Artisan of the Year 2021: Whitcomb & Shaftesbury

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Best artisan 2021: Whitcomb & Shaftesbury

 

I decided to give my Artisan of the Year award this year to Whitcomb & Shaftesbury because, looking back on recent commissions, they have so consistently delivered on quality and value. 

Those are not attributes we often celebrate. Quality and value are often overshadowed by their more glamorous cousins, finishing and style.

But if bespoke tailoring is going to survive the next decade, it needs to deliver all of these. 

And although I often say style is where most tailors fall down, the influx of cheaper travelling tailors in recent years has sometimes failed to deliver quality and consistency, giving tailoring a bad name in the process.

Bespoke will win repeat customers (the only thing that keeps it viable) if men find they consistently get a great fit, and great quality. If every time they put on a pair of bespoke trousers, they are reminded how good the fit is compared to that RTW pair they bought online. 

And if the prospect of going to a tailor that will produce exactly the same thing, knows their every preference and peccadillo, and will offer them a nice cup of tea while they discuss them, engenders a big sigh of relief. 

Because at that point, if that’s how they feel (and they can afford it), why would they do anything else? 

Whitcomb & Shaftesbury have been that tailor for me with trousers in particular. 

Last year I ordered four different pairs. They were:

- Mid-grey 13oz Fox flannels (CBT5 A1285/22, Classic Flannel bunch, above)

- Brown 550g Brisbane Moss cords (Brown 100, GS2 bunch, below), 

- Classic Cricket-White 13oz Fox flannels (CBT5 A1285/88, Classic Flannel bunch), and 

- ‘Mink’ 13oz Holland & Sherry whipcords (9518502, Dakota bunch). 

They were all perfect. To the point now where we don't bother with a fitting, but go straight to the finished trousers. 

That hasn't removed the need for the occasional tweak, once the trousers were finished. But half the time they've needed nothing at all - and the changes that were needed were minor. 

The fit is a very good one - certainly one I notice every time I put on a pair after wearing RTW the day before (jeans and chinos for example). And it's always the same. 

It sounds so simple, yet that combination of quality and consistency is what keeps me as a customer, and rarely consider another trouser maker. 

Then there's the value. Whitcomb & Shaftesbury offer two types of service: both cut and fitted in London, but one mostly made in India (‘Classic Bespoke’) the other made in London (‘Savile Row Bespoke’). As I showed back in 2016 when I had suits made in both, there is no quality difference between the two.

Prices have gone up in 2021, with a suit in Classic Bespoke going from £1950 (including VAT) to £2280. Trousers are now £640. But you still can't argue with the value. (A Savile Row Bespoke suit costs £4740, with VAT.)

I can completely understand if readers are put off by the idea of their clothes being made in India. But it makes a difference to me both that Whitcomb own their operation in Chennai, and that it takes its workers from a rehabilitation programme the brothers originally took part in in response to the tsunami in 2004. 

This set up is very different, in both respects, from a company just outsourcing production to a Chinese factory. And it has practical implications too: it’s a lot easier for the Whitcomb team to manage that production, to push things through when they’re needed, and to use it to experiment with new techniques. 

"It's been particularly rewarding seeing how people responded to the training, and then rose to the challenge of making Savile Row-level garments," says Mahesh Ramakrishnan. (Brother to Suresh, who customers more commonly see in London.)

After the tsunami, the brothers took part in a scheme that provided vocational courses for people that had lost their livelihoods. They ran the tailoring aspect, while others provided courses in embroidery, leather working, metallurgy and other crafts.

The photos above show some of the women involved. The brothers were later recognised by Forbes magazine, in its Top 40 Heroes of Philanthropy.

The best students from that 2-3 year course are then offered places in the Whitcomb tailoring workshop in Chennai (shown below).

"We've learnt over the years that people regularly move on, so we do need new talent" says Mahesh. "Often it's women that get married and leave to look after a family, but sometimes men also return to their villages and to fishing. The way they describe it, they fish in the morning, pick some fruit in the afternoon, and otherwise relax - so it's hard to blame them!"

Whitcomb are far from perfect. I think it’s fair to say they’re not style leaders in the way some MTM brands are that we cover. You do need to come clear ideas of what you want, outside of very classic tailoring. 

The experimentation with techniques in India also doesn’t always produce styles I like - they tend towards the fancy and decorative. This led to issues with the coat I made with them in 2019 (above), where elements were added that we hadn’t discussed, and in styles that were too showy for me. 

But their restlessness can be fruitful too. They started using curved linings on their waistbands recently, which I found interesting. This is essentially canvas that, if you laid it out, would curve upwards because the top edge is shorter than the bottom - just as tailors regularly do with collar canvas, though obviously less extreme.

