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Reminiscing with Toby Luper, Hemingway

15 January 2010
As an Englishman interested in classic style, it strikes as a particular shame that the industrial manufacture of clothes has suffered so much in this country. Leeds used to be world famous for its suit production, for example, a natural home for the industry being so close to the mills of Huddersfield. And while England still has some of the finest tailors in the world and punches well above its weight in fashion design, domestic manufacturing is a woeful hole.

It was fascinating, therefore, to meet Toby Luper this week. Now a visiting tailor, Toby’s family used to run the biggest suit factory in the country: Black and Luper of Kirkstall Road, Leeds. Back in the 1950s the factory, run by Norman Black and Stanley Luper (Toby’s father), employed hundreds of workers and made thousands of suits for Burtons and Burberry, amongst others. Largely made-to-measure garments, the workers spent their days tending the machines – though there were always tailors on site to correct any mistakes made in the process.

It was the loss of the Burberry raincoat contract in 1991 that triggered the factory’s demise. Having begun his career selling his father’s excess suits from a warehouse in Leeds, and later joining the company proper, Toby tried to rebuild the family business under the name Executex. When that didn’t work out, he turned to personal tailoring.

And while much of Leeds’ business elite now wears Toby’s suits, more than half of his business is now in London. Coming down once a week, or whenever clients request it, Toby visits bankers in their office or uses the Holland & Sherry fitting rooms on Savile Row.

Bespoke starts at £1,850 and made-to-measure £550. The former requires a paper pattern, cutting and sewing by hand in Leeds. Toby brings all his suits to London for fittings (though preferring just the one, forward fitting). The latter is fitted here but made by a company in the Czech Republic, one that Toby’s family has worked with for more than 20 years.

Toby is not only enthusiastic but fastidious about his work. Our half-hour conversation included a debate on pre-made shoulder pads, the merits of a basted fitting and how many men would notice the difference (at first blush) between made-to-measure and bespoke. Sadly from my perspective, but perhaps fortunately for them, the answer is not very many.

There was time for a little reminiscing about the days when England was a clothing powerhouse, though. Like the work ethic his father instilled in him. The first day Toby joined, his father made him sweep the warehouse, so that he always had a riposte if an employee refused to do it. Sounds fun.