Measuring Up, Savile Row Style

London's suit center refashions itself to meet executive needs while remaining true to its top-quality past.

Collectively, Savile Row and the three or four streets adjoining it are like a small village in London's center. But it attracts clients from around the world. Former Fiat Chairman Gianni Agnelli, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and actor Tom Cruise all had suits made on Savile Row. Today Savile Row innovations include services that send tailors to executives who don't have time to leave the office. But some tailors charge as much for a suit as a car dealer would for an automobile, so is there any point in thinking about visiting one? There is, because one vital part of Savile Row has not changed in 200 years: the pursuit of excellence. "If we want to go on selling Rolls-Royces we must be ready to sell Jaguars, too," points out Hugh Holland, managing director of Kilgour French & Stanbury (known as Kilgours). Even the Row's top six tailors -- among them Anderson & Sheppard, H. Huntsman & Sons Ltd., Gieves & Hawkes -- have had to recognize that the world is changing and that, to survive, they must not only provide the best in the form of bespoke but also must be prepared to make made-to-measure suits and sell ready-to-wear garments as well. A made-to-measure suit is cut from a number of standard patterns, altered to fit the individual. A ready-to-wear suit -- the fast food of the clothes business -- is bought off the rack. It fits or it doesn't. The best is what Savile Row calls a bespoke suit made by individuals for individuals. It can take up to 100 working days of tailoring by hand. Cutters measure the customer, and tailors make the suit, one tailor to each garment: coat, trousers, and vest. In the world of menswear nobody's perfect. One shoulder will be higher than the other. Tall men tend to stoop. As Holland puts it: "There aren't many people who look good in a wet suit. We enhance your attributes and disguise your shortcomings." A good cutter can build up parts of your suit to disguise certain features. For example, he knows how to add to the chest to balance a large stomach. Many out-of-town executives who purchase a bespoke suit do so when their schedule takes them to London for frequent, closely spaced visits so they can have the necessary number of fittings. Kilgours can get it right in one fitting, but two is normal, and a third might be needed. Kilgours likes the client to wear the suit on two occasions and then come back for correction of anything that is not "absolutely right," says Holland. Normally a bespoke suit will be completed in six to eight weeks for 2,175 (US$3,488). For the cost conscious, its made-to-measure suits begin at US$1,363, ready-to-wear at US$1,203. Since a bespoke suit can last a lifetime, fast delivery is neither appropriate nor necessary. Kilgours also recently introduced a new, less-expensive version of bespoke. Recognizing a serious shortage of top-quality British tailors, Kilgours went to China for an alternative supply and found it in Shanghai thanks to fashion-conscious expatriates who lived in the cosmopolitan center in the 1920s and 1930s and demanded sophisticated suits from Chinese tailors. Result: You can be measured in Savile Row for a bespoke service, and then all the measurements and the cloth you have chosen will be flown to Shanghai for cutting, hand-sewing, and pressing. The cut suit is then flown back to London. You come in to be fitted and have final adjustments made. From order to delivery takes five weeks, and the price is US$1,363. Kilgours also has expanded its "potentate" service, which once served just monarchs and royal families, to include anyone prepared to pay for a personal fitting at a venue of his choice by one of the world's leading tailors. (More information is available on Kilgours' Web site. To survive the 1990s, another Savile Row stalwart has adapted to fit the world. From the start of the 19th century, Gieves & Hawkes served as tailors to the Royal Navy. Gieves dressed both Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Its business is now 20% bespoke and military, 15% made-to-measure, and 65% ready-to-wear. Gieves prices start at US$722 for ready-to-wear. Its bespoke suits begin at US$3,689. Early in 1997 Gieves appointed a new managing director, Mark Henderson, from outside the Gieves family, outside the company, even outside Savile Row. His experience has been in luxury goods with Alfred Dunhill, and he brings a new attitude to the venerable institution. "The suit will be ready when the customer wants it," not, "The suit will be ready when the tailor has finished it." Henderson set about reorganizing Gieves, establishing a consistent style and customer service appropriate for on-the-go executives, including a personal-shopping service that will dispatch a tailor to just about anywhere. Henderson brought range to Gieves' ready-to-wear collection by appointing as merchandise director, designer James Whishaw, who came from Calvin Klein Inc. in New York. "Gieves roots were in military uniforms. Our new battlefield is in the boardroom," remarks Henderson. And that speaks for many tailors on Savile Row.

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