And I’m interested to see their recent experiments with soft shoulders and in-set sleeves. I’d predict these won’t produce anything like a Neapolitan jacket, but they might still create a slightly more casual option for customers - similar to my Richard James cashmere one

This award is really more of a thank you, than congratulations. 

Suresh, Mahesh, Sian, John and the whole team certainly deserve the latter, but this is a personal note to say thank you for all the great clothes they have made for me - and a more public one than I would usually make. 

Thank you all. I'm very much looking forward to coming in again soon, and having that cup of tea. 

Photography: Alex Natt, Jamie Ferguson and Milad Abedi

 

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Sam

Clearly a heartfelt piece from you Simon, and a well-deserved win.

It seems like W&S, Steed and Edward Sexton all have well-regarded “semi-bespoke” type ranges. Are you able to give a view on the relative merits of each?

RT

I’m delighted to see W&S get this award. Based on my own experience I’d say that it is well-deserved. I’ve had numerous pieces made by W&S – suits, trousers, a jacket and an overcoat – and have been really pleased with the quality of the pieces and value for money, and also with the quality of service too. I’d go a little further and say that I’ve also been happy with aspects of style, too, particularly with a wonderful overcoat that I think may well be my favourite item of clothing ever and has been much admired by friends and colleagues. I’m also looking forward to seeing their take on softer tailoring – a more casual tweed jacket is top of my list for the next commission.

I’ve had the opportunity to compare W&S’ offshore tailoring with that from other UK tailors and I have to say that in my experience there’s no comparison. Cut and fit were excellent from the start, whereas my experience elsewhere was really quite poor in that respect and subsequent adjustments made were not satisfactory.

Anyway, great to see this recognition for W&S.

Peter Hall

When you look at the quality and value of the suits, I absolutely think it is the price point to encourage people to consider bespoke. I really am interested in the softer options.

What is the advantage of the curved lining ,Simon?

Anonymous

Thanks Simon
I am actually enquiring into a new Black Tie with W&S, interested in how much they charge having put up their prices. If they are out of reach who would you recommend for a MTM alternative? Anglo? I can’t think of anyone else!

Anonymous

Thanks Simon. Would you say that is more advisable than Anglo? Anyone else in London?

Anonymous

Damning for London’s MTM scene!

H

I don’t think London really has an MTM scene because there is such a rich history of the UK having its own tailoring – both on and off Savile Row – but no suiting factories that I’m aware of.

There are still plenty of City tailors who could make a good bespoke dinner suit (eg Graham Browne, where I get my business suits) and would be priced comparably to any hypothetical MTM options – while being more attractive for most people who still commission tailoring off the high street.

George

Interesting Simon. Would you say Anglo or P Johnson or better quality?

George

Argh Simon why do you make life so difficult by being a good reporter who refuses to give consumers easy one line answers but instead presents a nuanced discussion that accurately weighs up all of the relevant points of a company

Sometimes I don’t want to think so much and have a yes or no 🙂

As ever, astounded you take the time to give proper advice to the either niche or repetitive questions and concerns your readers have

Bob Df

I think you misunderstand why readers and buyers may be put off by items being made in certain countries. It’s not the fact that it’s overseas. It’s the fact that some of those countries are dictatorships.

For all its faults, India is a democracy. China is a dictatorship. The outsourcing factory setup is incidental.

Kike

Thanks for pointing out the facts, Bob. But despite all resemblance to a political dictatorship, China does have highly developed free enterprise. It would be gravely mistaken to think that “made in China” means the factory workers/artisans are working against their will and being exploited more than in other countries.

Noel

Thanks for raising this point Bob, I completely agree. I certainly feel uncomfortable in explicitly supporting a dictatorship.

I understand that the people that work in a given factory might well be victims of that system but supporting the country economically tends to strengthen the regime. The embargo on apartheid South Africa was predicated on this logic for example, even if it may have hurt some of the workers in the short term.

The reason why I haven’t brought up these sort of arguments much Simon is that I’m not sure permanent style is the right place for them. I wouldn’t want to annoy you or the other readers.

Benjamin Abraham

For me, the key difference with Whitcomb and Shaftesbury is that they have invested in talent and by all reports, they pay good wages based on their region to their tailoring staff in Chennai. This is wholly different paradigm than a designer label sourcing cheap labor in an Asian country at cut-rate prices by companies based in Britain or America, which is then sold at a huge markup. This model essentially what the corporate fashion industry runs on. With this in mind it is fair to be skeptical of Asian production, but I’m very grateful that their work passes muster with Simon as well as other first hand recommendations. But if having a suit made in the UK, that’s a service that is available as well for a reasonable price.

