Monday, March 10, 2008

London: Foster & Son, Anderson & Sheppard, Norton & Sons and Gieves & Hawkes

In late February I visited a number of cities (London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Florence and Naples) primarily to research a few critical items for a book project. I shall roll out my commentary on each city in that order. The first city was London and my first stop there was Foster & Son.

Foster & Son

I dropped by in the mid-afternoon for an appointment with Foster's principal lastmaker Terry Moore and chairman Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson. My purpose was both pleasure and business: to order a pair of punched captoe oxfords and to chat with Mr. Edgecliffe-Johnson.

Foster visit

What did I order? The lovely punched captoe model on display in the showroom (from 1954!) with slightly antique finishing and fitted waist. The measurements took just 20 minutes and involved the following: an outline/tracing of my feet while standing up and several measurements taken of each foot.

Foster visit

Terry also examined each foot by hand and made some remarkably astute observations about my feet and the way I distribute my weight when I walk. It goes without saying he's a highly skilled and experienced cordwainer whose eyes and hands can make some startlingly accurate inferences about his customers. I also learned that Terry will make a separate last for slip-ons (at least in my case since I have fairly bony feet).

Foster visit

Back in the day, Terry used to travel quite extensively when he worked for Peal until around 1965 – twice yearly in the US to a dozen cities or more including NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans and also Japan.

Foster visit

Afterwards both Terry and Richard kindly took me upstairs for a tour of the workshop and a fascinating discussion of Foster's history and the history of London shoemaking. One of their projects is to search back into the archives and pull out interesting historical material. For instance, Richard mentioned finding a 1901 West End Bootmakers' Association membership list mentioning some 52 bespoke shoemakers in London at the time. Today that membership list reaches a grand total of just four: Foster, Cleverley, Lobb and James Taylor (who specialize in orthopaedic footwear).

Foster visit

Times have changed in terms of the craft as well. As of today, there is no true trade school for lastmaking in the city. In the past, the Cordwainer's School served this purpose. Terry graduated from this school but today it is folded into the London College of Fashion and is focused more on the design rather than the craft aspect. Richard also mentioned that Foster would be introducing an Edward Green line (with specially designed lasts if I heard correctly).

Foster visit

In my tour upstairs, I met Emma (pictured above) and another young fellow (Micky I believe was his name), two of Terry's pupils and current lastmakers.

All in all, this was quite an enjoyable visit and set of conversations. Thanks to Terry Moore's expertise and experience, Foster has trained and developed a young and capable team of cordwainers and, equally important, the firm is led by a dedicated and enthusiastic management team. My thanks to them for sharing their stories and work with me.

Anderson & Sheppard

Before my visit with the direct heirs of the Scholte cut, I stopped by Kilgour to pick out some cloths from the Lesser 8/9 oz tropical book, adjust a pair of trousers and to chat with Will, one of the younger cutters at 8 Savile Row. We both had a good laugh regarding one scene in the BBC documentary on Savile Row. But it was a quick stop because I needed to visit Anderson & Sheppard.

Conventional wisdom says A&S embodies the old, stuffy Savile Row – rather formal and intimidating. Nonsense. My visit late this afternoon was quite the opposite and all the more noteworthy because it was unannounced and unscheduled (as actually all of my visits were on this trip save Foster above). They had no idea who I was and whether I intended to be a customer or not. Despite that, they were quite accommodating and I enjoyed chatting with Colin Heywood and John Hitchcock. There was a buzz of activity when I arrived due to the regular run of business but also because the final episode of the BBC documentary on Savile Row had just aired.

A&S cutting room

Hitchcock graciously offered to show me the workroom which is one of a kind on the Row now that workrooms are being moved systematically to the basement level. The room used to be a conservatory when the building was a residence. Hence it enjoys the fall of natural light through the skylight. Looking around, I have to agree that it is indeed a marvelous room to cut and sew clothes together.

A&S cutting room

Note how high and tightly cut those armholes are on Mr. Hitchcock's colleague above.

Heywood did an excellent job explaining the A&S cut by taking down the window mannequin (with the grey flannel jacket). For those who favor the soft round shoulder, A&S has historically been the tailor of choice should you be based in London. In the interests of equal opportunity, I should mention that Thomas Mahon, Steve Hitchcock and Edwin DeBoise of Steed - all A&S trained - also merit a serious look for those requiring the soft tailoring approach.

Times have indeed changed with regard to flexibility to customer requirements. Flexibility is certainly part of the offering these days. Plys of padding may be added on request or due to a dropped shoulder (say two ply on a dropped shoulder). Lapel width can also vary though the width will be kept in proportion. The most distinctive jacket style according to Colin: the single-breasted jacket with 3-2 button roll through. I must say that grey flannel jacket on the mannequin had me seriously tempted to order an odd sports jacket that afternoon. But fiscal discipline prevailed that day.

Additional links
- W Magazine article (March 2008) on Anda Rowland, vice-chairman of A&S

Norton & Sons / Gieves & Hawkes

Rounding out the day in Savile Row were two quick visits to Norton & Sons and Gieves & Hawkes. At Norton I chatted briefly with Patrick Grant, who appears in the BBC documentary. Norton's suit production is just 200 suits per year, which allows them a firm handle on quality. He was a bit short of time as they were preparing to go to Brussels the next day for two major customers.

From our conversation, I gathered that the Norton cut is somewhere between Poole and Huntsman. Back in the 1970s, John Grainger was the head cutter and now John Kent and David Ward have assumed that role. Kent is one of the most experienced cutters on the Row – some 40 years of experience and a trusted source for other tailors. Example: Another tailor asked for his advice on making an Inverness cape as he had not made one for more than ten years.

Final stop of the day was Gieves & Hawkes, which has focused in recent years on its RTW business by the look and feel of its retail space. It was near closing time when I met John Blanco, general manager. But I did manage to examine a bespoke morning coat on a mannequin, which looked solidly constructed. G&H offers a selection of 25,000 cloths and are in the process of redesigning the layout of their bespoke department. In my next visit, I plan to email ahead to schedule a one hour appointment for a proper tour.

The next city on my itinerary was Paris where I had some fascinating discussions with a couple of scions of the Parisian tailoring scene (Camps de Luca and Cifonelli). Hope to write that blog entry shortly.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Re: Anderson & Sheppard.
I have had many suits made there. They look nice and the soft shoulder style suits me. My only reservation is that I don't think their workmanship is so hot compared to the French or Italian tailors I have tried. About ten years ago Consumer Reports magazine purchased a bespoke suit at Anderson & Sheppard and gave it to a professor at FIT for his appraisal. The professor said that the suit looked as if it had been "sewn by an orangutan".

sleevehead said...

Thanks for the report on your A&S experience and sharing the highs (the A&S cut) and the lows (finishing/sewing). As long as the customer (potential or current) knows what he's getting into (as you are), this may very well be a trade-off worth making.

On a secondary note, I find the fascination on the various men's style forums with handstitching and handsewing a bit much at times.

It's a bit like focusing on the font size of your favorite literary work rather than the content and the ideas. In my opinion, handwork is important - as a detail. But in my opinion, it's not as important as the cutting and patternmaking abilities of the tailor.