This fall I discovered a brilliant BBC Four series titled “Savile Row” which I’ve been shamelessly gorging myself on via Youtube. “Savile Row” is something of hybrid between a documentary and reality television. The series follows a handful of tailors and cutters from the Row as they narrate their dying trade’s struggle with high street competition and a dwindling customer base. You can check it out here.
Although the series is a few years old, if you’re not familiar with Savile Row, or English bespoke suit making in general, it’s definitely required watching. With the explosion of internet-based “tailors” offering “custom made” suits, and “bespoke” entering the #menswear vernacular as a throw-away label to be freely exploited, the consequence of knowing the history and workings of the Row has never been greater.
Recently my girlfriend floated the idea of trip to Scotland in the spring to see a friend of hers from college. My understanding is that although Glasgow would be our ultimate destination – I’d get to spend a couple days in and around London first. Naturally this has got the Row on my mind.
There are approximately twenty tailors operating on Savile Row proper, and countless others who have set up shop just off the hallowed strip. Though from the curb it may be hard to distinguish one tailor from his neighbour, each outpost of bespoke suit making has a history, expertise, and subtle style uniquely theirs.
An article I read recently on The Rake about Dege & Skinner reminded me that before anyone gets serious about making their first bespoke purchase they had better do their homework.
Dege & Skinner was founded in 1865, and is one of the oldest firms still trading on the Row, holding the royal warrants of HM The Queen, HM The Sultan of Oman and HM The King of Bahrain. Known for its military and equestrian pedigree (military tailoring is 25% of the firm’s business), and as the master of bespoke ceremonial uniform, Dege & Skinner fitted the Princes William and Harry in dress uniforms for a Royal Portrait in 2009.
Royalty aside, it is quite rare for a firm on the Row to disclose its client list. While to North American audiences this rather reclusive practice may invite criticisms of squandered marketing opportunities, the client’s of Savile Row appreciate the discretion. When your work speaks for itself, and your business has spanned more than a century, word of mouth is a form of advertising that no marketing campaign could ever mirror.
Despite the best efforts of the modest and conservative tailors on the Row, occasionally the prying eyes of #menswear do get a glimpse of which celebrities frequent which tailors – in some cases to the chagrin of the firm’s I am sure.
At a recent sale of Michael Jackson’s estate it came to light that he was a Dege & Skinner man. Apparently Dege’s military pedigree and Michael’s passion for epaulettes was a natural pairing.
In the picture above we see Michael in a Dege jacket, speaking with the King of Bahrain (who awarded Dege & Skinner with a royal warrant). One has to wonder if they found time to talk about anything other than #menswear.
The Dege cut is not known for being distinctive, not like Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman or Kilgour – firm’s whose suits are said to be cut with subtle but signature lines that are detectable by those in the know.
Like all the historic Savile Row tailoring workshops, Dege is now populated by an army of young men and women drawn to the trade by a renewed understanding that a nation’s economy stands or falls by its ability to manufacture.
The emphasis on recruiting, training and retaining the top skilled labour is pronounced at Dege. To put the bona fides of Savile Row tailor in perspective, to become a military tailor or cutter at Dege & Skinner it takes three to five years’ learning under a master, and then a further five years experience to get to the top tier.
Apprentices are willing to commit this kind of time for many of the same reasons that customers are willing to commit thousands of pounds: because the history of Savile Row says these loyalties are not misplaced. The success and longevity of firms like Dege & Skinner speaks to the enduring quality of their craftsmanship and the calibre of their employees. It would be a difficult task indeed to find clothiers anywhere in the world who have traded out of the same shop, using the same methods, for as long as the tailors of the Row have.
In 2011 Dege & Skinner signed a 15-year lease on No. 10 Savile Row reassuring #menswear enthusiast that recession or not this pillar of the bespoke trade isn’t moving off the Row anytime soon.
Dege may not equal Henry Poole’s full house of 40 Royal Warrants, nor occupy the coveted address of Gieves & Hawkes at No. 1 Savile Row, but if you’re in the market for an understated but sublime English bespoke tailoring experience, one worthy of pop stars and kings, then I understand Dege to be worthwhile port of call. I know I for one will be darkening their doorstep in the spring.