Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Heritage vs. Hangover. You tell me.

I love Savile Row.

The poise and innate elegance of the street. The unconscious pomposity of it. The refined, understated, good taste that reeks of equally good breeding. The very British-ness of it. I love, love, love Savile Row. And if I was a man -forgetting for a moment that I'd probably be a casually dressed man, just as I am a casually dressed woman - I would invest in Harris Tweed, made-to-measure, bespoke suits that flatter and flaunt like no other.

Savile Row has a heritage that spans hundreds of years, a privilege customer base, an infamous name, a desirable brand and more. Why then, dear reader, do you think they'd give two hoots that Abercrombie & Fitch were to become their neighbour?

Surely the jeans and T-shirt brigade were no threat to the quality craftsmen who have inhabited the row for centuries? Alas, 'tis not the case.

You see, independent tailors on Savile Row face the same issues all the other independent stores in London face. On a cultural level, there is a danger of lost heritage. A danger that Savile Row may be the next Fleet Street or Spitalfields, homogenised by big, multi-national business (as pointed out in the show). But also, on a more fundamental, tangible level, there is a direct correlation between big business moving in and rent moving up. And when you're in the business of luxury materials, hand-made to suit every single customer, profit margins are nothing like the massive American chain that now sits at the top of their road.

So I watched the show last night, gripped and passionate about all the wrongs in the world and prophesising about who should and shouldn't be given planning permission. When suddenly, I began to feel huge amounts of utter annoyance at the tailors.

Instead of being incredibly proud of their heritage and doing everything they can to keep Savile Row alive and relevant for new generations of British men, I found these men to be stuck in the rut of their own legacy, too proud to move with the times. One tailor boasted, "we employed a salesperson once... to keep people out of the shop".

"We never advertise", said another, as the horror music played and the camera panned the A&F billboards of naked young things. While another tailor never advertised in the UK, but was happy to exploit Savile Row's good name during visits to NYC to meet customers he'd attracted through advertising over there.

Here's the thing, if you're a tailor on Savile Row, it is your priveledge and responsibility to keep this most noble tradition alive. Patrick Grant of Norton and Sons seemed to have a more business-savvy approach to his A&F neighbours. Not only does he create bespoke pieces for the owner of the company, but he understood that all the kids shopping for jeans and t-shirts today may one day be in the market for his superior product. I had the pleasure of meeting Mister Grant a couple of months ago and knowing a bit about his story, I'm not surprised he's seeing the opportunity in the A&F arrival.

Savile Row is lucky. The street is already famed as the best place in the whole, wide world for a bespoke suit. I suspect though, that people know it as the place old, stuffy guys go to get suits made. Savile Row, the brand, needs to be re-positioned as the status item of this new century - though not through advertising (because that really wouldn't be right). The truly independent Savile Row tailors should come together and work to uniquely capitalise on all movements towards sustainable, responsible, luxurious products. But I guess, in order to do any of that they'd need to figure out which parts of their amazing legacy is heritage, and which is just hangover.

I'd love to know what you think. Did you see the show? Am I giving the tailors too much of a hard time? Should they keep schtum about themselves and only allow those who know, to know?

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