Some Closing Notes on the ‘Savile Row’ Brand

Last month’s piece arguing that true Savile Row tailors require stronger brand identities, and a more assertive, modern approach to driving their businesses forward if they are to survive, seems to have caused a bit of a stir, and for this reason I would like to use this week’s column to make some further comments which aim to clarify my position.

To simply say that Savile Row caters to a different, more discerning kind of customer is a grave mistake. This hugely minimises Savile Row’s potential customer base and the possibility of building new business. Today’s world is not filled with crusty old gentlemen of aristocratic birth, but of considerably younger, diverse, more modern and less stuffy, moneyed businessmen (and women) and entrepreneurs. These are the market of today, the individuals who quite literally buy into the Savile Row brand of exclusivity and luxury.

Any business has to evolve with the times, and in the same vein as Savile Row’s widespread determination to cater to a dying and minimal class of customer, the Savile Row Bespoke Association’s consensus that to market Savile Row tailoring is to devalue its status is similarly outmoded and defeatist. One need only walk down New Bond Street round the corner from the Row to assess the power of luxury advertising – as I demonstrated last week – it is an attractive and developed brand that creates desirability, not solely the product itself. The realities of modern retail commerce (even in luxury markets such as the Row’s) are driven by competition and marketing; there are not enough customers to go round, and word of mouth is not an appropriate tool to bring in enough custom to support an expensive and labour intensive business such as bespoke tailoring.

Equally, one reader I had a compelling discussion with a few days ago, raised the interesting point that many high street menswear firms masquerade under their own derivative of the ‘Savile Row’ brand, which serves only to weaken the exclusivity of the Row itself. His solution was to Trademark Savile Row. Personally, I think this is problematic, given that the ever passive Savile Row Bespoke Association doesn’t seem clear on what it really wants Savile Row to be, and there can be no denying that it is difficult for the tailors to be expected to always cooperate together, when they are also competing for business.

True Savile Row does not need to trademark its brand, it needs to realise that it has the power to reclaim its brand from the high street. There needs to be more commonly held knowledge about the quality of Savile Row and what it does, and what defines a true Savile Row bespoke suit. This will serve the purpose of preventing any mock ‘Savile Row’ garments from cannibalising the brand in a convincing fashion; if all Savile Row’s customers come know the difference between a hand-roped and machine attached sleevehead, it’ll be a damn sight hard for the high street to pass their mass-produced stock off as ‘Savile Row’. The reality is, that true Savile Row suits are the finest in the world, and their current potential customer base which favour off-the-peg designer tailoring, need to be shown assertively that this is the case.

Designers are convincing their customers into believing that their suits are the height of exclusivity, luxury, and craftsmanship. This is being done through the power of marketing and brand building. Until Savile Row realises that this is the case, it is powerless to help itself or grow into a series of highly successful, growing businesses, who, although competing, can nonetheless support one another’s growth through the promotion of the same standard of product, service and brand values. And permit me to clarify here, when I talk of growth, I do not mean Savile Row needs to be ‘big’ per se, and when the product involves so much handwork their is a limit to the product’s scalability in any case. What Savile Row does need to be however, is grown to a point where successful tailors are generating consistent custom and considerably more healthy profits than most currently are. This can be done and does not require significant or unrealistic levels of scale increases, it requires a more modern and business-like approach.

Similarly, the different tailors ought to do more to capitalise on their differing methods, traditions, house styles and aesthetics to attract customers who will suit their product and build niches for themselves; producing individual identities within the Savile Row brand. This in itself will build interest, drive more competition and add diversity to the Row. It will also build awareness of the identities of the different tailoring houses.

Andrew Ramroop of Maurice Sedwell, famously quoted on the BBC’s ‘Savile Row’ documentary, that “we’re a household name in the households that we wish to be known in”. With all due respect to him, as a craftsman whom I very much admire, this comment typifies the attitude of many businesses on Savile Row, and it is no longer credible. Tom Ford, Brioni, Zegna and Prada are the household names now, and those true Savile Row tailors which have the power to correct this, need to realise that if they are to ever come close to their former glory in the golden age of tailoring again, they need to be more business like, and drive their business development through the creation of a desirable, modern brand which will compliment the quality of their product.

No Sex Please, We’re British

Ask a woman who they believe the most stylish men in the world to be and the answer is rarely different: “Italians!” they gush “Definitely Italians!”

