Savile Row

Photographs and Text by Maximiliano Braun

This feature was shot in 2010. A full edit of 156 images available on request. The following text was written by photographer Maximiliano Braun, and is available with the images.

Known worldwide as 'The Golden Mile of Tailoring', Savile Row has preserved its status as the world’s finest street for tailoring. The specialty across all the traditional shops in 'The Row' is that of bespoke suits. So fine are these garments they make, that a 'true' bespoke suit must have been worked on for at least 50 man hours before delivery, according to the Savile Row Bespoke Association. After more than a century and a half of existence, and with a persistence for excellence, Savile Row has thus far challenged ever-changing fashion trends, economic downturns, and perceptions of how a gentrified man (or any man for that matter) should dress.

Founded in 1806 by James Poole, Henry Poole & Co are regarded as the 'godfathers' of Savile Row. In 1846, Henry Poole extended his father's linen emporium at 4 Burlington Street to have another entrance on Savile Row. Still a family owned business run by Angus Cundey and his son, Simon, Henry Poole has a history of clients tracing back to Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, King George V and Winston Churchil amongst others. Their royal warrants adorn the shop front, where clients are received, in a manner that covers almost all walls. Their influence goes around the globe reaching as far as The Imperial Household of Japan.

Following the footsteps of Henry Poole & Co, Huntsman, Norton & Sons, Dege & Skinner, Gieves & Hawkes and others started their own tailoring empires. Ranging from dinner suits to military garments and livery, Savile Row has always covered the needs of many gentrified, royal and military men. For the military however, the needs extend beyond the making of an exquisite garment. Hand & Lock, embroiders now based on Margaret Street, are usually assigned for all embroidery work related to royal and ceremonial uniforms. These finest dedicated embroiders, founded in 1767, are at the forefront of custom embroidery, making items for royal and military courts worldwide, ecclesiastical and religious personnel, and also working on other commissions including the cover jacket for musicians ‘RPA & The United Nations of Sound’.

At the core of all of this unchallenged and glorious history lie the gears that made it all possible: the tailors. Without their indelible effort and attention to detail, a suit made in Savile Row would not be all that it is; the finest made. This project takes a look at the tailors themselves, behind the scenes at Huntsman (founded in 1849), Henry Poole & Co, Norton & Sons (founded in 1821) and Hand & Lock.

A tougher economic climate has brought some changes to The Row. This can be most obviously seen in the moving of tailor workshops from the floors above the shop fronts to the basements of these buildings. Increasing rent in Mayfair has proven a challenge to all the shops there. During my visits I noticed that freelance tailoring was rather common. The workforce at Norton & Sons are all freelance tailors and cutters. At Huntsman the picture is a bit different; some are freelance, and others are on the payroll. Henry Poole & Co however employ the great majority of their workforce, with only a few freelancing in their facilities.

During my years studying and working in fashion I befriended tailors that were trained on Savile Row, and now work there. Shane Airolld and Lee Marsh are freelance tailors at Huntsman. Knowing a tailor and seeing a tailor at work were two entirely different experiences for me. It is easy to spot a freelance tailor in Savile Row. If you walk around there between 06:30-07:00 in the morning, you will see them arriving, including Lee and Shane, who get to work around that time every day. The reason is simple: as a freelance tailor, the more work you do, the more you earn. Therefore, as the great majority of staff in The Row leave by 17:30 each evening, you have to arrive early each day in order to get more work done, and thus earn more money. For most, this means working roughly 10-11 hours per day. The same goes for other tailors like Roy Wain, a coat maker for the past 35 years, now working at Norton & Sons. The hardship that the job requires comes from the fine craftsmanship required, which is achieved only after years of learning, concentration and precision.

Something that also came to my attention was the way shops in Savile Row are managed. Some, such as Henry Poole & Co, are still family run. It has a simple hierarchy of owner, manager, tailors and cutters. Others, like Gieves & Hawkes are very close to a full blown corporate business, with an owner, a CEO, manager, PR department, tailors and cutters. Of the traditional shops in The Row, they are the only one that actively engages in publicity, and boast the flagship 'No1 Savile Row' in their name. Henry Poole & Co, Norton & Sons and Huntsman however, do not make their own publicity or adverts. Rather, they keep the traditional 'branding' method of The Row: the inner lining of the sleeves in their coats and the 'skirt' in their trousers have a unique pattern which identifies the shop that made them. Labels were not used in the early days of Savile Row, and so this was a way to subtly boast about one's suit maker, and contribute to the preferred word of mouth publicity.

Not wanting to forget about another important factor in making a suit, I set out to find out about fabric used. The sheer variety of cloth manufacturers makes a daunting task of trying to narrow it down to the most popular choices. Taste varies greatly, but I came across a type of cloth for which personal taste is not the main factor. Vanquish II, by cloth manufacturer Dormeuil, is the single most expensive cloth made in the world retailing at £3,500+VAT per meter. The beauty of the cloth may be understated compared to its price tag. However, for those able to afford it (and to make an appointment to see the 14 different varieties of it), it becomes the prime choice for having a truly unique suit tailored. The luxury displayed by the Alexander Amosu suit comes not only from the Vanquish II cloth, but also from the use of diamond-adorned gold buttons. When shown to the public for the first time in 2009, it was the single most expensive suit worldwide, with an estimated price tag between GBP £70,000-£100,000.

Taking a look at Savile Row from these viewpoints paints a complex picture. Times have certainly changed since 1806. The idea of an elderly tailor who followed the trade of his father has vanished. There is a multi-ethnic backstage to Savile Row. There are tailors as young as 20 years old, and others that are well into their 70s. Many regard their work simply as a trade from which to make a living. Others regard it as a craft that they love. The younger generation tend to view their new skills as tools of glamour, proudly boasting, “I am a Savile Row tailor!”

If you take a look at the tools of the trade, you can see that perhaps the most modern of tools are vapour presses and sewing machines. The traditional needle, thimble, thread, shears, measuring tape and others are still just as much at use today as they were more than a century ago. The skills and determination of these tailors are what transform a lifeless two dimensional piece of cloth (regardless of its price) into a three dimensional object of status. Asian, Caribbean, Italian, Greek, English, young or old, these tailors make sure that the final output of Savile Row is still intact: the finest suits in the world.