London’s Savile Row exported bespoke British suits to the 1%. Can it survive in a socially distanced world?

May 30, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

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When London went into lockdown in mid-March, the city’s famed Savile Row had a problem: you can’t make a bespoke suit over Zoom.

The street in upscale West London, known for nearly two centuries as the heart of British tailoring, is home to dozens of suit makers all tasked with creating a seamless fit and style for the world’s 1%, from executives to movie stars.

But its old-school methods, which rely on in-person measurements, multiple fittings, and the painstaking, time consuming, and expert work of specialist tailors, may be threatened not just by nationwide lockdowns—but by social distancing as a whole.

“If you say socially distancing to make a suit, the two don’t mix,” says William Skinner, managing director of Dege & Skinner. “It’s like oil and water.”

Then there’s the issue of travel: while Savile Row is a major destination for the well-dressed, drawing clients from around the world, it’s also a British export in its own right—with tailors now spending much of their time on the road, fitting suits from San Francisco to Beijing.

That poses a serious question for the street’s post-lockdown future. In a post-pandemic world, how much will people be able to travel—and will they want to be touched and measured when they get there? And if not, how can the bespoke business ever be the same?

A ‘hands-on’ affair

“I think it’s on most people’s bucket list to have a custom suit made once in their lives,” says Kathryn Sargent, the founder of her eponymous brand, and the first female master tailor on Savile Row.

If a custom suit is a “bucket list” item, a Savile Row specimen is top of the range. A bespoke two-piece suit—the bread and butter of most tailors on the Row—starts between GBP 5,000 to 6,000 ($6,200-$7,431), takes at least three in-person fittings, and at least 10 to 12 weeks of hands-on work.

While some tailors offer more affordable options through made-to-measure, or even closely tailored off-the-rack classics, bespoke is still the vast majority of the business, according to multiple tailors Fortune spoke to. It’s also still largely a menswear business. Sargent, who has an unusually large female client base, says only about a third of her work is women’s wear, though the demand for tailored suits for women is growing rapidly.

Though the reputation of Savile Row has long rested on a classically British perspective on formal wear—pinstripes for the city, tweeds for the country—the business is also now fundamentally an international one.

Campbell Carey, creative director and head cutter at Huntsman, in the brand’s workshop. Courtesy of Huntsman

Huntsman—the shop that reportedly inspired the premise for the Kingsman movies—says 40% of its business is in the U.K., but even that heavily relies on an international client base, who stop by the London shop on business trips or come specifically to see their tailor. Another 40% of the business is based in the U.S., including out of the brand’s New York outpost. Tailors also make multiple trips a year to the U.S. and Asia, says Campbell Carey, the brand’s creative director and head cutter.

Even Norton & Sons, which has 80% of its business in the U.K., is often on the road, says managing director Martin Nicholls—tailors travel at least four times a year to the U.S., as well as Japan, to see clients.

That presents problems of both fit, and logistics. Travel bans and quarantine measures pose an incredible challenge to the Row’s business model—both clients coming in, and tailors going out—while an inability to measure, touch, and adjust a suit to a level of perfection presents a more existential threat to what a bespoke suit offers.

“Obviously, what we do is a hands-on affair,” says Carey. “We have to be close to the customer.”

Shop closures and hospital scrubs

As the U.K. went into nationwide lockdown on March 24, Savile Row had already closed up shop, after watching business go from a strong start to the year to a trickle in a matter of weeks.

“The second of March, it was almost like the tap was turned off,” says Nicholls. “I very naïvely expected to be back in a couple weeks’ time.”

The shopfront of the Norton & Sons location on Savile Row, London. The shop had to close in March as the U.K. went into a nationwide lockdown. Courtesy of Norton & Sons

In the weeks afterwards, the staff of Norton & Sons was effectively furloughed—the U.K. government has run a vast scheme to pay wages while the country is under lockdown—and the tailors went to work from home. The work was mostly wrapping up anything that was possible under lockdown: putting the finishing touches on a suit, say, or filling orders for long-time customers whose measurements were already on file.

Other tailors described the same constraints, and a focus on preventing layoffs: bespoke tailors are expert artisans, and hiring one requires committing to years of on-the-job training and investment. Consultations were moved to Zoom, and some tailors described going to creative lengths to keep up contact with clients, including having them send photos and videos of themselves wearing the suits. To keep busy, some turned their efforts’ to making high-end face masks, and hospital scrubs for the U.K.’s National Health Service. In the process, the scrubs received precise design adjustments to improve their durability and fit, what Carey of Huntsman calls “the Savile Row nuances.”

Others were determined not to let sartorial standards totally collapse over months of working from home. While Sargent admitted she was wearing more casual wear, and that the brand had received more interest in “top-half clothes”, others were determined to stay fully suited under lockdown.

William Skinner, managing director of Dege & Skinner, prepares to wash his windows in a three-piece bespoke suit while under lockdown. Credit: Henry Skinner.

Skinner said he was still wearing the full gear—especially for photo shoots, where his son photographed him watering the plants and washing the windows for an Instagram challenge full of people doing regular tasks in bespoke, high-end menswear. He’s trying to keep perspective. After all, he says, in World War II, his grandfather showed up to work one day to find the shop had been destroyed in the Blitz.

Meanwhile, Nicholls, at home in rural Somerset, wistfully noted he missed wearing suits to work every day, and said his clients tell him they do, too.

At the moment, he said, “there’s no one to impress but the cat.”

Face masks and virtual fittings

As the U.K.’s lockdown begins to ease—with non-essential shops permitted to open on June 15—Savile Row’s tailors have spent months anticipating what the future of the business will look like.

The lockdown and ensuing economic crisis has brought a fundamental struggle for survival to many businesses on the Row—but even a profitable “new normal” will require immediate operational changes, all say. Every tailor interviewed for this piece said they were putting in a range of basic changes: anyone who could would continue to work from home (your suit may well be constructed in a back garden workshop in suburban Kent), while clients would be seen by appointment only. Sanitizer use will be excessive, and face masks will be custom made—in exclusive, high-end fabrics, to take with you when you go home.

While some say elements of a fitting may well have to be offered virtually, others are wondering whether that’s a shift clients would even want.

“If anything, [clients] want things done almost more the way they used to be done, rather than less,” says Nicholls. “I think for them, they might feel a bit cheated if we pulled back on that.”

Part of the joy—and the cost—of getting a bespoke suit made is that in-person, hands-on experience, many said. You’re not paying for just the craftwork and the quality, but the individual attention to your own body and your own preferences.

Whether styles will change is another matter. While some acknowledged they had made “softer”, more casual styles under lockdown, all said lockdowns won’t take away the appeal of dressing up—it should only heighten it.

“As we go further down the line, I think people will be glad to get to a piece of normality, and be able to wear beautiful clothes,” said Skinner.

Kathryn Sargent, the founder of her eponymous bespoke tailoring brand, in her showroom in London’s Savile Row. Courtesy of Kathryn Sargent.

In the meantime, most were pining to get back to the workshop—even if it means accepting that the nature of the business is permanently changed.

“I love it, I really miss it,” said Sargent. “But who would have thought we would be challenged in this way? I’m sitting here and thinking: maybe there’s a way to do things differently.”

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