Those in the UK are being treated to a three-part TV series on Savile Row at the moment. The launch pad for the programme, evidently filmed last year, is the opening of Abercrombie & Fitch’s London flagship store at 40 Savile Row – the rather imposing old building at the end of the row that used to be the London tailors’ bank.
Cue shots of dapper men standing on their porches, sniffing as the hoardings for Abercrombie are put up – black-and-white shots of chiselled male torsos. The sniffing reaches a crescendo when the store actually opens, and teenagers cue round the block to get in. The Abercrombie philosophy of pumping music, dark lighting and piled-high goods couldn’t be much further removed from the Savile Row aesthetic.
But the truly interesting observations are at the margin of this drama. For example, most of the men sniffing on their porches are younger tailors, dressed a little flashier than their older colleagues, hair greased down, face and tone competitive if not aggressive.
The more senior tailors are a little more relaxed. They realise that Abercrombie is only there as a gimmick. It wanted the address, nothing more. It is not competition and it is more than likely that it will not be there in 50 years, or it will have moved to Oxford Street. A meeting of the senior tailors of the row is described by our narrator as a “council of war”, in response to the Abercrombie opening. Yet no one at that meeting looks particularly upset, and nothing seems to come of it. The subject is quietly dropped during the programme, in order to concentrate on a trip to the Isle of Harris for some genuine tweed.
It is equally interesting that the tailors have, to a certain extent, a right to be there. While rents might be expensive, the landlord has it built into the letting contract that only the work of tailors or clothiers can go on there. This doesn’t prevent the landlords turning the top floors into apartments, or stop Abercrombie (as it strictly speaking could be described as a clothier) but it does partly explain why Savile Row has maintained its consistency and security of address over time.
Another fascinating observation, made in passing, is that few of the tailors are rich. While all of the bespoke suits they offer are expensive, starting at around £2500, they are genuinely made by these experienced old men, by hand, on that site in central London. Given the number of hours it must take to make and fit each one, it is not surprising that the profit margins are not huge. Those trips up to Harris to personally order a few bolts of tweed can’t be cheap either. Remember that next time you are comparing Savile Row tailoring to the big fashion houses (and their profit margins – see posting on January 25).
The Savile Row series screened the second of its three parts on Monday this week. However, all the episodes can be seen in retrospect and by those abroad on the BBC’s iPlayer.