’ Someone I know recently wore morning dress to a wedding in the States to be complimented by a local with the words; ‘Nice tux!’ As the ensemble is known simply by this and not the more clear cut ‘evening dress’ or ‘dinner suit’, this may explain why it has somehow become the norm to wear it to one’s wedding.

The other explanation is that Americans adopted black tie at weddings as it was the only formal dress they possessed in their wardrobes. Instead of garbing themselves in something they were unlikely to wear again, they revolutionised the formal attire of weddings and adopted their ‘smart evening clothes’ instead. This is a rather charming explanation but is rather strange coming from a nation that produces television programmes that lecture women on the appropriateness of their clothing choices. “This one” shrills the self-assured host “is much maw an eevnin’ dress hunny. It’s black, that should give you your first clue!”

Reader Question: Fake Welts And Lacing

Patrick: I recently had a pair of black cap-toe boots repaired and afterwards the cobbler explained to me that my Banana Republic boots had fake welts. I realized that I hadn’t really paid enough attention to a lot of shoe details. Among the questions I had were:

Is there a preferred way to lace dress shoes? I searched online and came up with this site which lists 33 different methods for lacing shoes. Most seem inappropriate for dress shoes, but it also didn’t address the issue of stitching the bottom set of holes with laces over or under the holes. Also, have you ever gotten taps installed on your leather bottom shoes to extend their durability?

Thanks for all the all the great information. I have yet to find another blog that offers such keen and timeless insight into men’s style.

welts-lcingThank you for the questions, Patrick, and your kind words. I’m afraid you have fallen into a design trap of some of the bigger US brands that sell their own shoes. As brands like Banana Republic are design-driven rather than craft-driven, they don’t worry much about the construction details that are the focus of much of classic men’s style sites like this one and the various fora.

I believe all shoes sold by Banana Republic are glued rather than stitched, and certainly not Goodyear welted, like classic British shoes. Someone in the design team may have decided, however, that they want to produce a British-looking shoe (driven, perhaps, by the return of the brogue into fashion through Thom Browne, Grenson collaborations etc.). So they have produced a glued shoe that looks like it is welted. The only advice I can give is to shop at a more traditional English store next time – for the same price (around $140 I think) you could get a pair of Barker or Loake shoes that will last you far longer.

(A little aside on Loake, make sure you look at the product details on their site as to where the shoes are made. Despite the song-and-dance about British workmanship on the homepage, some of the Design range is made in India.)

On lacing for dress shoes, most people use the straight (European) lacing from that site and I would recommend it. It looks neater to have straight bars across the eyelets, and having a criss-cross underneath makes them much easier to tighten. Start with the laces going over the bottom two eyelets. On more casual shoes a criss-cross lacing on top can look good, but that’s more a question of taste.

Lastly, I tend to avoid metal taps on shoes but it is largely because I can’t stand the sound they make. Sounds like I’m on the parade ground on in a tap-dancing troupe. They can also be a little slippery. But some people do like them and they are certainly effective. And having plastic ones can avoid the two problems I bring up. I would recommend you try them and see.

A Flamboyant Wedding


A colleague of mine is going to a wedding this summer, on the beach, with the proscribed dress code of “flamboyant”.

Now, a dress code like that has the potential to condone all manner of horrors. From black tie with flip flops to Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts, linen suits with t-shirts to board shorts and knobbly knees. Doubtless the bride and groom realised this and were brave enough to give their friends and family free rein.

Also, the wedding is likely to be fairly formal so it needs to be flamboyant in a smart way. There is an unspoken assumption of dignity and propriety. So my colleague wanted suggestions on ways to make a suit, or odd jacket and trousers, flamboyant enough to fit in and retain personality.

To kick-off, here’s what I would wear if I were also invited (sniff sniff). A two-buttoned Etro suit I own in pale-grey Glenurquart check with green overcheck. A white French-cuffed shirt with colourful glass cufflinks; paisley silk handkerchief; and a tropical but not overstated boutonniere. On the feet, tan loafers without socks (easy to kick off for those dances in the sand, but equally appropriate to retiring to the veranda later for cigars and coffee).

I would instinctively go without a tie, but knowledge of the family itself would give more guidance here. If a tie was more appropriate, I would pick an unlined gold silk, probably pinned.

As with any invitation, the interpretation of the dress code does depend on some knowledge of the hosts. Given that, my colleague’s initial thoughts were: seersucker suit, white shirt, large boutonniere and plimsolls. Not far off my suggestion.

But he has since had a change of heart on the seersucker suit and decided to go with just trousers in that all-American material, with an odd jacket. So what odd jacket to wear? Well, given that the seersucker is in traditional blue and white, either blue or white would be fine. Perhaps in a heavy-weight linen, to look suitably crisp on top of the trousers. And probably blue, given that my colleague would like to get some use out of these items after the wedding (they are being made bespoke at the moment) and navy will have more lasting use that white.

I would also lean towards slip-ons or formal shoes with this outfit, rather than the plimsolls suggested earlier. Plimsolls or other slim-line trainers in a smart, clean colour can look great with a casual suit. But an odd jacket/trouser combination could use something to root it to the ground. Plus, it means my colleague can find a pair of very bright socks that match his flower. What fun.