This can be rather a sore point for British men, particularly those who take care of themselves in grooming and attire, who battle against the enormously unhelpful weather in entirely impractical threads in order to cut a dash for old Blighty. “What about British men!?” their inner conscience screams “what the hell has a Brit got to do to impress upon women that British men have great style?!”

The answer, it would seem, comes down to sex.

It’s very simple; the average Italian adult male, sometimes but by no means always better looking than his British counterpart, brings sex appeal to his sartorial deportment. When women judge a man’s style, they aren’t judging him by the standards of StyleForum bloggers, crusty Savile Row cutters or ancient doyennes of ‘classic menswear’ – they’re judging him as a man, plain and simple.

“So what?” I imagine some will be saying “Who cares what women think? I know my Anderson & Sheppard is one of the finest pieces of craftsmanship going and I don’t give a damn what the females’ opinions are.”

Natural style, fundamentally, is not about clothes or craftsmanship but about the person and the way in which they convey their sexuality.

Humans are designed to appeal as sexual creatures and the more successful you are in conveying your sexuality, the more attractive you are. Let’s face it, we have to dress; climate and legislation prevent public nudity. Therefore, we need to convey our sex appeal – however faded it might be – through attire.

It’s appallingly simple: Italian men are more successful at conveying their sexuality through attire. British men, and the British style school, are comparatively poorer.

Take Lapo Elkann and Luca Rubinacci as two classic and well-known examples of well-dressed Italians. If style ‘aficionados’ met them, they would I am sure have many questions. And I would wager that most of them would be utterly inconsequential; “Who makes the best soft-shouldered suits? Which bespoke shoemaker do you favour above all? What is your view on wearing odd waistcoats with suits?”

Yawn fest.

The point is that Elkann and Rubinacci could walk through H&M, Zara and even Primark and come out on the other side conveying more sex appeal and natural, innate style than any British iGent dusting off the shoulder of his expensive blazer outside Chittleborough & Morgan.

And they can do this because they understand how to bring the man they are to the fore in everything they wear. Sexiness is about owning and belonging in a look and, as Amies recommended, not obsessing over it. And it’s not about being good looking enough to look good in anything either; beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Italians are gushed over because, for want of a less graphic image, they thrust their manhood into their ensembles. The way that the billionaire Elkann nonchalantly wanders around in unbuttoned hand-me-down DB jackets, a cigarette dangling from his lips is gruff, sex-laden style. He couldn’t give two hoots about which craftsman roped his shoulder, whether his jacket arm is creased in pictures or whether the hem of his jackets drop perfectly into his palms.

Rubinacci, though certainly a little more studied, wears colours with happy ease. He looks like he is having fun. He looks like he could sleep in his clothes they suit him so well. And crucially, he looks like he could charm the socks off a thousand women – and from his evident lack of hosiery, he might need to.

British men, and in fact Anglo-Saxons in general, approach clothing as a sexless science, which stultifies the overall purpose to bring forth the sexual image of the wearer and make them more attractive. I was greatly intrigued by the statement of the American Anglophile Sean Crowley, Ralph Lauren tie designer and fellow ‘I Am Dandy’ subject, who stated that he was using Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster for style inspiration for the purpose of ‘unsexing’ clothing.

There can be, in my opinion, no greater indictment of the perception of British style.

The Savile Row-John Steed British Style School of Perfection is about brushing off wrinkle-free suits, tucking in traditional shirts, following ancient rules, firming the upper lip and generally, stiffening, starching and unsexing anything in sight. If it errs on the side of anything, it’s fabric and construction – not style or sex appeal. Above all, it worships time, dedication, purity and elitism.

The Italian school is very different. They appreciate and admire quality, but they have the gaggles of girls a-giggling because they get what it’s really all about: making the best of anything they wear and understanding the importance of sex. It might come across as loucheness, untidiness or faddishness but sprezzatura is an Italian word for a reason; a truly stylish man should be able to wear anything and look good. And not for the dogmatic classic style high-priests, bespoke addicts and tailors but for the majority of people who pass by, of either gender, and vocally or visually acknowledge.

For my money, there is no greater compliment than being considered to be, whilst trussed up in a suit, overcoat and scarf – all the elements of a potentially sexless ensemble – sexually appealing.

What Has Tom Ford Got That Savile Row Hasn’t?

I took some time to have a wander around Harrods’ tailoring department a few days ago, and two things struck me. One, why are there so few British brands on show, when the room is filled with Italian tailors which all more or less offer the same style and aesthetic? And two, why does Tom Ford get so much hype and exposure when comparable Savile Row brands are nowhere to be seen?

