It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Savile Row is a very traditional place. Garments are still stitched together by hand – largely in the basements downstairs – in an age when nearly all suits are cut and sewn by machine, with most work outsourced in faraway places. But tradition is a double-edged sword. Its values have preserved the craft of the Savile Row bespoke suit – a garment that is still truly unique, flattering in a way no machine-made suit ever could be – but they also have also, at times, hindered it from moving forward. The focus on craft has often been at the expense of an open mind towards other approaches.
As such, when the tides of change do hit Savile Row, they tend to hit hard: with disruptive results. It happened in the 1960s when Tommy Nutter started dressing Mick Jagger and The Beatles in his dramatic (but still bespoke) suits. It happened to a lesser extent in the 1990s, with the fresh looks of Richard James, Timothy Everest and Ozwald Boateng.
And it is happening again now. There is, as yet, no grand disruption, but behind the scenes, some of the most innovative cutters on and around The Row are changing how they make and cut suits. Jackets are softening; cloths are becoming more casual; tailoring is finally being made that would look as apt worn with trainers to a creative agency as they would with brogues to a corporate boardroom.
Thom Sweeney head cutter Eithen Sweet
One of the innovators in this area is Thom Sweeney. When the brand set up in 2007 – initially just offering bespoke – it immediately looked fresher and more modern than other tailors’ output on the London scene. Jackets were a touch shorter, a little more open, and there was a certain U-shaped waistcoat that quickly became all the rage.
But the bigger changes taking place within Thom Sweeney’s Weighhouse Street and Bruton Place premises have perhaps come more recently, with the very structure of the house’s tailoring starting to evolve under the leadership of head cutter Eithen Sweet. “Our aim was to offer bespoke for seven days of the week,” says Sweet. “Suits, yes, but also soft jackets, denim and even, in recent months, bomber jackets.”
Thom Sweeney now offers a soft-shouldered jacket with a lightweight canvas as standard, both in London and in the Manhattan store on West Broadway. The popularity of such unstructured tailoring has grown hugely, particularly since social media has increased awareness of foreign tailoring traditions – such as the rounded, casual style famously offered in Naples.
Another tailor innovating away quietly is Davide Taub (main picture), the head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes. Although a master of the traditional English suit, Taub is always investigating new styles and new techniques (back in 2003, he made me a bespoke leather jacket, working with the canvas first in order to get the fit right, before venturing into the leather itself).
His most successful piece, however, has been a driving jacket made as part of a project with Bentley Motors. With quilted sections and a removable gilet, the jacket was highly functional, and took pride of place during an exhibition at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington DC. Taub, like Sweet, has been developing his own version of soft tailoring. “I find customers often want a softer construction – but they still like the strong look of a Savile Row suit,” he says, “so we make something with very little padding at the neck, and just a touch at the end, to lift the shoulder.”
A third name to highlight is that of Michael Browne, who set up under his own name last year having left Chittleborough & Morgan (incidentally, it’s funny how innovation seems to breed innovation: the founders of Thom Sweeney both started their careers at 1990s disruptor Timothy Everest; Chittleborough & Morgan were cutters at the aforementioned reformer of Savile Row in the 1960s, Tommy Nutter).
Browne is a fiercely talented cutter, with a strong-shouldered style that has won over even the most ardent fans of relaxed jackets. That talent has been developed over years of experimentation, and you can see it in everything he does – from decorative ‘Milanese’ buttonholes to raised lap seams. He has a genuinely inquiring mind: something not always evident along Savile Row.
In the 10 years I’ve been writing about, and having suits made on, Savile Row, the tailoring on offer has definitely changed. But it’s interesting that this broadening of outlook is being worked by cutters such as these: craftsmen, rather than the designers such as Nutter and Boateng who changed it in the past. It feels like a more organic change – and perhaps, therefore, a more permanent one.