Savile Row tailors open doors into exclusive world

LONDON Wed Jun 20, 2012 3:20pm BST

A man passes a Savile Row sign, in London August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

A man passes a Savile Row sign, in London August 21, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

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LONDON (Reuters) - Michael Skinner and a tiny coterie of colleagues are intimately familiar with the physical details of rock stars, royalty and some of Britain's most famous historical figures.

But don't expect him to start dishing out the gossip, because absolute discretion is a professional hallmark of the tailors on Savile Row in London, whose customers over some two centuries of service stretch from famed military hero Horatio Nelson to Michael Jackson and Britain's Prince William.

The now master cutter at Dege & Skinner collected one of his most favorite anecdotes at the tender age of 18, when he was given the task of dressing then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation.

"It was an amazing thing...being at Westminster Abbey and actually having to dress the great man," Skinner told Reuters on a visit to the Row in honor of London's first ever standalone event for men's fashion over the weekend.

Skinner has spent a lifetime on Savile Row, a street known around the world for the bespoke clothing made by a handful of traditional firms such as Dege & Skinner, Gieves & Hawkes, H. Huntsman & Sons and Henry Poole & Co as well as modern designers like Ozwald Boateng and E. Tautz.

The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Queen Elizabeth as well as Admiral Horatio Nelson and the man who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, have all had clothes, robes, suits and military uniforms from the tailors gathered here.

Skinner who runs one of the last remaining family-owned businesses left on Savile Row with his son William, opened their showrooms and workshops to the public as part of last weekend's first London Collections Men fashion event.

"We're not a sort of hocus pocus bunch of people behind frosted windows. We're actually pretty decent people who do a pretty decent job doing our damnedest to make really nice clothes and that's what gives us the buzz," Skinner said.

"It is exciting to be part of the fashion week and to showcase Savile Row and what we do as a trade in terms of the craft industry, making clothes in the time-honored fashion for the individual," William Skinner said.

Two-piece suits from the country's top craftsmen in men's clothing start from 3,000 pounds ($4,719), but customers who may be daunted by the eye-watering prices for bespoke clothing from a Savile Row tailor have some options.

Dege & Skinner provides many alternative methods of payment to encourage people to buy on Savile Row, added Michael Skinner.

"We've always had a policy of doing everything we can to help each individual and we have means of extending credit, we have ways of paying by bank order, special offers for young officers in the forces to buy civilian clothes which we've now extended to young people for their first suit."

His father William said that one of the selling points of Savile Row is that its tailors offer clothes that are timeless, because they are made just for you.

"When you're spending the money that people do on our clothes, then you don't want it to fall out of fashion in six months time, you want something special. And that's why they come to us," he said.

Gieves & Hawkes Bespoke Cutter Richard Lawson's workshop displays an impressive collection of brown paper patterns, each containing the specific measurements of customers.

The company's archive includes pieces created for Nelson, who settled his tailoring bill just before he was killed at the naval Battle of Trafalgar as well as Waterloo victor Wellington. The firm is famous for its military tailoring services to the British Army and the Royal Navy.

A heavily embroidered black and gold jacket for late singer Michael Jackson on display in the company's showroom cost £20,000 ($31,330) alone to make.

Lawson, who has worked on the Row for nearly five years, said the greatest joy he gets out of his job is when the suit he has made for his customer fits perfectly.

"When you put it on the chap's shoulders and literally, it just slots on like that and the customer straight away starts feeling like he's wearing it, you cannot replace that feeling," he told Reuters.

"It makes up for all the other stresses that go on when things don't go quite as smoothly or things are going wrong. It's a great part of the job."

Getting an apprenticeship on London's most exclusive street for tailoring is competitive as there is a lot of interest in joining the trade, said Lawson.

"A lot of it is do with the luck of being in the right place at the right time when that apprenticeship position comes up and Savile Row has a real buzz about it now," Lawson said.

"It's a beautiful little community, we all work on the same row, we know each other, and as I say, once you're on the inside, it's a real family atmosphere we have."

(Additional Reporting by Cindy Martin, editing by Paul Casciato)

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