John

Hi Bob, to claim that China is a dictatorship is insulting to Chinese people and to people such as myself with close ties to China. Indeed, anyone with knowledge of China will be aware that people in China willingly work very hard for their money, and it is condescending to promote the idea that they are forced into labour. Indeed, i am very confident that outfits such as The Anthology and Prologue who own workshops in China pay their workers more than W&S pays their workers in India.

Your point about not supporting companies who treat workers poorly and take advantage of them is very well founded and i agree with the sentiments of your comment. However, the claim of ‘dictatorship’ is a sweeping and unsupported comment, in my opinion.

Thanks.

Paul Boileau

A dictatorship is a form of government in which one person or group of leaders possess absolute power without effective constitutional limitations. China is classified as a single party dictatorship. It is what it is.

Carl

There is of course a lot of hard working and decent people in China. But a country with only one allowed political party and no free press is by any scientific definition a dictatorship. That is not an opinion but a fact.

DP Williams

John,

I believe even you have close ties to China, you are completely unaware of the tailoring workshop scene in Mainland China. I had the opportunity to visit several workshops and factories in cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Suzhou, that provide services for shops like The Anthology, Prologue and even some of the tailors on Savile Row. The workers get paid ridiculous wages and they struggle to make a living. The average service charge for a 3pc Suit in a Chinese workshop (what they call full Bespoke) is 5,500 RMB (around 650 GBP), in this price workshop usually include trimmings, the usual preparation of 3 fittings and the fully finished garments. The average salary of a worker on this workshop is no more than 3,000 RMB per month, that is far below the usual wages paid in Mainland China Tier 1 and 2 cities.

Another valid point is that most of these workers have no previous training in tailoring, specially when compared with the usual 4 to 7 years of apprenticeship done in places such as the U.K. and Italy and this has a direct impact on the quality of the garments.

Aggro

The issue of dictatrship vs democracy is never so balck & white simplistic like so many think

Democracy?

Democracy in India is (mostly) lip service

What good is democracy when 90% of Indians don’t even have toilets…
Yet the Indian govt has seemingly enough money & prioritises spending billions on a space program to send a man to the moon rather than basic sanitation for 90% of the population.

Yah – but it’s all good since Indians have “democracy”. LOL

The average person “muh China dictatroship” is brainwashed by the Mainstream media.
They have never ever set foot in China – yet freely spout off memes relating to China.

How is spending money (ultimately paying China workers wages) supporting a dictatrship?
Bizarre logic. The money doesn’t go to the “dictatorship”

As for a “dictatorship”, China has raised GDP/capita from $500 to $10870 within the space of 20 yrs.
Mind boggling.

This means 100’s millions of citizens in China have been lifted to the middle class.
That’s a good thing.
China has developed a middle class with enough spending power to support its own domestic markets.
90% of the population also have basic sanitation, free healthcare, free schools etc

What has India done in this time?
It’s GDP/capita $50 was the same as China in 2000. Today 20 years later, its GDP/capita is $2313.
Not impressive.
They still treat the poor like chit.
Still no basic sanitation for 90% population.
Ask the 250 million Indian farmers who have lost their livelihoods, virtually starved to death, because of the lockdown.
There’s also massive corruption in govt services, small bribes to get anything done, it’s expected.

Try telling someone (in India) how great “democracy” is when they don’t have enough to eat, are hungry when they go to bed, worry about basic healthcare because they are the wrong caste.

Yah – but they have muh democracy

Mac

I understand the logic behind not wanting to support certain Chinese mega corps with ties to the CCP. But I do wonder what people expect Chinese menswear proprietors/shoemakers to do? They can’t exactly post a disclaimer on their website denouncing the CCP. I have no idea what brands like Brio/Acme think about their govt given anything apart from praise would likely destroy their business/potentially endanger their lives.

So while I do my best to avoid products from large corporations with direct links to the govt, boycotting individual artisans/proprietors doesn’t make much sense to me.

Richard W

Hi Simon
A well deserved recognition for W&S.
Wholeheartedly agree with your comments of value and quality. To try and add something new to the conversation, I have always appreciated the efforts Suresh and the team take to both understand their customers needs and make them feel welcomed and comfortable. This makes a fitting so much more enjoyable and, at least for me, allows for a better fit as my stance is more natural. The cup of tea when you enter is also most welcome after the climb up all those stairs!

Stephen

A heartwarming story and changes in this case my view of ‘offshoring’. Thank you for bringing to our attention. I may give the soft and set in shoulder a try at some point.

Chris

Huge fan of W&S .
There is not a better balance of quality and price that I’m aware of.

Sian especially is brilliant. Even on a simple pair of trousers they gave me 3 fittings to ensure I was happy. The result was exceptional in every aspect: I could not recommend them more. Well deserved win.

