Suddenly Savile Row is much in the news again. A month ago, the spy-spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service, (a loving send-up of the old James Bond movies) hit the screens and, contrary to expectations, made a lot of money all over the world.
The film’s central conceit is that Kingsman is a private secret service set up by old-monied families which uses a Savile Row tailor’s shop as a cover. The hero (well, kind of) played by Colin Firth pretends to be a Savile Row tailor and one of the central themes of the movie is that a bespoke Savile Row suit is an essential component in the making of a gentleman.
Even as the world was giggling over Kingsman, we had our own Savile Row moment in Delhi when the media speculated about the origins of a suit worn by our Prime Minister to greet the US President. It turned out that what looked (from a distance) like a stripe in the fabric was actually the Prime Minister’s name.
The British papers tracked down Holland and Sherry on Savile Row and, eager for the publicity, a spokesman for the firm declared that while the company would not discuss individual customers blah, blah, blah, as far as he knew, they were the only company in the world to offer such a service.
The press then jumped to another conclusion: if the fabric was made by Holland and Sherry then no doubt their bespoke division made the suit. Somebody did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and decided that given the high cost of Savile Row tailoring plus the fact that the fabric was bespoke, the suit must have cost at least Rs 10 lakh. Soon this estimate was being quoted by the media as fact.
In fact, I’m not sure it cost anywhere near that much. To my (admittedly imperfect) eye, the tailoring looked nothing like Savile Row. In fact, the bandhgala rode up when the PM moved his arms about in a manner that is decidedly un-Savile Row.
The medium is the message: We had our own Savile Row moment in Delhi, when what looked like a stripe in the fabric was actually the Prime Minister’s name. This leads me to believe the official version that some NRI commissioned the fabric. And yes, it almost certainly was woven by Holland and Sherry.
They specialise in monogrammed fabrics and their catalogue boasts that they can do the same thing in Arabic and Russian which not only gives you some idea of the clients they are targeting but also makes you wonder why this generous NRI did not get them to do the name in Gujarati or Hindi. (Would there have been so much criticism if the PM’s name had appeared in Hindi? I doubt it.)
Having been handed this present, I would imagine that the PM sent the fabric off to his regular tailor who turned out this suit. So the Rs 10 lakh figure could be a vast exaggeration.
But what is it about Savile Row that keeps it in the news decade after decade, even in faraway countries? Partly, I imagine that it is the idea. Savile Row is a street in London where tailors have traditionally had their establishments. But these days many of the tailors have moved to nearby streets (St. George’s Street, Burlington Street etc.) and the term has come to describe a certain kind of tailoring.
For you and me, the idea of a tailor who makes your suits may not sound so unusual. But Savile Row tailoring has as much to do with the average Indian tailor’s work as gold has to do with paneer.
Most tailors everywhere focus only on the garment. But Savile Row tailors have to finish a course in which the first six months or so are dedicated to the study of the human anatomy. They are taught how some of us stoop a little, how a few of us have one shoulder lower than the other, and so on. Only after they have mastered this information, do they begin to learn about tailoring.
This is why, when you go to Savile Row for a fitting, they will take extremely elaborate measurements (far more detailed than the average Indian tailor.) A master cutter will then draw out the pattern of your suit on a piece of canvas.
The fabric will be cut to this pattern and then, another set of master tailors will do the actual stitching. (Usually one guy will do the jacket and another the trousers.) The first suit will require at least two (perhaps three) fittings and by the end not only should the suit fit you perfectly, but it should also make you look taller, leaner and well, smarter.
All this is an artisanal activity. A bespoke suit must be made entirely by hand (around 80 man-hours per suit is not uncommon) and each tailor will have his or her trademark cut (a tighter silhouette for Huntsman, a softer look for Anderson and Shepherd etc.). This is why it costs so much: prices usually start from around £3000.
Savile Row is unusual because the art of bespoke tailoring is slowly dying. There are a few outstanding Italian tailors, each with a regional style – Rome is the most formal, Naples is the most relaxed and so on. And there are Italians in the US who have kept up the national tradition.
But nearly everybody else who tailors a suit uses machines and does not bother with the fine detail that so obsesses Savile Row cutters and tailors.
The big designer brands offer made-to-measure (which I wrote about some years ago) in which they take a standard size suit and alter it to fit your particular requirements. (In the case of most of us Indian men, they alter the jackets to accommodate our paunches).
Most of them do not claim that this is bespoke though that distinction has now been fudged by many establishments on Savile Row itself which pass off made-to-measure as bespoke and by the likes of Tom Ford. (This has led to huge battles on the Row but that’s another story.)
There are few Indians on the Row or its neighbourhood but despite its very Brit name, Whitcomb & Shaftesbury at St. George Street is owned by two Indian brothers: Mahesh and Suresh Ramakrishnan. (I guess it wouldn’t have sounded very Savile Row if they had called it Ramakrishnan and Ramakrishnan). Their head cutter John McCabe and their head tailor Bob Biggs have been on the Row for 40 years.
Within the world of tailoring, Whitcomb & Shaftesbury are well-known and have often been written about. But the Ramakrishnan brothers have now started two innovative enterprises. The first is that they bring their cutter to India several times a year and get him to measure customers. The suit is made on the Row though fittings take place in India. This makes life more convenient but their prices are still the same as the Row.
The second innovation is more interesting. They have got Bob Biggs to train tailors at their Madras workshop and offer a second service. The suit will still be cut on the Row but the tailoring will be done in Madras.
This makes the suit at least 40 per cent cheaper. In the early days apparently, it was possible to tell the difference between Savile Row tailoring and Madras workmanship but now, says Mahesh, it is almost impossible to tell which is which.
Meanwhile Vaish at Rivoli who have made many suits for me using some Savile Row techniques (at a tenth of the price) have now branched out into Italian tailoring.
They have tied up with a Venetian tailor called Franco Puppato. His Venetian suits have prices that are even higher than Savile Row but like the Ramakrishnan brothers, the Vaishes (the Savile Row trained father Ashok and the more internationally minded son Sachin) have got a good rate for Indian customers.
Venice of the east: Rivoli owners Ashok and Sachin Vaish (right) have have tied up with a Venetian tailor, Franco Puppato (left). The suits are much sharper than traditional Savile Row tailoring, with a good rate for Indian customers.
I went to their shop in Delhi’s Rivoli Cinema building to meet Franco and was intrigued to find that he used a system of measuring that I had never come across before. He measured distances across my body from a single spot on my chest.
He called this measure System Trigonometro, and said that it gave him a much better idea of how a jacket should fit than the conventional method. He had learned it from his teacher many decades ago, he explained.
I saw a suit he had made for Sachin, the younger Vaish and while it was much sharper than traditional Savile Row tailoring, it had a certain fashionable look that should appeal to wealthy Indians. You can get yourself measured at Vaish at Rivoli where they will use Franco’s system and then mail him the measurements. He will make the suit for you in Venice, from scratch in a bespoke fashion.
Only a decade ago who would have thought that Savile Row tailoring and Italian bespoke would be so easily available in India? Obviously, Indian men are paying more attention to how they dress and spending much more.
From HT Brunch, April 5
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