As made-to-measure and tech innovations help fortify the tailoring industry, Luxury London finds out what it takes to make a suit fit for the 21st century
The trend for personalisation – from customisable NikeiD trainers to Burberry’s monogrammed, well, everything – doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but are tailor-made clothes an exception to the rule?
English Cut doesn’t think so. The tailoring house, founded in 2001 by former Anderson & Sheppard head cutter Thomas Mahon, has recently opened its first stand-alone store in London on Marylebone’s Chiltern Street.
The spiritual home of tailoring might be Savile Row, but Mahon isn’t of the opinion that the historic Mayfair address is necessarily the be all and end all of suiting. He first launched English Cut in Cumbria, where the bespoke arm of the business is still based. “The mechanics of our line of work mean that if you walk in and order a suit today we might not be in touch again for a month, so I realised I didn’t have to be in town all the time,” he says. “I used to operate from a lovely old stately home on the river called Warwick Hall, which weirdly enough made our atelier a bit more exclusive.”
Today Mahon splits his time between a rural workshop in the Cumbrian market town of Brampton and the new bricks and mortar shop in Marylebone. “I don’t dispute Savile Row’s place in history,” he explains. “That said, if you walk down the road there are shops where you’d be lucky if an individual could sew a button on for you. It has been used as a destination to give some businesses a bit of kudos, when they’re just retailers.”
Rather than being a slave to tradition, Mahon believes standing on his own reputation is more important, although it helps that Chiltern Street is a hotspot for elegant boutiques. “It’s certainly a destination street. Some people might not know how central it is or that they can walk here easily from Bond Street, so I suppose we’re educating them and are part of the revolution. Marylebone is where it’s at – Mayfair’s so yesterday,” he laughs.
Mahon chose to open a permanent shop to enable him to expand his business beyond the bespoke offering. His vision for the future hinges on English Cut’s made-to-measure service. As well as being quicker to produce, it is “a lot more cost-effective” and only takes around six weeks as opposed to the average three months a client will wait for a bespoke garment.
“Bespoke is an old 17th or 18th-century term,” he continues. “Tailors used to have full bolts of cloth in the store, and people would claim that cloth had ‘been spoken’ for, but the term has been abused. Everything seems to be ‘bespoke’ now. We wanted to be more honest. Made-to-measure is not bespoke, but I’ve been in the trade for 33 years and our heritage means we can bring the standard of made-to-measure up, not just in the talk, but in the walk.”
English Cut’s MTM Code is more than four years in development, and its three price tiers range from £595 to £2,250 (as opposed to an average £4,000 for bespoke), with variations in style, cloth and finishing.
The idea is set to bring accessibility to the service at a time when sales across the board look weak. “Menswear in general is outperforming womenswear in terms of sales lifts. However tailoring is working against that trend and in general, sales have really suffered in recent years,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, head of fashion at innovation research and trends service Stylus.
Despite the increasing prominence of made-to-measure services like those offered at English Cut and Taliare – another Marylebone-based clothier – if tailoring is bucking the trend when it comes to menswear as a whole, it’s more than a question of finances.
“The ongoing casualisation of the workplace and in broader social culture has impacted menswear sales with a shift away from more formal attire,” Gordon-Smith adds. “The whole idea of the more flexible approach to the workspace and an increase in freelancers and home workers has also contributed to the decline.”
Trying to adapt too quickly could alienate older, loyal customers however, so balancing modern appeal with tradition is key. “Tailoring’s importance to British heritage is immense. One of the key singularities of great individuals in British history has often been their dress,” says Mahon. “The shears I use now were handed down through my old company. They’ve cut suits for some of the best dressed men in the world, including Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, so we always say ‘I hold Excalibur’ when using them,” he laughs.
As for reinvention to suit a younger millennial audience, the scope for change may be limited, as Luca Solca, chief luxury goods analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, said in an interview with The New York Times: “The complication in menswear is that the formal suit is a relatively mature category”. Yet some innovative attempts at re-engaging Generation Y are being made.
P. Johnson Tailors, founded by Australian Patrick Johnson, has trialled high-powered magnet closures on some of it suits, while Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group has experimented with embedding electronics into textiles to facilitate various gesture and touch interactions and connect the user to their mobile and apps. So far, Google has only partnered with Levi’s to create a jacket aimed at commuters, but its potential is tantalising.
Male or female, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of those with an interest in keeping the craft alive. Kathryn Sargent established her eponymous tailoring house in 2016, after becoming the first woman to hold the position of head cutter on Savile Row at Gieves & Hawkes, while Fitzrovia’s The Disguisery also has two female cutters – Becky Philp for menswear and Edita Grazeviciene for womenswear. Back in Marylebone, Mahon says he is inundated with enquiries and apprenticeship applications. Who knows, perhaps Chiltern Street really will be the new Savile Row.