Imran Amed learns that craftsmanship is alive and well on Savile Row, but the limited number of skilled tailors is constraining growth even though demand for bespoke suits continues to grow.
LONDON — Patrick Grant plays the part of the new Savile Row establishment with finesse. Regularly featured in the best-dressed lists of British men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire, not only does he look the part, Grant also has the business pedigree to, one day, pull a profit from this venerable business.
Grant completed his Executive MBA at Oxford’s Said Business School, where he was able to explore his life-long fascination with old British brands like Burberry, Aquascutum, Barbour and Lyle & Scott which, he says, actually stood for something. Finally, his research into British luxury led him to Savile Row, where he found his golden opportunity.
In 2005, Grant purchased the shares of Norton & Sons, the bespoke Savile Row tailor, investing alongside a small pool of friends and family. Founded in 1821 by Walter Grant Norton, the business, which has had its ups and downs, has a long heritage of serving discerning customers including prime ministers, rock stars and Hollywood actors, looking for discreet service and impeccable tailoring.
Though smaller than some of its neighbours both in scale and stature, Grant has quietly cultivated a growing following amongst those ‘in-the-know’, including actor and jewellery designer Waris Ahluwalia and designers like Giles Deacon, Christopher Kane and Kim Jones, each of whom have all collaborated with Norton & Sons in recent years for parts of their own collections. A BBC documentary series last year showcased Grant’s approach to tailoring and his respect for its traditions, garnering the praise and admiration of his esteemed neighbours.
The window of Savile Row 16
Savile Row certainly is a mythical place because of its discreet — sometimes secretive — nature. So, to have the opportunity to go behind the doors of this British institution and get a view on how age-old craftsmanship is practiced in modern times was quite the luxury, indeed.
IA: First things first. How’s business?
We’ve just had the best December ever, the best January ever, and the best February ever. This year has been super strong.
We just refitted our workshop, made space for another five tailors and rejigged everything to try and make as nice a workroom as we possibly can. If we want to attract the best tailors to come and work here, we’ve got to. That’s our aim: to have the best tailoring staff of any tailors on the Row, because that’s the only way we can really excel at what we do, to be the best tailors on this street.
IA: There is a general lament coming back from our correspondents this month that Craftsmanship is dying off in many parts of the world. What is the state of craftsmanship on Savile Row today?
I think it’s very healthy, largely because — and I can take no credit for this — the big houses on Savile Row have continued to train a tremendous number of tailors and cutters. There continue to be tailors who have been trained by master tailors, who have been trained by master tailors, going back [to] way before the tailors moved to Savile Row. Tailoring in London is over 700 years old, but Savile Row has been the centre of tailoring for men in London for close to a couple hundred years.
We’re very fortunate that these firms were big, strong and financially sound to the extent that they have survived every significant financial downturn in recent record, including the Great Depression, and continued to prosper.
Now of course, post-WWII, with the rise of Burtons and the multiples, the business has declined in size. But the great thing about Savile Row, and why Savile Row survives and thrives where other pockets of craft have failed, is the strength in numbers and the complete eco-system that exists here.
There are close to 20 firms practising the art of bespoke tailoring in the immediate area. Because we’re all here and because there is a mobility between the houses, it keeps everything fresh. People get a chance to learn, practise and bring their own intuition and ideas to their craft, which continually refreshes it and keeps it alive.
IA: What is the single biggest challenge your business faces?
The inability to employ and train new talent to meet our growing demand is the biggest constraint on growth. We simply cannot afford to train all of the candidates ourselves. We get probably five applications a week from people wanting to train and while we have work for them, we just don’t have the money to train them.
We will train as many tailors as we can afford. We need more tailors because in this house we are, at the moment, finding it hard to keep up with demand. If we had more tailors, we could produce more clothes, the business would grow, and we could hire more apprentices.
IA: How has Savile Row Bespoke helped to stem the decline of skills on the Row?
I think it has a pretty fundamental role in the continued success of the Street. The remit of the organisation is simple — to preserve and promote the art of bespoke tailoring as practised on Savile Row. This means training and working with the Colleges to provide the right intake of pre-skilled pre-apprentices [in order] to feed the pipe with appropriately-committed, skilled young individuals who want to learn. An apprenticeship on Savile Row is a significant commitment for the trainees. The amount of money it costs the houses, not just in wages, but also in the investment of time, is significant as well.
A cutter at work in Norton & Sons workshop
Savile Row Bespoke is also involved with lobbying the government to provide funding for training which, frankly at this point, is a joke. I think between all of the houses here we could quite comfortably employ another 20 or so apprentices on the Street, but we can’t afford to do so.
We’ve had a small victory this year in that the government will provide just over a thousand pounds per student towards the cost of an apprenticeship, which in total costs the house about £60 to 80 thousand. The government funding is a nice start, but it’s not going to be encouraging many of us to employ more tailors.
IA: You bought the Norton & Sons business a few years ago as an investment. Is there a scalable business model that works for high-end craft?
It’s very, very difficult to be a successful bespoke tailor on Savile Row because there’s an awful lot of very good competition here and the customer doesn’t have to go far to find it.
You can’t reinvent Savile Row. We haven’t done anything fancy. All of our tailors are trained in a classical way. What we’re trying to do is to apply in a sensible way all of the fabulous techniques that people have always had for an open-minded, modern audience. That’s why we’ve ended up working with the likes of Christopher Kane and Kim Jones.
IA: One plan for growth you’ve got up your sleeve is the new ready-to-wear collection called E. Tautz, which has historically been owned by Norton & Sons, but only revived by you now. What are your plans and how have you managed to do this in a way that is consistent with the history of the house?
It’s fairly simple. We cut all the patterns here and we manufacture everything in the UK in small manufacturers where we understand exactly what we’re getting into and where they manufacture things in an environment as close as is humanly possible to what we do here on Savile Row.
There are still fantastic small-scale manufacturers in the UK who make excellent product, in the correct sense of the word. Everything they do is as well-done as it can possibly be. We’ve chosen the best manufacturers we can and have worked with them to get the products to the level at which we’re absolutely delighted with them — and we’re pleased with the response from the market for our first season. We will be selling at Beams in Japan, and Matches and Harrods in London, which is a great start. I think people have warmed to the fact that it isn’t huge and homogenised, plucking bits of cheap manufacturing from here and there.
E. Tautz might not have the opportunity for volume that you’d ordinarily want in a brand, but that is fine with me. We will scale the business slowly and with a lot of investment and time.
Imran Amed, Editor-in-Chief