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Obituary: menswear designer Tom Gilbey

British menswear designer Tom Gilbey died of cancer on 24 May, five days after his 79th birthday.

tom gilbey 1981

tom gilbey 1981

Many of the themes Gilbey introduced in the mid-1960s, such as the influence of active sportswear on everyday menswear and the use of technical fabrics, did not gain wide acceptance until much later.

Born and raised in a working class family in New Cross in south-east London, Gilbey was particular in his appearance from an early age and entered the menswear industry aged 15. His active career lasted more than 50 years and stretched from the UK to Europe, the US and Japan.

He prided himself on a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the menswear production process. After studying art and design at Sir John Cass College in east London, he worked with East End tailors before moving to Germany to study textiles manufacturing at mills in Wuppertal, Germany.

Back in England, he worked as the liaison man between British multiple tailors John Temple and Neville Reed and Paris-based Pierre Cardin, the first man to make his name as a menswear designer. The UK chains had hired Cardin as a consultant.

Gilbey also worked with Soho-based showbiz tailor Dougie Millings, who adapted Cardin’s collarless jackets for The Beatles. One of Gilbey’s claims to fame was having designed the capes worn by The Fab Four on the cover of their Help! album in 1965.

With this considerable experience behind him, in 1966 Gilbey approached John Michael Ingram, who had made a reputation for men’s fashion with his John Michael shops, to help set up a fashion design consultancy.

Never one to underestimate his own ability, Gilbey opened his own studio at 36 Sackville Street in 1967, specialising in lightweight, interchangeable casual clothes. He claimed thereafter to have championed the safari suit before Yves Saint Laurent. He proposed jumpsuits for men and other casual clothes influenced by sportswear, and he was arguably the first menswear designer to introduce the now-ubiquitous blouson.

His idea was to have a design consultancy alongside his bespoke business. By 1971, Geoffrey Aquilina Ross, editor of Men in Vogue, described Gilbey as “Britain’s one and only home-grown couturier for men”.

In Aquilina Ross’s 2011 book The Day of the Peacock. Style for Men 1963-1973, Gilbey recalled: “Even at school, I was interested in clothes. I liked to stand out. I always did something different. I was never embarrassed. I never blushed. I wanted to see my name on labels … I opened what I believe was the first men’s couture house in the world, dealing with the avant-garde rather than the traditional Savile Row suit.”

Predictably, he attracted the attention of the stars of the day, such as The Kinks and The Animals. Like Cardin and Savile Row-based Hardy Amies, he was among the first designers to licence his name with manufacturers (and the first to do so in Germany, where he consulted for the Ahlers group).

Unlike other contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s such as Amies, Michael Fish aka Mr Fish, Tommy Nutter and Rupert Lycett Green of Blades, Gilbey’s influence is today unfairly overlooked. Yet with his confident, even arrogant, personality and his deep-rooted design skills, he won lucrative consultancy contracts with names such as Ahlers and Baumler in Germany, huge fibre manufacturers including ICI and Du Pont, and the UK mail-order house Littlewoods.

In the late 1980s Gilbey moved from Sackville Street to New Burlington Street off Savile Row, where he ran The Waistcoat Gallery, specialising in fancy waistcoats. Around 2000, he quietly bowed out of the menswear scene, later admitting that the fun had gone out of it for him.

British menswear designer David Edgell, who worked at Gilbey’s studio from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, recalls: “Our acceptance of what constitutes men’s fashion today has a number of roots in the radical vision of Tom Gilbey. Sportswear, casualwear, leisurewear, formalwear and occasionwear were all influenced to a large degree by Tom during his long career.

“It is ironic that Tom, having created the safari suit, slipped away on 24 May, the same day as the outfit’s greatest advocate, Roger Moore, also left us. Such symmetry!

“Working with Tom was an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. Socialising with Tom was an exhilarating roller-coaster ride too.”

He is survived by his second wife, Sally Riley, a former literary agent.



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