The first part of this answer is simple, it’s an inescapable truth that Tom Ford produces some utterly exquisite tailoring, and his designs have become global icons. I’ve seen his collections displayed in exclusive showrooms in both Harrods and Selfridges, marketed as the pinnacle of designer menswear, and there can be no doubt that this is for good reason. A/W 2013 abounds with a wide selection of statement making three piece suits, in imposing dark cloths set against Ford’s exaggerated, tight-fitting and muscular off-the-peg silhouette. This is complimented by some of the most beautiful jackets in the menswear world; delicate silk velvets and brocades in vibrant colours and patterns occupy a ten foot long rail in Harrods, marketed in pride of place as the ultimate in desirable tailoring. All the company’s garments are finished superbly, with a wealth of delicate hand-finished techniques and hand made construction. Tom Ford’s work is justifiably elevated in the designer menswear realm then, but I’d like to pose the question, does this description of the company’s clothing; individualist, luxurious, state of the art and exclusive as it is, remind you of anything?

It should do: Savile Row. It irks me that a fashion designer with little background in the actual craft of tailoring has become a global tailoring icon, and vastly more successful than the beating bespoke heart and spiritual home of the world’s great tailoring. It’s a recurring theme in menswear writing, that Savile Row all too often somehow misses out on the recognition it deserves – let’s make no bones about it – Savile Row tailoring, in its finest form, is the finest tailoring in the world and a worthy challenger to those fine Parisian and Italian tailoring houses who contest this claim. It is the row that created the suit as we know it, and it is the history of bespoke tailoring in London, that gives designers like Tom Ford a product to work with. What I’d like to ask is this. Why, when both the extraordinary style and prices of Savile Row and Tom Ford are comparable, would anyone want to buy something that’s been produced off-the-peg when they could indulge in the unique and truly special experience of having a British bespoke suit made?

Let’s look at the evidence. Tom Ford, as I mentioned, is famous for its velvets, this turquoise number in particular, given that this same jacket was worn and popularised by Kanye West. The jacket is cut in fine Italian woven velvet, with a shawl collar, single button closure and bound welt pockets.

So is the turquoise velvet smoking jacket that forms a key piece in Gieves & Hawkes’ latest collection. The two pieces are inseparable, except for the fact that one is the natural choice for the designer-driven fashionista, and the other for the modern bespoke gentleman. Why, when two jackets are essentially identical, you would choose the one which has very little by way of tailoring pedigree is a mystery.

With this comparison in mind, a close consideration of Tom Ford’s block is particularly interesting. The brand favours a very shapely silhouette and a close, almost tight fit that works with both the curves and angles of the wearer’s body shape. This produces a fashion-forward image, and although Savile Row is associated predominantly with the less trendy aesthetic of classic old-fashioned tailoring, let me assure you that such a view of the Row is fast becoming outdated. Over the last decade or so, the finest English tailors have been adopting a style driven approach to their work, and the results are supremely sharp – a close parallel with Tom Ford’s collections. Take Tom Ford’s signature peaked lapel three piece and compare this to the work of Gieves & Hawkes and Chittleborough & Morgan shown below:

All three suits share masculine shapes, well cut peaked lapels and jacket proportions. Furthermore, the Savile Row suits, if anything, are better balanced designs which whilst exuding elegant, still contain intriguing elements of experimentation; turn-back cuffs, an exaggerated waist and chunky pocket jets on the Chittleborough & Morgan suit and a sharp, long sweeping line through the body and very striking, strong roped shoulders on the Gieves & Hawkes. Savile Row is simply offering a more individualistic and intricately crafted product, rooted in generations of tailoring expertise and I think this shows in the comparable sophistication of the Savile Row products. Tom Ford suits are ostentatious and brash, they strain against the self-consciously bulging biceps of their owners, whilst Savile Row suits flow around the curves of the body with an elegance that simply speaks of understated luxury and style.

Why then is luxury off-the-peg tailoring overcoming bespoke? Herein lies the rub. For better or worse, the one thing that Tom Ford has in spades, which Savile Row tailors all too often are lacking in, is a crystal clear and almost hypnotically powerful brand image, rooted in the ever more desirable view of the suit as a work of high-fashion, rather than timelessly stylish – this being something which the brand markets intelligently and relentlessly. As I have already said, the Tom Ford brand has become iconic, sexy, feels exclusive and is popularised the world over by modern celebrities and ‘style icons’; it lends itself to a huge fashionable following.

