To walk past Savile Row is to pass by any quiet, narrow street behind the busy foot traffic of Regent Street. It’s a street I would have completely overlooked, if I wasn’t for the building plaque on the corner of Savile Row and Vigo Street. I knew then that I was standing at a fashion landmark: the home of bespoke three-piece suits with the highest caliber of men’s tailoring for more than 150 years.
Lately, Savile Row hasn’t been quite so calm. The news that Ambercrombie & Fitch plans to open a branch on the famed street – there already exists one at the corner of Savile Row and Burlington Gardens – has received unsavoury reactions from the public. One such group of protesters (below), staffers of The Chap magazine, cleverly donned three-piece suits and/or tweed (or forties attire for the women) and held up giant signs outside of No. 3 Savile Row. The “chaps” and “chapettes”, like many of those against the move, believe that the sight of an A&F children’s store will destroy the character and reputation of the street.
It all has me wondering: Could this be the end of custom tweed? And is it greed, as the protesters say? Or just plain need?
Savile Row’s beginnings as a street for bespoke tailoring dates back to the 1850s, when a man named Henry Poole converted a stable block that led out onto Savile Row into a clothing showroom. The three-piece suit in matching neutrals (use of colour is limited to the waistcoat and tie) was born in response to the ostentatious dress of the aristocracy, which had been discredited following the French Revolution. By the late 1890s, the ‘honest’ English country gentleman was in vogue, and so too his wardrobe of riding breeches in locally spun wool.
Unlike women’s fashion, men’s fashion hasn’t changed so dramatically since. Most men still stick to the conformist suit in a strong show of solidarity in the office. But while the suit continues to serve its role in the business sector, rarely is the average banker or barrister outfitted in a £2,100 (starting price) bespoke suit from Savile Row. Men typically will choose between the designer Prada suit or the mid-range Banana Republic suit, all mass-produced and machine-made.
The Savile Row that once grew from great social change has, in my opinion, lost its momentum. A bespoke suit can take as many as 50 hours to produce; the rising cost of labour a constant drain on profit. And the three-piece suit, which must pay to stay on Savile Row, might very well have an easier time at the Museum of London – playing up to British nostalgia. That is, unless Savile Row is to reinvent itself in the same way it did in the sixties when Tommy Nutter created suits for the likes of Mick Jagger and the Beatles. With his range of suits with nipped-in waists and wide lapels in shades from green to lemon, the tailor put Savile Row back on the map.
A&F has already started paying rent on the property, having acquired the lease earlier this year. And the space (No. 3 Savile Row) is said to be too large anyhow to attract other tailors to move in. The space once housed Apple records HQ, the site where the Beatles played their last public performance on its roof. So it doesn’t look like A&F, which is likely to benefit of the street name association in a strange twist of irony, is going to back down anytime soon.
Personally, I would hate to see Savile Row become another extension of Regent Street. While I highly doubt bespoke tailoring is to disappear from England altogether, the news that a street like Savile Row could very well be sitting on its very own Death Row cuts deep. Real deep.