Robert Whittaker traces his razor sharp knife around a paper template to cut a perfect shoulder panel for a cotton shirt.
Whittaker, 61, is one of a dying breed – skilled craftsmen who precisely measure and cut shirts for the rich, the famous and royalty.
He has been cutting shirts since 1968, leaving school at 15 to learn his trade on Jermyn Street in Mayfair, central London. He has worked at Dege & Skinner, the Savile Row tailoring house, since 1992 making shirts costing from £234-£450 each – and there is a minimum order of four.
Dege & Skinner is one of only two family-owned tailoring houses (along with Henry Poole & Co) left on Savile Row, which has been at the heart of London’s bespoke tailoring business for more than a century. Next year marks Dege & Skinner’s 150th anniversary.
This “golden mile of tailoring” has produced suits for Prince Charles, Winston Churchill, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Lord Nelson and Napoleon III.
“We are the only firm in Savile Row now doing bespoke shirt making. And I don’t think there are any left on Jermyn Street,” Whittaker mourns.
Like much of Britain’s once vibrant tailoring and textiles industries, most of these traditional skills have been lost as factories in China, Turkey and other cheap labour markets grabbed the work.
“It’s a bit of a dying art. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be kept going,” says Whittaker, who is passing on his knowledge and experience to apprentice Tom Bradbury, 20.
William Skinner is the third successive generation of his family to become managing director of the tailoring house and is committed to safeguarding the Savile Row traditions and keeping the business in the family.
It has three royal warrants – from the Queen, the sultan of Oman, and the king of Bahrain. About 25% of its business comes from military tailoring and it makes all the uniforms for princes William and Harry.
A browse through a rail of half made suits dotted with tailor’s chalk marks reveals a long grey coat with a poppy still in the button hole. A brown tag hangs from the lapel with the name Prince William scrawled on it. “Oh yes, that was the coat he wore on Sunday [for the remembrance service],” says Skinner casually.
He says the everyday customer is the core of the business, but these royal appointments are important “cream”.
Michael Skinner, William’s father and the company chairman, was at the Queen’s coronation in 1953 when he, his father and John Dege dressed the peers of the realm for the occasion.
But much has changed since. In the last 10 years several venerable Savile Row brands have fallen on hard times and been hoovered up by overseas investors.
Hong Kong’s Fung family, headed by billionaire patriarch William Fung, now owns four of the street’s best known names: Gieves & Hawkes; Hardy Amies, formerly the Queen’s official dressmaker; Kent & Curwen; and Kilgour.
Skinner is concerned that buyouts like these may affect quality. He is also worried about the use of the Savile Row brand for the sale of clothing that is not true bespoke.
“The fact that some firms up and down Savile Row are being bought is good to preserve the name,” he says. “But when that happens, sometimes the traditional values of tailoring can be diminished.”
Are some of these firms now making clothing in China? “I don’t know but I would guess that they are. Hardy Amies doesn’t do tailoring now and has no ladieswear [which is what it was famous for].”
Hardy Amies, which designed the dress for the Queen’s silver jubilee portrait, is now just a brand name to sell clothing to places like China, where the public have an insatiable appetite for British heritage products.
“Savile Row is world renowned for making clothes,” Skinner says. “So if someone can attach the Savile Row brand to a suit and knock it out around the world – it’s prestige, it adds a cachet.”
The Savile Row Bespoke Association was set up in 2004 to protect and promote the practices and traditions of the street. It has trademarked the name Savile Row Bespoke and takes legal action against those that infringe the brand.
“We could outsource tailoring to China, but then we wouldn’t be a Savile Row tailor,” Skinner says. “I believe in doing what we say we do.”
The Dege & Skinner boss is also concerned that the Fung takeover may encourage landlords to raise rents on the Mayfair street. “A bigger conglomerate, with deeper pockets, can afford to pay higher rents – so any rent rise would hurt them less than it hurts us,” he says.
The firm signed a 15-year lease on its base at 10 Savile Row in 2011 and has a rent review in June 2016. There is always a battle between tenants, the council and landlords about how to categorise Savile Row – is it a retail street, or not?
Skinner has no doubts: “Savile Row is not an A1 retail street (which command higher rents), like Bond Street or Regent Street. It’s a destination street. We are maintaining the rich culture and tapestry of this city.
“It could be quite easy for me to say ‘I’m fed up of paying rent here’ and move a mile away or wherever, but it wouldn’t be the same.”
Dege & Skinner is certainly preparing for the future. A tour behind the scenes at 10 Savile Row reveals a warren of rooms, stairs and corridors.
Skinner proudly points out the young people – the next generation of Savile Row tailors – who are busily measuring, stitching and cutting. Some are already fully qualified tailors and cutters; others are apprentices who are learning their craft under the tutelage of more experienced practitioners.
“That highlights our belief in the future of the bespoke tailoring business. We have invested in the future of the trade, because we are confident about the future of the trade. We have a good business model; we make money and we reinvest it in the company. We are not a museum piece by any means.”
Preserving traditional skills is one thing. The bigger problem for the artisans of Savile Row is its brash, young neighbours on Bond Street, home to London’s designer brand elite.
A suit from Dege & Skinner starts at £3,800 and could take 10 weeks to make; a buyer could be in and out of Prada or Armani within 10 minutes with a suit that cost half that.
“Some people feel very at home with that and Bond Street has been very successful,” Skinner admits. “But if you have something made for you – that’s the ultimate luxury.
“A lot of people don’t want to go into a high street shop, they want the relationship and the service that we give. As long as we can maintain that, there’s every chance of surviving.”
The sharp-suited tailor recalls learning about well-known places in London when he was at school. The teacher asked the class which trade or profession was linked with areas such as Harley Street, Fleet Street, Hatton Garden.
“When the teacher said Savile Row, my hand shot up,” he smiles. “I felt immensely proud of that and I want to maintain that. We’ll do our damnedest to keep it going.”
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