The crossover between denim and tailoring is an interesting one. The appeal is perfectly understandable: like tight fits, short jackets or bracelets, it reflects a desire to undermine the conservative preconceptions of suiting. The execution, however, is tricky; and for a tailor it is crucial to understand a customer’s expectations.
I’ve been talking to various tailors over the past fortnight for an article on it in The Rake. For some, tailored denim is nothing new. Edward Sexton described the denim suits they used to make when Tommy Nutter was alive. Timothy Everest, who worked with Tommy after the split, has experimented with such materials ever since, and is still perhaps the most innovative. Richard Anderson started making denim suits in a light, 10oz cloth shortly after he left Huntsman.
Interestingly, denim has different associations for different people, yet seems never to lose its cool. For some of Tim and Edward’s clients, denim means the 1950s and cowboy culture; for Richard, it is the free-wheeling 1970s; for modern makers, such as Davide Taub (who made several denim jackets in his days at Sedwell), the associations are more recent.
The reason customers’ expectations are important is that tailored denim looks very different depending on how it is made. At one extreme, you have a regular bespoke jacket in denim. Regular canvas, regular shoulder pad, regular cut – like Richard Anderson’s shown above. This looks surprisingly formal, even in lighter denims.
At the other extreme, you have entirely unstructured jackets – like Lapo Elkann’s made by Luca Rubinacci. This had no canvas, pad or lining. (Above is the RTW version subsequently made by Lapo as part of his Italia Independent label.) Either type of jacket can be made with washed denim, to age it (effects varying depending on whether it is water, stone or enzyme-washed, as well as temperature), but only the unstructured variety can be garment washed – i.e. after it has been made.
It is the garment wash that fades a jacket on raised areas, such as the collar, cuffs and seams. This is also the look most customers are used to in a ‘denim jacket’. You can’t wash a structured garment because the canvas and pad (even if pre-washed already) won’t survive. And even on an unstructured one, you have to allow for a lot of shrinkage, which makes getting a bespoke fit pretty tough. Luca has sworn off doing so for just that reason.
In between those two extremes, there are lots of varieties, often depending on the weight of the cloth (Holland & Sherry does 10oz to 14oz; Tim, Richard, Joe Morgan and others work with different Japanese mills). Some jackets are made with just lightweight canvas through the chest and shoulder. Others have a little home-made pad made of folded felt.
Of course, what you mean by ‘denim’ also varies among tailors and customers. For some (e.g. Jean-Claude Colban at Charvet, who makes denim evening shirts among other things) it is the use of natural indigo dye, nothing else. For others, it is the material, weave and finish – a cotton twill, of coloured warp and white weft, with a rougher finish. For most, it is some combination.
An interesting area, as I say. Look out for the feature in The Rake for more details.
(Other images from Timothy Everest: above, work jacket being made in Japanese patched fabric; below, jacket in heavy indigo-dyed kendo cloth. Both, for reasons of style and material, being made with no internal structure)
Earlier this year I helped write the Gieves & Hawkes book, One Savile Row: The Invention of the English Gentleman, contributing the bespoke chapter. It came out a couple of weeks ago, and I highly recommend it – not for my small section, obviously, but for the photography.
As is hopefully evident from the images here, the team did a fantastic job of bringing alive archive jackets, coats and military paraphernalia. There are some exquisite details, with pinpoint focus bringing up the gold, buttons and braid. The settings at various grand houses around the country also lend everything a very suitable, brooding atmosphere.
Among the rest of the text, there is a history of 1 Savile Row, one of Gieves & Hawkes, and an entertaining history of the English gentleman by Malcolm McDowell.
The depth and size of the book make it a highly pleasurable, immersive experience. Something to sit with on the sofa with and absorb. It is available on Amazon, or in store at Gieves.
The braiding on the final jacket below, by the way, was part of the inspiration for my pea coat. You can see some of the similarity between the pattern on the back and the reworked designs on my coat by Hawthorne & Heaney.
For those that have asked, next year I should also have at least two books out – one the True Luxury coffee-table volume being published by Thames & Hudson, and the other from Prestel on English factories.
Over the next few months there is going to be a plethora of ready-to-wear shops opening that are in some way inspired by tailoring. Hardy Amies has just opened; then there’s E Tautz; Kilgour will have a full collection soon; Thom Sweeney are opening their RTW and MTM shop.
Readers will be rightly cynical about some of these. Although associated with tailoring brands, they don’t necessarily have anything to do with the bespoke operations on which they were founded. You could argue Hardy Amies did a lot to push men’s ready-made fashion, and that connects him to the modern RTW offering. But it hardly matters. No one’s pretending that RTW is bespoke, and all four also continue to produce bespoke clothing – which in itself should be applauded.
The point is that we have four new, re-born or expanded offerings of menswear, all with enough awareness of tailoring to drag them away from the luxury sportswear and the bargain-bucket high street.
