WINNING SUIT

TORO October 2004

AUSTRALIA GQ BESPOKE SPECIAL

Winter 2007

Edward Wilkinson Latham measure up the benefits of a personal cutting edge.

I have donned a wide array of run-of-the-mill, off-the-rack suits in my time-school uniforms, office wear, emergency funeral numbers, even a safari suit. All were symmetrically machine cut in standard sizes and factory-finished with the care of someone stitching a tea towel. What I lusted for was a suit made with me in mind, something eye catching, with a strong enough personality to stay with me for years. Explaining this to a relative I was told. “My dear boy, you must visit my tailor in Savile Row.”

Located in central London, Savile Row is the bastion of gentlemen’s sartorial elegance and is renowned as the epicentre of British tailoring throughout the world. Gieves & Hawkes at Number 1 Savile Row has been cutting cloth for over two hundred years and boasts a long line of successive Royal Warrants to this day, as well as a history of outfitting some of Britain’s most renowned military men and explorers, such as Lord Admiral Nelson, The Duke Of Wellington and Doctor Livingstone.

When I arrive in London for my first fitting, my cab driver, Ron, tells me I won’t get a better ‘whistle and flute’ anywhere in the world, using the rhyming slang for a suit. Illustrating the British fascination with clothing, he runs through a list of fabric designs he would choose. Camel Hair, Houndstooth Check, Herringbone and Prince of Wales Check. ‘Makes you proud of being British don’t it,” he says, as we talk about some of Savile Row’s most notable clients, who include Ron’s heroes Michael Caine, Sean Connery and 1960’s dapper London gangsters, The Kray Twins.

We arrive, and above us, hanging from the white Georgian façade and marbled entranceway to Gieves & Hawkes, the Union Jack flaps in the warm summer breeze. Number 1 Savile Row was the original site of The Royal Geographic Society until 1912. The interior, complete with The Map Room and a galleried library, exults a bygone age of gentlemen’s clubs. Today, attractive female assistants and well dressed men walk its floors with tape measures, arranging fine garments against warm tones of antique furniture.

The evolution of my bespoke suit begins with a consultation with my assigned cutter. I meet Kathryn Sargent, the only female Master Cutter in Savile Row. We discuss the fabric, selecting a number of beautifully bound swatch books to thumb through, offering a chance to feel the weave and weight of different cloth. A bespoke suit is usually made from animal hair, and that lucky creature is almost certainly a sheep. The very best wools are Merino from Australia and New Zealand, strong fibre that resists creasing and retains heat in cold weather but also releases it when conditions improve. I decide on a good all rounder: mohair. Cut from the Angora goat, blended with wool it is characterized by its crispness, luster and lightweight durability. For slimming, classic cut, I choose a two-button, single vent jacket design and trousers with a zip fly; straight seem front pockets and no cuffs.

Kathryn and Don Rouse, Gieves & Hawkes’s PR man, usher me into the Map Room, a grand annex capped with a domed glass roof and lined with large gilded-frame mirrors. My assigned tailor, a suave and politely formal man with chiseled features, cropped hair and silver rimmed round spectacles, meticulously takes measurements and observations of my proportions and posture. His starched white shirt collars and beautiful dark grey suit fit him with crisp folded precision. His black shoes are polished to a parade ground finish and a modest mauve tie, matching breast pocket handkerchief and silver cufflinks, embody the quintessential style of Savile Row. During my full body measurement, Kathryn tells me that a customer may well alter in size between fittings. “Some slim down between fittings because of stress from work or pre-wedding nerves. Others put weight on; but a bespoke suit is designed to perfectly fit and accentuate the customer’s best features. Humans are not symmetrical.”

Having now inked a list of measurements detailing my body’s idiosyncrasies, the next stage is the cutting of the pattern in brown paper.I am invited into the bowels of the building where the careful inception of the garment begins. This sanctum is where the artisans of Gieves & Hawkes, both young and old, work together among the minutiae of tailoring. “There are no ‘Tweed Merchants’ here,” says Don Rouse, (PR at G&H), referring to Savile Row slang for a sloppy workman.

Long rows of brown paper patterns hang in ordered ranks around the workshop like a fan of gills. Kept for decades under the customer’s name and often added to with every subsequent fitting, they are the maps of a client’s tailoring history. The relationship that develops between a customer and the cutter and tailor is an integral part of the attentive service that makes Savile Row so exclusive. Like a priest or family doctor, they qualify as trusted confidants, as experts in tact and diplomacy, and are not prone to making chit-chat about other customers.

Kathryn starts to create my pattern, which she will then use as the guide for cutting the cloth. Large scissors, heavy weights, chalk and hard wood rulers lay on her cutting table; tools with which she has gained the reputation as one of the finest cutters in Savile Row.

Andrew Gomez, master coatmaker, is responsible for making the jacket from the pattern. Much of a Coatmaker’s skill goes into shaping the canvases, the inner materials used in the garment to give it shape. Canvases can be linen, horsehair, hemps, jutes and Meltons, while the weight of cloth from which the jacket is being made determines the particular canvas to be used.

Mr. Gomez sews a lamb’s wool pin stripe suit, synonymous with English bankers, brogue shoes, and bowlers. I watch his precise work stitching the gorge, the point where the collar is attached to the lapel forming the Notch. This is best achieved by sewing hundreds of tiny threads across the material. “Savile Row suits tend to have a high gorge, Italian designer suits low,” he says as he continues to work.

“Where’s that Trotter”, he utters looking up, referring to a messenger or runner who may bring everything from a role of cloth and thread, to a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea.

“Don’t know but I’d like a refill myself”, says Poppy, an expeditious Finisher who crows that she has worked in Savile Row for sixty years, making buttons and braid, sewing linings and stitching the edges of garments.

As is tradition, a different craftsman often makes each garment, thus trouser makers only specialize in trousers while others concentrate on smoking jackets, overcoats and morning suits.

There is something regal about subsequent visits and fittings to Gieves & Hawkes. Three weeks later I stand in the Map Room again, as the trousers and jacket are nipped and tucked and strange strategic chalk marks are applied for a guide to the finishing touches.

Two weeks after that, the alteration tailor, known as ‘the doctor’ adjusts the final touches to assure the garment achieves perfection. Looking at the finished result, I feel all of a sudden unworthy to wear it, but as I do a week later, I see myself as never before. Staring in the mirror amazed, I listen to my tailor as he informs me of a list of do’s and don’ts that will aid the suits longevity; don’t wear it more than twice a week, pull up the cloth at the knees when sitting, don't sit on surfaces such as polished leather that might shine the seat and don't stuff the pockets full of coins, keys or your wallet.

At the price I was paying for this suit (at Gieves & Hawkes, bespoke-suit prices start at prices start from £2,750), I imagined it might be bullet proof. After one more fitting and eight weeks since my first measurement the suit was finished.

A proud owner, I judge events on whether they are Suitworthy. I sometimes even try it on at home and stroll about, studying the impeccable craftsmanship. The Savile Row Bespoke experience is addictive. I’d have one made for every day of the week if I could. Trouble is, I wouldn’t be able to afford anything else and sleeping nights outside is one of those things that my tailor would advise against.

EWL©