It saddens me that all too often Savile Row misses the opportunity to build upon its own unparalleled reputation to pose more of a sartorial challenge to the designer giants that continually seek to oust the Row from the tailoring top-spot. The reality is that Savile Row needs a more powerful image; it needs now more than ever to intoxicate a new generation of tailoring connoisseurs and customers. When one looks at the success of designer tailoring giants like Tom Ford, and the wealth of luxury Italian brands in the market place, it seems an inconvenient truth that Savile Row needs to embrace a more modern approach to tailoring, whilst staying true to its sartorial style, and it needs to exploit this urgently in order to remain an influential menswear institution, and tailoring destination in the UK.

The Sad Demise of Tie Rack

Closing Down Sales can often be misleading marketing ploys. Canny shop-owners combine price reductions with supply-ceasing, which they sum up in the yard-sale informality: “Everything Must Go.” Gullible shoppers, mysteriously eager to respond to such commands, comply dutifully. The sale period ended, the shop owners return to their normal pricing structure and carry on as usual; no bailiffs, no bulldozers and no bankruptcy. “It’s all part” they cackle “of the business model.” How amusing.

However, in retail, there is nothing sadder than a genuine ‘Closing Down Sale.’ To see the uncertainty on the face of staff, the stock thrown around and trampled upon carelessly by ravenous bargain-hunters and the pride of a brand wounded by the exhibition of its downfall.  And so, it was with great sadness that I stepped into the Oxford Street branch of Tie Rack, the international accessories brand, which had recently announced, due to years of losses, that it would be closing doors on UK retail at the end of 2013.

In truth, I had never seen it busier. Either the ‘Closing Down Sale’ marketing had worked its wonders or the newswire had led savvy vultures to prey on the carcass of the once 450-branch-strong neckwear brand.

The ties were there of course, heaps of them lining one side, alongside pocket squares, bow ties, cufflinks and belts. But the thing that struck me was how quiet that area of the store was. I scanned the environment and noticed that the area of greatest interest was women’s accessories; scarves, wallets, hats and gloves. Women of all ages were rifling through bins of silk scarves, holding up belts in front of their bored husbands and trying on hats in a crowded mirror.

It is well acknowledged that the wearing of ties is on the decline. When I was on work experience in a fund management office in the late 1990s, ties were expected to be worn every day – by everyone. Nowadays, many offices no longer require them to be worn at all, unless there happens to be an important external meeting or a presentation, which encourages men to own fewer ties and be more discerning when it comes to purchasing one. This explains why the pile-em-high-price-em-low Tie Rack offer no longer works.

It also explained why so many men in the store, when such bargains were on offer, chose to peruse the women’s accessories. So alien were these ties to them that, in their studied avoidance, pretended to be interested in floral gloves, pink striped scarves and metal-fruit covered yellow belts.

I, a loyal customer of Tie Rack, was crestfallen. The quantities of silk that had gone to waste; the hours of design ignored by an unappreciative public. Though neckties had become less than 50% of the stores’ revenues, they were its raison d’etre, its necessity. They had given birth to the brand’s success.

It is perhaps appropriate that if the ties go, everything else should too. For gone are the days when the Everyman needed such variety of neckwear (and could purchase it at low cost); past is the time when men looked at a tie as a sartorial plaything and whim of pattern and colour. Now, they are but nooses of an imprisoning formality and a millstone around the neck of a once-great retailer, caught cold by changing trends.

Farewell, TR. I’ll miss you.

Sartorial Stereotypes: Christmas Day Knitwear

Black Cashmere V Neck

The Black Cashmere V Neck man has had a good year and, tastefully and quietly, he wants everyone to know it. A resolute bachelor, he lives in a family-sized flat without the slightest hint of guilt. His slick steel fridge in his Calacatta-covered kitchen is full: a batch of vintage Krug that was once gifted to, but never consumed by, Mikhail Gorbachev and non-farmed Beluga (illegal and criminally expensive at $5,000 a tin).

His Christmas parties that he throws in his exquisitely subtle but, evidently, expensively decorated monochrome aerie are legendary in a co-op building that makes up for its lack of fame by the quality of its residents. Unlike the other Christmas Day parties thrown on the Upper East Side – “They’re just infested with Russians now” – his party is only momentarily extravagant, only occasionally nauseatingly indulgent. After pottering about checking the bow ties of the waiters, which he had to tie himself, he leans on the fireplace, waiting for the bell to ring wearing slim-fitting, single-pleated grey flannels from Anderson & Sheppard, black velvet slippers from John Lobb, and a black cashmere V Neck from Ralph Lauren Black Label.

