LONDON — Whenever the passport control officer at London’s Heathrow Airport asks why I’ve come to England, I always say, “To see my tailor, at Savile Row.”
It’s not true, unfortunately, but it sounds great. Sean Connery used a similar line about Savile Row in “Dr. No,” his first outing as 007.
For more than two centuries, this small street in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood has produced wonderful handmade clothes for an elite group that favored discreet, understated suits to make the wearer blend in, not stand out.
But these days, Savile Row tailors are out to make a splash, even branching out into the glitz of London Fashion Week with a presentation by E. Tautz designed to showcase the venerable brand’s contemporary take on the old-style English military and sporting look.
The street has been invigorated by the arrival in recent years of Richard James, Ozwald Boateng and others who have made the world-famous Row more youthful and more trendy — witness the psychedelic ties and rainbow-colored socks in Mr. James‘ store window and the burgundy and emerald shirts sold by Mr. Boateng.
That’s fine, but can clubby Savile Row tailors really survive in the age of bling?
Can they cope when older, suit-wearing customers retire to the countryside, replaced by a younger generation who never learned how to tie a Windsor knot?
And how do they weather a recession when a custom-made suit starts at about 3,000 pounds ($4,800) and quickly shoots into the stratosphere?
Mark Henderson, chairman of the Savile Row Bespoke Association, said sales are generally holding up despite the downturn.
“We have the same number of people buying suits, but they are buying fewer, say two at a time rather than six at a time,” he said. “Over the past 10 years our bespoke and made-to-measure suits have shown consistent growth.”
Bespoke suits are made from scratch to an individual’s requirements, beginning usually with the choice of the cloth. The term comes from the days when tailors would have large amounts of cloth on hand, and cloth that had been chosen by a customer were said to “be spoken for,” which was eventually contracted to bespoke.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by history on Savile Row. Winston Churchill and other legendary figures got their suits made here, and the Beatles played their final performance on the rooftop of 3 Savile Row. But history alone won’t pay the bills.
To keep the tradition going, stores have had to become much more welcoming. In the fusty old days, Savile Row shops tended to be dark and uninviting, and people who wandered in would often get a frosty reception, or be ignored altogether, unless they seemed to have the right pedigree.
“When we got here, it was a street of excellence, but you wouldn’t have known it because it was very fuddy-duddy. It was a street of people selling beautiful clothes to older gentlemen; it wasn’t somewhere where young people went. We came in and did it a different way. Our store was clean and open and modern and bright — and it wasn’t intimidating.”