Savile Row, the street synonymous with London's bespoke tailors for two centuries, awoke recently to a newspaper headline screaming "Armani Attacks Savile Row". Speaking at the haute couture shows in Paris where Armani shows his Collection Privé, Italy's richest and biggest fashion brand name was announcing the debut of his Fatto A Mano Su Misura (hand-made to measure) service for men available from select Armani flagship stores worldwide from September.
According to Armani, each Fatto A Mano customer would be measured up by Armani tailors, with cloth and details chosen by the client before the suit was cut and hand-fitted. The suits would be labelled Armani, with price tags allegedly hovering between £5,000 and £30,000. But why the decision to launch the service? Well, said Armani, Savile Row is "a bad English comedy, a melodrama lost in the past . . . (with) no room in their head to expand into something new". And not only that: "Savile Row is not prestigious any more."
"Frankly everything that Mr Armani claims for his 'couture for men' is second nature to Savile Row, except the price tags," sniffed Henry Poole elder statesman, Angus Cundey. "Our average for a bespoke suit is £2,500."
"Bringing the traditional and the modern together is not something new to Savile Row," seconded Richard Anderson, who with master tailor Brian Lishak established the eponymous young Savile Row bespoke shop. "We have customers of all ages: everyone from Mick Jagger and Brian Ferry to The Black Eyed Peas."
Armani quickly recanted: "I have the greatest respect for Savile Row, which for two centuries has been a pinnacle of excellence for men's tailoring. My intention is to create a different kind of excellence, that reflects my own personal aesthetic of bringing the traditional and the modern together, building on the best of both, while respecting the craft that Savile Row has for so long made its own." Besides, the price range for Fatto A Mano is more like £2,000-£11,000 per suit. Nevertheless, the contention that Savile Row is living in the past continues to sting.
So while some on The Row have decided to view Armani's interest in bespoke tailoring as a ringing endorsement - Mark Henderson, managing director of Gieves & Hawkes and chairman of the Savile Row Bespoke association, has already extended an invitation for Armani to visit - Ian Garlant, creative director of Hardy Amies, remains sceptical.
"Isn't it interesting that the biggest designer on the face of the earth - hugely influential and a legend within the industry - a man who professionally has nothing left to prove at the age of 70, is pursuing the nature of individuality and personal expression?" asks Garlant.
"This raises an interesting point. Bespoke by its very nature is bespoken for the customer. It is the ego of the customer, not the designer, that is paramount. This kind of customer doesn't need the reassurance of a global brand name such as Giorgio Armani inside their suits. Bespoke and the achievements of Mr Armani could be polar opposites."
Richard James, who is opening another door later this year just off Savile Row for his bespoke customers, agrees. "Armani is a hero of mine actually. His earlycollections revolutionised men's tailoring. Ironically, he did damage Savile Row in the 1970s. The sons of Savile Row customers weren't interested in bespoke when Armani came along. It was a major culture shock. What does it tell you that the man who deconstructed men's tailoring now supports a return to formality?"
Armani's office in Milan responds: "It became apparent to Mr Armani in the last few years [that] there has been an increasing desire among his most affluent clients for a personalised and customised service. He believes it is important to remember where fashion design started - with the desire to make beautiful clothes for people to wear. Because a luxury customer is now becoming more demanding, those in search of luxury are looking for uniqueness."
Armani does concede that he "was making an observation that Savile Row's influence on men's tailoring had perhaps declined in recent years, as it failed to evolve its approach to meet the needs of a new generation of customers". This is a charge that the Savile Row tailors will fight to their last breath. Though Armani insists, "there is plenty of room for both of us," the truth may only be known in about 2206 if by Giorgio Armani is as old as Savile Row is now.
WHERE COUTURE IS ALIVE AND WELL
Perhaps more aware than they might admit that Giorgio Armani had at least a bit of a point when it comes to Savile Row and contemporary men’s wear, a group of businesses on the Row recently embarked on perhaps their most ambitious outreach ever. Last month Huntsman (founded in 1849) opened its doors to celebrate ‘The Best of British Bespoke’ with shoemaker George Cleverley, hatter Lock & Co, shirt maker Sean O’Flynn and the grand old man of British bespoke leather goods, Swaine Adeney Brigg.
Union Flag bunting festooned Huntsman’s railings while champagne (presumably from Berry Brothers & Rudd on St James’s Street) was served to men invited from a collective pool of client lists, plus guests from the grand hotels, gentlemen’s clubs and a smattering of Mayfair Hedge Funds.
“Primarily, we wanted to demonstrate that bespoke craftsmanship is alive and thriving on and around The Row,” says Huntsman’s general manager, Peter Smith. “It stands to reason that the man who wants his suits bespoke will extend that philosophy to the rest of his life. A huge amount of our business is about recommending houses we know and trust. A customer wants a new Panama? We send him to see Janet at Lock. He wants a silver-topped cane? We recommend Swaine Adeney Brigg.”
“We tend to find that the exterior of Lock & Co (in the shadow of the Henry VIII gate of St James’s Palace) has such age and longevity that people are nervous to enter,” says Janet Taylor of Lock & Co, Britain’s oldest family owned hatter (established in 1676). Lock has just reported the busiest month of retail sales in the company’s history; partly due to the return of Royal Ascot to Berkshire but also due to a revived interest in what can only be described as golden age tailoring. The spring/summer 2007 men’s wear shows in Milan were inspired by everyone from Bosie Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred) at Missoni to Visconti’s “Death In Venice” at Alexander McQueen.
“We are seeing leather goods being ordered the like of which we haven’t seen since pre-WWI,” says Swaine Adeney Brigg senior salesman, Michael Stevens . “Recently we’ve been asked to make a brand new cabin trunk. One chap, a South African gentleman, came to see us en route from Australia to The Savoy with a sketch of a leather carry-on bag that he wants made with a writing slope and compartments for his BlackBerry and his laptop.” George Cleverley, the bespoke shoemaker who has shod Hollywood Royalty (Valentino, Gary Cooper, Bogart and Gable) as well as the British establishment, reports that of the 500 pairs of bespoke shoes executed each year, the customers are getting younger and the choices more adventurous.
“We’re definitely seeing younger men attracted by the personal service of bespoke,2 says Cleverley’s Andrew Murphy. “Formerly the black City shoe dominated our order books but now we’re seeing more exotic choices such as crocodile.” According to Huntsman’s managing director, David Coleridge, “we’re seeing a change of mood from the days when designer clothing ruled. Now men are interested in quality and longevity.”