The rarified art of bespoke men’s tailoring, epitomised by Savile Row, is popular again – on the internet. Vegard in Norway is looking for a suitable jacket to hunt in: would an Ulster be appropriate? An anonymous correspondent has a pressing need for a knitted silk tie with a pointed rather than straight-ended blade: where can he find one? And “Couch” would like to know if alum tawed pigskin would be suitable for making a pair of bespoke shoes.
Obscure requests, maybe, but all three men receive answers and advice from their enthusiastic peers. They, and hundreds of others, are members of a burgeoning community of gents who meet online to debate, in sometimes obsessive detail, the minutiae and history of fine bespoke dressing.
They include a used-car salesman from Essex, a Korean television producer, a speechwriter for President Bush based in Connecticut and a concert pianist from Hong Kong, all united by their passion for a style and tradition of clothing that still largely revolves around one London street: Savile Row. Until recently it was a world familiar predominantly to aristocrats and plutocrats: now anyone intrigued by the kind of formal clothing popular in early 20th century society can find out more by joining a distinctly 21st century community, and Savile Row is benefiting from this glasnost.
The most rarefied of the forums is the London Lounge, set up four years ago by Michael Alden, a 53-year-old Californian financier who lives in Paris. “There was a lack of information available,” he remembers. “The traditional method of communication about the traditions of Savile Row bespoke], from father to son, had been interrupted by a generation less interested in things sartorial.”
His intention was to create both a knowledge resource for anyone looking for an entrée into the world of fine dressing, and a space where its aficionados could debate the finer points of their foppery. Alden, who acts as an informal arbiter on the site, picked up most of his expertise from the men who have made his clothes. “I consider myself a good customer, one who is interested and who has been fortunate to have used tailors patient enough to answer my questions.”
He has certainly been a good customer. He once posted a suggestion for a “minimum wardrobe” on the London Lounge, which included eight suits, six sports jackets, 36 shirts, 36 handkerchiefs, nine hats and 85 ties. When asked if he generated the list by counting his own clothes he replied: “Mine is probably three or four times as big as that minimum wardrobe.”
The extravagance of his own wardrobe hints at the impact that the London Lounge and sites like it has had on the business of Savile Row. Michael Anton, author of The Suit, an outstanding book about men’s clothes, believes that nearly half of potential bespoke customers look at these websites, making them very important to the trade.
Tony Gaziano, of the handmade shoemakers Gaziano & Girling, says: “Our new business achieved in a year what would once have taken ten years because of the interest we generated through the internet.”
The London Lounge, and to a lesser extent American sites such as Ask Andy and Style Forum, provide a nonthreatening space in which to demystify the bewildering array of choices and protocol that you face when you visit a good tailor. Savile Row can be an intimidating place.
Alden says: “For some men, going to see a tailor is as fun as going to a dentist. You are asked a lot of questions. If you study the forum you’ll accumulate sufficient knowledge to prepare you.” It’s the London Lounge’s mix of inspiration and information that is so powerful, and which draws in the newbies.
“Young people of university age write me e-mails saying that, having seen the site, they’re saving for their first bespoke suit,” Alden says.
The London Lounge can teach you how to identify peak and notch lapels, double and single vents, besom and patch pockets, ghillie collars, floating canvas and raglan sleeves – and if all that means nothing to you, see our guide overleaf. What you won’t find, however, are definitive statements of how a gentleman should dress, and what is beyond the pale. The lifeblood of the London Lounge is debate, as members thrash out the contentious topics that divide them: Italian versus English shirt making; whether soft or hard tailoring is preferable; the optimum width and direction of a trouser pleat; the rights and wrongs of the working cuff.
The tone is always respectful, but the intensity of feeling is palpable. Sometimes the members are even able to agree long enough to commission and order runs of fabric in otherwise unavailable patterns. At the moment, two-tone Gaziano & Girling spectator shoes, designed by the London Lounge, are available to order.
Another online resource for the 21st-century fop is English Cut, a blog written by the tailor Thomas Mahon. It is a delightful ramble through his daily life and work in Cumbria, the technical minutiae of constructing a suit and great stories from his time at Anderson & Sheppard, when he cut for Prince Charles. Its genius, however, is to illustrate what makes bespoke clothes special without recourse to elitism, snobbery or hype. “When I started writing I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever done,” Mahon says. “I didn’t think it was serious, so I wrote down stories the way I told them in the pub.”
As the popularity of Mahon’s blog grew, so did his order book. Now even the hidebound traditionalists of Savile Row itself are waking up to the power of the web. The websites vary in their emphasis: the Savile Row Bespoke Association’s site is factual and informative, while the tailors Welsh & Jefferies’ site relies on fine photography to tempt potential customers.
Michael Anton believes that the men who contribute to the London Lounge are far more informed about clothes than most of Savile Row’s traditional customers. “In Brideshead Revisited,” he says, “when Charles Ryder is given a little speech by his cousin Jasper about what to wear at Oxford, there’s no level of detail. Forty years ago, when a father introduced his tailor to his son, they probably both thought, ‘This is something we do, but let’s not dwell on it, because that would be unseemly’.
“They’d look at the level of interest on these internet forums as going way beyond what is appropriate.”
The essential bespoke terms or reference:
Peak and notch lapels
Jacket lapels come either to a point in the direction of the shoulders, in which case they’re peak (and currently fashionable), or have a notch in the shape of a broad V, which points towards the centre of the chest and is more traditional.
This is when a jacket can be done up at the neck, like a coat , keeping the Scottish weather out and giving the jacket its name ( a ghillie is a Scottish gamekeeper). Long coats featuring ghillie collars are a signature item of Savile Row house Hardy Amies
Besom and patch pockets
Besom pockets are the normal hip pockets on a jacket, consisting of a horizontal slit in the fabric, with the pocket created inside the lining, and a flap covering the slit. Patch pockets are when another piece of the jacket’s fabric is sewn on to the outside of the jacket, creating a pocket. These are less formal than besom pockets, and have no flap.
Double and single vents
Vents are the vertical slits cut into the bottom of the back of a jacket. Either two are cut, one on each side of the bottom (above), which is classic, or one is cut in the middle, which is only appropriate on a tweed hacking jacket. Traditionally dinner jackets have no vents, to maintain the cleanest of lines.
A raglan sleeve runs all the way up the collar of a coat, rather than attaching to the body at the shoulder, as is normal in shirts or suit jackets. It allows more movement, and is therefore more sporting.
By Mansel Fletcher