Of the four, it looks like Hardy Amies will be the most casual. The current range – designed by Mehmet Ali – includes boots and grained-leather shoes; bright knitwear and outerwear; and curated items from other brands including Cherchbi bags and Brooks saddles.
Tailoring-inspired pieces include double-breasted cardigans that would make a good substitute for a jacket in a casual office. There are also shawl-collared waistcoats, in both flannel and chunky knits, that will be rather dressier versions of the ever-popular gilet. And there are a few reversible pieces of outerwear, with the inner layer showing up as the revers (appropriately) on the DB lapel.
This will not be suited to the formal reader – the jackets are too short and the aesthetic too rugged. But for a younger guy looking for interesting casual/formal crossover, it’s worth a look. And there are also interesting things coming in Hardy Amies’s bespoke tailoring. While much of my conversation with Mehmet was about raw denim, we also had an in-depth discussion about the perception of bespoke, the way to communicate it to younger guys, and the potential for finding a better alternative to made-to-measure. Watch this space.
Continuing the shoe theme of recent posts, above are my Gaziano & Girling bespoke adelaides after repatination from Thomas at the Savile Row store. (Adelaide refers to the U-shaped section around the laces. The G&G model is the St James II.)
The colour was meant to be brown originally (vintage oak), but was made up in tan (vintage cedar) by mistake – you can see the original post on the shoes here.
Mistakes happen, and it gave me an opportunity to try out the patination service on a pair of G&G shoes. The results are great, creating a pair of shoes that will be incredibly versatile – applicable for everything from smart chinos to navy suits.
There is quite a lot of variation in the colour, with the toe cap and heel almost black in colour, and significant darkening along the lines of broguing. I hadn’t anticipated that, asking for merely a copy of the G&G vintage-oak colour. However, it is both difficult to get that same effect through patination, and a shame. Difficult because the painting will never replicate the uniform finish of a dyed skin, with some burnishing, and a shame because patination can offer so much more in terms of variation and personality.
So my lesson for those considering a patinated finish is to expect it to be significantly different from a normal shoe finish – it will always look a little more ‘European’, a little flashier. But also that the patina will soften over time (my adelaides already have) with new layers of polish. If I continue to polish these with mid-brown polish, rather than black, the edges of the black areas will fade, and chips or scuffs will also take the brown colour. There’s still a lot you can control.
Tailors have lower margins than other retailers. Customers of bespoke accept that, and appreciate it. But how much lower are they?
In order to answer that question as much as I could, I got four London tailors – two on Savile Row, one off Savile Row and one in the City – to give me their costs anonymously. By comparing that to the retail price, we were able to come up with a basic production cost, as a percentage.
I focused on the cost of production because it is the most important, transparent and – crucially – consistent aspect. With tailoring, it is simply the total of cloth, trimmings, coat maker, trouser maker and cutter. This does vary between tailors, and certainly varies between countries, but it can be sensibly examined.
The full costs of a suit vary much more. Rent, most notably, from zero to three floors on Savile Row. Plus sales staff, travel, marketing, insurance, administration and so on.
So what is this production cost of a suit? For a house on or around Savile Row it breaks down as (on average):
Coat making: £700-£800
- This is just the cost of the labour, but includes making, finishing and pressing, which might be done by three different people
- This is an average of houses, coat makers they use, and difficulties of job
Trouser making: £220-£260
- For simplicity, we get it to a two-piece suit
- This can go up very fast, but we looked at fairly standard suiting bunches
- This is canvas, lining, silk thread, horn buttons etc
- This is the hardest to calculate, as it is based on annual salaries, divided by the number of suits cut (and fitted, re-cut and so on)
- A cutter that is seeing customers might be earning £30k-£40k. An experienced cutter perhaps 40k-50k; a bigger name something over £60k. But then that has to be averaged with the under-cutter, or anyone re-cutting for fittings
- One of those people might be responsible for, on average, 180 to 300 suits a year. There’s a lot of variation here. The figure above is an average wage divided by an average volume
- We also reduced the number slightly to account for the time spent by a cutter selling rather than just ‘making’ the suit
So the total is £1420 to £1710, average £1565. If an average Savile Row suit costs £4800, then the production cost is 33% of the retail price you pay.
Compare that to the average production cost in retail, which is 13% to 20%, and you can see the basic value of bespoke tailoring. (Numbers based on three different retail sources). A lot more of your money – twice as much in fact – goes into making the goods than with most things you buy elsewhere.
Interestingly, I also asked some City tailors about similar numbers, and their costs were lower as compound result of lower salaries, bulk deals on cloth, and particularly cheaper making. But as a percentage their production costs were also 30%-80% higher than Savile Row tailors. A precarious business to be in.
All the numbers above obviously contain potential for variation. You can see that even in the final cost, which varies by 20%. I also only focused on Savile Row, and only on the UK. But there is actually more transparency in bespoke tailoring than many other businesses, given the known costs of cloth and coat/trouser-makers. So we can get a better idea than in most industries.
Photo: Andy Barnham