Fair Isle Crew Neck

The Fair Isle Crew Neck man lets off a whoop of excitement as the champagne cork hits the ceiling. “Champers is ready!” he calls out loudly to his Christmas day companions, who are relaxing on the warm sofa by the roaring fire. He walks in smiling brightly, handing glasses to his sparkling girlfriend and her disapproving best friend and then drops into the armchair scratching the head of Patrick, a wire fox terrier. “It’s so cute, this cottage!” the best friend exclaims, smiling disingenuously at the host. “It’s just a rental” the girlfriend says winking at her lover, playfully touching her Van Cleef & Arpels engagement ring. The Fair Isle Crew Neck man smiles back. After a lunch of Christmas goose (“You know, my family, we never had turkey”), a substandard Malbec bought by the best friend who, now boozed and postprandial, was positively scowling. She hated how curly his hair was, how tanned he still was from his engagement holiday on Mustique, how he never made much of the fact that he was a baronet and she hated that he used to play rugby for the Durham First XV. He was too perfect. She found it hard to publicly hate him, this man that was due to turn her best friend into a dutiful housewife, and that made her hate him even more. “C’mon girls” he said casually, standing with Patrick at the door in his navy Hunter boots, olive cashmere flannel trousers, Fair Isle Crew Neck from Drakes and battered Barbour “let’s walk off the goose and earn our pud-pud.”

John Smedley Bergamo

The John Smedley Bergamo man is at his first “singles” Christmas. After being told by his parents that they would be cruising around Australia, he decided to give what his mates said would be “guaranteed Crimbo sex” a chance. After reviewing his carefully, painstakingly cut physique in the hotel room mirror, he sprays himself with copious amounts of mid-range deodorant and dons a pair of slim charcoal trousers, Gucci loafers and his silver John Smedley Bergamo sweater, the fine merino-weave of which shows up his toned pectorals and bulging biceps. He wanders down to the dining room where a bevvy of overly made-up women wait nervously, fidgeting with their hair and reapplying lipstick using the gilt overmantle mirror. “She’s fit” he thinks to himself, looking twice at a smiling Amazonian beauty.

The Christmas meal itself, predictable down to the last cocktail sausage, is an awkward affair, as all members of the party lack the comfort in each other’s company and, consequently, find themselves nervously shifting the food around their plates and shuffling in their seats in order that the brussel sprouts should not have their gaseous way. The John Smedley Crew Neck man happily avoids the majority of the meal, focusing on three very large pieces of turkey – “It’s leaner than chicken” – and eyeing up the Amazonian, who noticed his substantial, merino-encased arms as he reached across the table for the bottle of San Pellegrino. “And now ladies and gentlemen” the maitre’d announces “we have the very special, Christmas pudding!” Catching his eye, the Amazonian prey asks him if he will partake; “No. Too calorific. I’ll just have my protein shake.”

Cable roll-neck from Gant

The Gant Cable Roll Neck man is an excellent but truly obnoxious skier. Having decided he was the most experienced in the group, he proceeds to lecture his chalet companions on what they should and shouldn’t be doing: “Tom, you’re not ready for black runs mate, you’re just not ready. You’re kind of where I was, 12 years ago”; “Katie, your parallels are really lazy, you need to bring them in more. You surprise me actually, I thought you’d be a natural.”

His long-suffering girlfriend, Emily, pleads with the group when they voice their irritation during one of his bathroom breaks: “You see, the thing is, he’s really, really good – like REALLY good – and you should listen to him if he’s trying to help you, yah?” A lawyer at a Magic Circle firm and a tenor in his local choir, he puts others’ dislike of him down to his undoubted intellectual superiority and artistic ability.

His attire is smug and uninventive, showing no individual style. He wears what he calls ‘proper’ (read:ugly) skiwear and scoffs at Tom’s stylish Moncler ensemble; “I’ve been skiing longer than they’ve EXISTED.” His only stylish après ski garment is a white Gant cable roll neck, a gift from his girlfriend, which he wears with disturbingly awful jeans and caramel coloured Uggs. “The thing I love about Val d’Isere” he shouts in Tom’s ear as Flo Rida blasts away in a dingy club “is that I feel people here are almost as stylish as I am. Makes me feel relaxed.”

As the group lie back in the hot tub the next day, bitching about his interference – “Why can’t he just shut the f*ck up?!” – he sits in a ski-in bar with his girlfriend, smiling beatifically and soaking up the sun until he notices her digging into the nuts; “Babe, remember, nuts are actually quite fattening.”