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Tailoring a bespoke future

Savile Row is overwhelmed with young people – many female – who want to learn the craft and art of bespoke tailoring.

Dege and Skinner apprentice

Emma Martin, Dege and Skinner apprentice

The past 15 years have seen Savile Row re-invent itself as the destination for ultimate luxury shopping – having unique clothes cut and tailored entirely by hand. As the 20th century drew to a close, it seemed many businesses clustered around the Mayfair street were in slow, terminal decline, with ageing tailors serving an ageing clientele.

But now, a combined approach by the major tailoring houses to modernise training, attracting a new skilled generation and more women, has transformed The Row, while maintaining its exceptionally high standards.

Step forward Savile Row Bespoke Association. Formed in 2004 and now representing 16 tailors, it sought to safeguard the street as a unique sartorial destination and codify training, setting agreed standards while protecting individual house styles. This led SRB to create a Level 3 apprenticeship in 2007 linked into Newham College in east London, which provides a feeder pre-apprenticeship course. This three-year level 3 apprenticeship affords tailors access to government funding for trainees and is then topped up by a one-year Savile Row Diploma, which together provide the experience needed to make a full garment. The association is now working on delivering level 5 apprenticeships, replacing the Diploma with an accredited qualification.

A decade ago, the average age of The Row’s tailors was 60 and rising, today this has dropped to 40 and continues to fall. Since 2007, 55 Diplomas have been awarded, mainly in coat making but also in trouser making and cutting, with around 15 ongoing. The retention of trainees is estimated at around 85%-90% despite salaries only starting at approximately £12,500, rising as they take on extra work or their own clients.

And long gone are the days when women on Savile Row were restricted to finishing roles – creating button holes, jacket pockets and edge stitching. Today, they are increasingly acquiring tailoring roles (making the garments) and some are also becoming front-of-house cutters (managing client relationships, measuring up and designing the garments).

Henry Poole and Co apprentice

Henry Poole and Co apprentice

The split between apprentices to date is approximately 55% female and 45% male. The wider male-to-female ratio across The Row is now thought to be around 55:45.

Walking through the Henry Poole & Co workshop at 15 Savile Row, a family-run business established in 1806 and today led by Angus Cundey and son Simon, where outfits have been made for Sir Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Queen Elizabeth II, these statistics ring true. It’s a hive of industry with young tailors sitting atop their work benches, needle in hand, stitching suit jackets, waistcoats, trousers and overcoats.

Philip Parker, vice chairman of Henry Poole & Co and SRB member – who started as an apprentice in 1964 at Sullivan & Woolley on Conduit Street, which was bought by Henry Poole in 1980 – believes the renewed apprenticeship focus has “put the training ethic back as companies realise they need to train and do it to this level”.

Su Thomas, who had her own menswear label Sioux in the 1980s and has worked with SRB on its training programme, agrees and adds, while younger recruits appreciate and want to acquire the high Savile Row standards, they are also adding their own fresh spin on it.

But Parker admits, while progress is being made in workshops, upstairs cutting is “still a bit of a bastion, it’s the next challenge” and it will “take a bit longer to break down”.

“There were few women in tailoring a few years ago and that barrier has been broken down. Now, we have got a cutting barrier, we are breaking that barrier down but it’s not easy.”

The problem is said to arise from the engrained male-dominated nature of these roles with a few traditional firms still hesitant about women entering customer-facing role, however this is increasingly changing. Cutting also offers less flexibility than tailoring, where many are self-employed and manage their own hours. Cutters are required to work standard shop hours.

Kathryn Sargent became the first female head cutter on The Row in 2009 at Gieves & Hawkes, after joining as an apprentice in 1996. Three years ago, she founded her eponymous firm which operates from a small atelier on Brook Street.

When she joined Savile Row, there were very few women in client-facing roles as it was “seen as a man’s job”.

“It wasn’t seen as an alluring profession to go into as it is now. More young people are coming into the trade as tailoring itself is becoming more fashionable and younger guys are dressing up more and trying to be a bit more individual. Many people also want to make something with their hands and learn skills. It’s less stuffy and not as masculine anymore.

“I challenged the traditional role of a cutter as I was in a smart tailored suit, but a female version. At first, it was quite unusual but now less so. Younger people ordering suits on Savile Row now expect to see men and women.

“I have never been treated particularly differently, but you do stand out.”

Jennie McWalter at Golden Shears 2013

Jennie McWalter runner up at Golden Shears 2013

Currently working on a Dior-style women’s fit-and-flare jacket and a women’s officers’ mess uniform-inspired jacket, she adds another factor putting some women off was many of the traditional tailors do not really cater for women’s fashion, but businesses like hers are changing this.

Having completed her apprenticeship, Jennie McWalter is now a fully trained coatmaker at Anderson & Sheppard and, in 2013, was runner-up in the biennial Golden Shears competition (celebrating the best young bespoke tailors). She now makes around eight jackets a week and has an apprentice working alongside her. While working on a green velvet smoking jacket, she says of her training: “It was very hands on and hard work. It doesn’t take dedication, it’s complete devotion but it more than pays off. I worked my socks off as I felt I had a point to prove because, five years ago, there weren’t that many women on Savile Row.

“It’s absolutely fantastic that there are now so many women coming through, considering how it was 50 years ago. Tailoring is being revived with all the interest there is in handcrafted garments now. London: Collections Men has also had an impact as Savile Row has a presence there and that interests young people.”

Tristan Thorne, a cutter who trained as an apprentice at family-owned Dege & Skinner between 2008 and 2013, adds: “Younger generations are more brand aware and advanced with technology and social media, so firms are being forced to have to change slightly, and it’s removed some of the ‘Downton Abbey effect’.”

But Parker warns The Row’s restricted size, preponderance of smaller businesses and some of the older generation not yet wanting to retire, means it’s difficult to bring many new people in and more people apply than can be found a place.

Those that do make it, however, are helping to change the image and culture across the street.

William Skinner, managing director of Dege & Skinner, founded in 1865, says the influx of younger talent has “bred a younger look to the profession. It is attracting younger shoppers onto The Row as the perception of being stuffy and for older people has been lessened”.

Over the last decade, seven women and five men have completed apprenticeships with the firm with another four ongoing. But he urges government to simplify the funding system and paperwork required to make it less onerous for businesses.

“Everyone feels a lot more enthusiastic about the future with young people coming in,” says Anda Rowland, owner of Anderson & Sheppard located a stone’s throw away on Old Burlington Street. “They bring in new ideas and energy, they raise questions and bring up things that could be done better. Customers really love it and like to see that we are investing in new people.”

Richard Anderson apprentice Rebecca Delivn

Richard Anderson apprentice Rebecca Delivn

Founded in 1906, Anderson & Sheppard is one of the area’s biggest trainers with eight current apprentices, half of whom are female. It also runs the Notebook apprentice-led blog following the daily activities of its trainees, which Rowland reveals is the second most-visited page on the site after the landing page. This, she believes, provides potential future recruits with crucial information about the career and what to expect, which many previously struggled to get unless they knew someone in the industry. She adds that under the new training programme and competitions like The Golden Shears The Row has become more of “a community” that can share ideas on the future.

To take advantage of increased interest in The Row she adds the government could provide greater financial assistance to help smaller firms taking on trainees.

Richard Anderson, who started his eponymous tailor at 13 Savile Row 15 years ago, joined Huntsman as an apprentice in 1982. He currently has two apprentices and plans to take another next year.

He sums up the renewed training focus and its impact neatly when he says: “It’s a very exciting time now Savile Row is in better shape than we were 25 years ago, because of the new generation and interest in our businesses.”

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