LONDON, United Kingdom — In a time of chivalry, in a British capital at war with its Napoleonic neighbour, one would, on occasion, see a black bicorn hat, gilt epaulets, buffed boots and snow white pantaloons stroll along an unremarkable, if affluent, city street. The hat and pantaloons belonged to Lord Nelson, and the street was, at the time, named Savile Street, nestled behind Piccadilly in the district of Mayfair, where London's tailors had congregated since 1803, clothing men of rank and calibre with the finest of cloth.
The street would eventually become Savile Row, the original Mecca of men’s fashion, where Western formalwear was defined and refined at the hands of expert craftsmen. After all, it's Savile Row that gave birth to the suit itself, as well as the smoking jacket and the dinner suit, both invented by Henry Poole & Company, acknowledged founders of "the Row." And over the years, popular figures like Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Mick Jagger, Elton John and Michael Caine were regulars, helping to turn Savile Row into a globally-recognised brand.
In recent years, the global luxury menswear market has grown at roughly double the pace of luxury womenswear, according to Bain & Company, a consulting firm. The British Fashion Council has launched a dedicated menswear showcase, London Collections: Men, and the world's largest luxury conglomerates, LVMH and Kering, have both invested agressively in expanding their respective menswear brands, Berluti and Brioni. But in a luxury menswear market rich with new opportunity, the tailors of Savile Row face a stark reality: bespoke tailoring is simply not a scalable business.
The simple truth is that there are opportunities to sell ready-to-wear clothes thanks to Savile Row’s history.
Back in 2003, Carlo Brandelli, then the newly appointed creative director of Savile Row tailor Kilgour, confronted the issue head-on, launching the hundred and thirty year old house’s first ever ready-to-wear line, which went on to become both a critical and commercial success. But in 2008, Kilgour's new owners, JMH Lifestyle, refocused the company on bespoke tailoring and Brandelli resigned. “Savile Row had become like a museum. That happens when people stop moving forward and they are just maintaining a craft that they didn’t create," Brandelli told Showstudio earlier this month. "[JMH Lifestyle] came in and they decided on bespoke, so I resigned. In order for Savile Row brands to survive, you had to develop the brand. That is what traditional artisan brands like Chanel and Hermès, a couturier and a saddle maker, did. They had that bespoke side, but then the brand has to develop,” he continued.
Today, six years after his departure, Brandelli is back at Kilgour, which was acquired last September by No.14 Savile Row, a part of Fung Capital, the private equity partnership of Victor and William Fung, the chairman and group managing director of Li & Fung, the world’s largest supplier to consumer brands. And, under the new ownership, the menswear brand is again focusing on the ready-to-wear opportunity. Indeed, in March, to mark his return, Brandelli’s classic ready-to-wear designs for Kilgour will be sold exclusively on luxury menswear e-tailer Mr Porter, while the creative director develops a new collection for the house and redesigns its flagship store.
Mr Porter, part of the Net-a-Porter Group, has taken a significant interest in tailoring-led ready-to-wear lines of late. The site has also teamed up with Thom Sweeney, a much younger bespoke tailoring business based in London's Mayfair (though not technically on Savile Row), established by Thom Whiddet and Luke Sweeney in 2006, to launch an exclusive ready-to-wear line.
“We knew the Mr Porter guys and it was a nice extension of our business. But we still want to be known as tailors that do retail, rather than the other way round. We want to keep it tight. We want to create a brand and be successful and do well, but it's a double-edged sword — you don’t want to be everywhere." The company plans to open a dedicated ready-to-wear store in Mayfair within a year, in addition to adding two or three “really strong [stockists].”
Others, including some of Savile Row's oldest tailors, have taken a less cautious approach to expansion. “In the last 12 months, we have [become] a more style-driven, less suit-dependent company than we have been in the past,” said Ray Clacher, chief executive of Gieves & Hawkes, which was founded in 1771 at No.1 Savile Row and acquired in 2012 by Trinity Limited, which is also part of Li & Fung. “[Creative director] Jason [Basmajian] has joined us from Brioni and has certainly changed the dynamic. We want to be a top-to-toe solution in terms of product. The last two fashion shows have been about total-solution dressing.”
“We have hired in excess of 40 new heads just to look after design, production and development and merchandising. So it is an enormous change in the way this lovely little brand has been operating," continued Clacher. "We have opened seventeen stores and we have certainly spent over ten million [British pounds] in terms of pure hardware — going into digital, websites for Japan, China, the UK — there has been a lot of money spent on this brand in the last 12 months and there will continue to be that flow as we grow."
“We are not trying to alienate anyone and I assure you while I am in charge of this business, Gieves and Hawkes will always have bespoke [tailoring],” added Clacher. “But I am not going to build a global business out of a craft that can make 800 to 1000 suits a year, maximum. It's about turning Gieves & Hawkes No.1 Savile Row, Britain’s most famous tailoring company, into Gieves & Hawkes No.1 Savile Row, Britain's most famous menswear brand.”
"The fact of the matter is that, globally, 70 to 75 percent of our turnover is already ready-to-wear; only 15 percent is suiting (which includes bespoke, made-to-measure and ready-to-wear lines). In Asia, in terms of turnover, we sell more shirts than suits. And, in Mainland China, we sell more blazers than suits."
"The ownership of most of the firms [on Savile Row] has changed dramatically, even since I have been here, which is eight years,” said Patrick Grant, designer and owner, since 2005, of bespoke tailor Norton & Sons and its sister ready-to-wear line E. Tautz. "The simple truth is that there are opportunities to sell ready-to-wear clothes thanks to Savile Row’s history," Grant continued. "Ideally, [with E. Tautz] we want to grow a big business and be selling all over the world.”
“What is happening is that menswear is hot now, considered as a growth area, because of the significance of Asia and that is why people are jumping on it,” said, Anda Rowland, vice chairman of Anderson & Sheppard, tailor to Charles, Prince of Wales. “[Savile Row] is discreet, and the Chinese consumer has been now moving away from obvious brands for social reasons. We don’t think it is terrifying, we simply think it is significant of the value of the brands. What we have done is move sideways, looking at the needs of our current customer, rather than another customer who is seeking to buy a suit for less."
Just over a year ago, Anderson & Sheppard launched a haberdashery on Mayfair's Clifton Street, stocking ready-to-wear items including knitwear, cotton trousers, shirts and dressing gowns. According to Rowland, the store turned over approximately £800,000 (about $1.3 million) in its first year, with little marketing.
As well as generating revenue, “it's also breaking down the boundaries, as a new person buying a ten-pound pocket square can go into our haberdashery and see the bespoke clothes styled in a more relaxed way, more casually. It can dispel this slightly austere, not welcoming, closed Savile Row world," she said. "It's more democratic."
“Men are so much more into style at a much younger age," added Clacher. "And whether it be City boys or new media types, men are more interested in how they are supposed to dress, so I think it is getting a lot easier to attract a younger clientele. And as his life progresses, and his wealth progresses, he will see the value of investing in bespoke and he won't go back.”
What does the old guard think of Savile Row's ready-to-wear expansion? What will be the long-term impact on the traditional home of bespoke tailoring? And what will it take for Savile Row's brands to compete against well-funded luxury menswear competitors? Find out tomorrow in the next instalment of our two-part report.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 29 January, 2014. An earlier version of this article misstated that Thom Sweeney has bespoke tailoring stores in both London and New York. Thom Sweeney operates a store in London, but currently has no permanent base for its New York bespoke tailoring business.