Ian A

I’m surprised you went for those ‘Mink’ Holland & Sherry Whipcord trousers Simon! Usually you favour a paler neutral colour for trousers with navy for a Jacket! Certainly that combination is easier to do well! 🙂

CDBP

I am absolutely delighted by this award. It has been my great pleasure to commission three suits, some miscellaneous “bits” ( Nehru jacket, waistcoat ), a suit for my wife and some brilliant alterations bringing old suits to life from W & S. I love their Indian production model. Everything has been excellent and Suresh and his team are a constant pleasure to deal with.
Many congratulations to all the team at W & S ! Much deserved !

Oliver

Love all my commissions from W&S (Especially the wedding suit recommended by Simon and featured on PS), great to see them win this award. Well done to the entire team!

John

Hi Simon,
While reading this post I’ve just realized how important this kind of recognition really is to PS readers. Insofar as it an effective reminder of what should be relevant to PS readers in their own journey with tailors. The key words being value, quality and consistency.
An opportunity to ask you a question I’ve had in my mind these past days: when a tailor considers the cut of an armhole, does he necessarily factor in the eventuality that the wearer could from time to time don a knitwear underneath the jacket?
John

John

Thank you, Simon.

Ian Leslie

Great post. I’ve used W&S a couple of times and not only are they a joy to visit and collaborate with but they’re incredibly good value, as you say. A tangential question – which London tailors are best for unstructured, Neapolitan-style tailoring?

Phil

Francis Paley spent a decent amount of time in Naples training. Would be v interesting in any review of his soft stuff (please Simon!)

Robert

Hey Simon-
Congratulations to W&S. Clearly they put out a great product. Maybe the most influential Bespoke site in the world nominates a tailor house that offshores their finishing and only 40 of your readers bother to respond. And all with great praise. One outright trashed local tailoring. As an American raised on the mystique of fine British tailoring I am struck that maybe it isn’t that fine. And maybe the fine tailoring isn’t even British. And your readers are either indifferent or have accepted it. I find that very interesting.

As always, fantastic site. I have been a bespoke customer for 30 years. Probably longer than some of your readers have been alive. I find new stuff in your archives all the time which influence my commissions. Where were you 30 years ago when I started my journey? All of my jackets would have Milanese buttonholes. Thank you so much.

CMW

I’m also a regular client of W&S and a big fan of the whole team there, especially Sian. She has done great work on my past commissions. I am looking forward to going back to London in the near future as I have trousers and suits with them that I haven’t been able to try on and do fittings for. Congrats to W&S and thanks as well to you Simon. If it wasn’t for the Permanent Style blog, I would never have known about them.

Elvin Talbot

I’m so glad that W+S are receiving such positive recognition. I have been going them for tailoring for nearly four years now and it is always a delightful experience.
Elvin

MJ

Hi Simon, I have just been for my first bespoke experience with Suresh and the team. I have to say it was a fantastic experience, as a complete novice the amount of detail explained to me was like an education, i also love the fact that they are supporting development across the world. In fact it is the reason I went to them. I really enjoyed the less stuffy and unpretentious feeling of the place, the whole team guided me through the whole process in a fantastic fashion! So much so I am really looking forward to my first five items and surely many more to follow. Also thank you for your work on this site, it is exception for a country pumpkin like me, with about a must style a muddy brick, please keep up the great work.

MLS

Hi Simon,
Are you compensated by the companies of the clothes, products that you review?

Maz

Hi Simone
Lately I was advised to go to a top notch bespoke shirt maker in London as the name suggested it couldn’t be any bigger in my eyes .. given the price point & level of the customer they have unfortunately I didn’t get the feeling that my 4 bespoke shirt is really a bespoke as I wasn’t asked for any input other than choosing the fabric & obviously size…
I’ve got the feeling the big houses wouldn’t treat the normal people like myself as a regular future customer ( at least I thought ) so .. my question is where to go for my first signature bespoke blazer / sports jacket where I get the value for money also being looked after for the quality I get ?? Mind you I was advised by a sales person for one bespoke jacket price start from £8500 obviously with that il need to make sure I get to make an statements visually.
Regards

Maz

Hi Simone
Thank you very much for the reply .
Huntsman asks for £8200 for bespoke jacket I even asked them are you sure the price is correct ? Sales person confirmed it via email that is .
Michael Browne £8000 for over coat …
I’d rather go for the craft not the name
T&A shirts I’m yet to receive the shirts to see if the name backs the craft or just wasted £1600 for 4 shirts ..

R Abbott

Do you have any idea when Whitcombe and some of the other tailors in that price range (eg, Anthology) will start traveling again? Have you heard any rumors?

Here in the US, thanks to the successful vaccine rollout, things have largely opened up in most states.