Page last updated at 23:10 GMT, Sunday, 27 September 2009 00:10 UK

The sartorial row on Savile Row

By Joe Lynam
BBC business correspondent

Michael Skinner
A handmade suit from Dege & Skinner can cost from 3,000

The Savile Row Bespoke Association has initiated a type of sartorial kite mark to distinguish its suits from other companies which make large parts of their suits overseas.

But there is a row over who should be able to call themselves a Savile Row tailor.

Michael Skinner, chairman of Dege & Skinner, having just listed some of his illustrious customers -including senior members of Europe's aristocracy - was unwilling to have the information in the public domain.

"I'd rather you didn't publish that," he said.

Such value is placed on discretion in Savile Row that even the chance of free publicity would not lure him into divulging the identities of his blue-blooded or A-list clients.

They do not even place their own suit labels in a prominent position on their handmade garments.

It is that type of under-the-radar marketing which has survived numerous wars and fashion trends to build up Savile Row's reputation for quality to an unmatched status around the world.

'New threat'

While few question the quality of Savile Row bespoke suits, many an eyebrow has been raised at the cost. A handmade suit from the traditional tailors, with 50 man-hours of skilled craftwork, retails from £3,000 ($4,500 or €3,300) upwards.

But despite having dressed the rich, respected and royal for over a century and a half, the tailors on "the Row" face a new threat.

Interlopers have arrived in this tiny corner of London's Mayfair - selling suits with the Savile Row moniker, but at a fraction of the cost. And it is getting up the noses of the traditional firms.

"There are some firms on Savile Row who don't do what we do," says Michael Skinner, who has been making suits there for more than 50 years.


Off-the-peg or ready-to-wear: Pick the suit you like in a regular shop off the hanger and pay.

Made-to-measure: Order a suit from a recognised pattern and then have it altered to fit.

Full bespoke: Get a unique garment made specifically to exact requirement down to the type of buttons, lining, cut, shape, quality.

"They are masquerading by having the two little magic words 'Savile Row' after their title. It is confusing for customers because they think 'Why should they charge X for a suit and you charge X times three?'"

It is an accusation rejected by Swiss-owned Sartoriani, which has two tailors working on the floor below Dege & Skinner in Savile Row and a sales office on nearby Old Bond Street.

"The word 'bespoke' is an emotive word. It has evolved over the years, over the decades," says Peter Opie, sales director with Sartoriani.

The company has seen its sales rise since a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority in Britain allowed "made-to-measure" companies to sell cheaper suits as "Savile Row Bespoke" even though much of the garment is made overseas.

"They have got nothing to complain about," says Mr Opie, whose firm measures customers in London before manufacturing suits elsewhere in England as well as Germany.

"The more clients that come to Savile Row, (the more it) benefits everyone on the Row. So I cannot really accept their complaint."

Protected status

In reality, sales of high-quality bespoke suits, even in the current recession, have not fallen noticeably over the past year.

This is encouraging for both the original suit makers and their new rivals, including numerous companies on- and offline, offering some degree of personalisation for the discerning customer.

Fashion experts such as Eric Musgrave, who used to be editor of Drapers magazine, says the traditional tailors in Savile Row should press for protected geographical status under EU law.

He said: "You can only call a fizzy white wine champagne if it comes from the Champagne region. You can only call ham Parma ham if it comes from Parma.

"I think the boys on Savile Row should continue battling until they get their definition that 'Savile Row Bespoke' can only be made on Savile Row and the defined area around it."

To that end the Savile Row Bespoke Association is launching a quality mark to distinguish its products from other companies who sell "made-to-measure" suits under the banner "Savile Row Bespoke".

That would allow potential customers to at least know what they are buying when they pay for their hand-tailored suit.

In the end, of course, many men will cut their cloth to suit their financial measure and that often means opting for cheaper alternatives.

Whether the traditional definition of a bespoke suit survives as long as the tailors in Savile Row will ultimately be decided by customers.

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