The joker of the pack
Legendary cutter John Kent, now joined by Terry Haste and Stephen Lachter in a new establishment, is not one to miss a chance for a joke. Just don’t forget your trousers
No one could accuse John Kent or Stephen Lachter of taking themselves too seriously. Within a few minutes of entering their new premises on New Burlington Street, you can guarantee to have fun poked at you, them, their customers, their tailors or – most importantly – their suits. Never trust a cutter who says he’s the only one in London that can make a good suit. He’s lying.
“You didn’t want it to fit, did you?” asks John, on receiving my order for a two-piece grey herringbone suit. “You’ll be lucky if it’s got two arms,” chips in Stephen.
One of John’s favourite gags is to bring out a suit for a fitting that is clearly three sizes too big. He puts it on the customer carefully, stands back and then sucks in his breath. “Well, it’s not bad really is it?” he’ll say, head tilted to one side.
John tried this on a French customer once who stood there quietly for several minutes, just pinching the cloth occasionally with his fingers. John walked around him, pretending to assess the fit, as the customer made little noises of confusion and puzzlement. “Eventually I had to admit my mistake and end it,” says John. “It was just cruel.”
Another stock gag is to ask the customer to get dressed again after a fitting, but not give him back his trousers. They look mystified when the customer insists he came into the shop wearing trousers.
Of course, you have to pick the right customer. Some men are unlikely to enjoy the joke and, more importantly, are unlikely to join in the spirit of it. To those, the newly established house of Kent, Haste and Lachter is merely one’s obedient servant. (Terry Haste, ex-Huntsman cutter, is the third arm of the trio.)
But, where possible, it is a pleasure to establish a rapport with one’s tailor. And John’s tongue-in-cheek approach seems a reaction against the pomposity and self-promotion that weaves through much of the tailoring trade. There’s nothing worse than a tailor who won’t admit he’s made a mistake, in order to save face.
Make no mistake about it, though, John Kent is a very good cutter. He began at Hawes & Curtis back in 1963, when they made tailoring as well as shirts – originally in different premises in fact. He has cut for Bing Crosby and Lord Mountbatten, as well as holding the royal warrant for the Duke of Edinburgh.
Stephen Lachter, shirtmaker, shares John’s sense of humour, and that has to be one of the reasons they have been together so long. Both were at Hawes in the seventies; Stephen was briefly a director at Tie Rack, but joined John in Stafford Street (where Kashket’s is today) in the late eighties. They shared premises at Norton & Sons, until John was taken ill a few years ago.
In 2010 they joined Terry Haste, again an old colleague from Hawes, to set up on New Burlington Street – previously Denman & Goddard. Terry had taken over as head cutter at Hawes when John left, then joined Tommy Nutter before going to Hackett to launch its bespoke offering, and more recently cutting at Huntsman.
They all have their favourite stories, but my favourites include Bing Crosby, who signed every one of John Kent’s golf club covers (they were leather back then) with warm wishes that got shorter and shorter as he made his way through the set. When Bing stepped outside the Hawes shop he was greeted with shouts of recognition from the builders on the scaffolding opposite. They scrambled down and surrounded him, pulling out sandwich bags and scraps of paper to sign.
“I was terrified for him. He was only 5’7’’ at the best of times and there he was, in his seventies by now, surrounded by these six-foot navvies,” remember Kent. “I had to get in there. But when I did, he was loving it. He was chatting happily away, and afterwards he walked away down the street, whistling to himself – just like he would do as I was fitting him.”
Frank Sinatra, as well, whom Stephen Lachter was sent round to measure up with strict instructions not to mention the name of a certain shirt maker. (Apparently the Jermyn Street institution had ambushed Mr Sinatra with a pack of photographers when he came for a fitting. Old Blue Eyes was not amused.)
There’s Lucian Freud, who paid for services in paintings. Only a lucky few hung on to the works – not, unfortunately, Messrs Kent or Lachter. And of course the Duke of Edinburgh. On meeting John at a royal occasion the Duke apparently proclaimed with a mock frown: “What the hell are you doing here?” At the recent Master Tailors Benevolent Association annual dinner, John proudly showed me a pair of tartan trousers he had had made out of a section of house cloth the Duke had given him. The whole length had been carefully sewn by hand along its edges, to prevent any chance of fraying.
Both John and Stephen enjoy clothes, and retain a fascination for what others are doing and producing. Two overcoats, cut for me by City tailors Graham Browne, received particular attention while I was coming in to have this grey suit made. One, a polo coat, has a pleat running from the middle of the back that was fastened with an adjustable half belt. The other, a large-scale herringbone from Bateman & Ogden, features reverse pleats in each of the side seams. The interest in these innovative designs was genuine and unaffected.
Stephen has quiet taste that was described to me by Norton & Sons owner Patrick Grant as “subtly sophisticated dressing”. John, meanwhile, has a passion for the beautiful bespoke shoes made for him by Eric Cook. They make what he describes as “my big fat feet” look very elegant.
The problem is, John loves the pitched heel so much that all ready-to-wear shoes have been ruined. “They look like blocks of wood compared to the sculpted look of a bespoke heel,” he says. “It looks so natural, the way the heel continues the line of the heel cup above.”
You can see this passion for the aesthetic in the way John fits a suit. At every stage he is anxious to combine the cutter’s natural skill for fit with personal flair in the execution of the design. This grey suit, for instance, was originally to have a two-button front. But the waist button ended up being dropped so low that the lower button looked unnecessary. We reverted to one, making a feature of the large, mussel-shell button.
The trousers, too, were cut as narrow as possible while remaining comfortable and classic of style, while the edges were highlighted with a lap seam – an old-school dress look that leaves a lap of cloth running all the way down the side seam. John points out with pride, too, how the side straps finish with a point perfectly sat on the waistband’s seam. And don’t even get him started on the handwork a good pair of trousers should have.
John, in the end, is a traditionalist. And he’s happy to mix his Eric Cook shoes with Marks & Spencer’s trousers and a ‘two-tone’ tie that has faded a little from being in the window, because he’s confident the customers he knows, serves and likes understand how much traditional practice is valued, without any need for solemn salesmanship or preening pretense. And, surprise surprise, the suits do fit.