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Stitched up on Savile Row

Richard Anderson at work
Richard's own tailoring house is now next door to Huntsman's where he started

By Boc Ly
BBC London

Some areas are synonymous with a certain trade or activity. Hatton Garden has its jewellers and Brick Lane has its restaurants, but if it's a bespoke suit you are after then Savile Row is the place to go.

Not that Richard Anderson knew anything about Savile Row when he started work as a 17-year-old apprentice in 1982.

"I didn't know anything at all. Nothing, zip! I was always quite clothes-conscience but probably no more than most kids of that age," he says.

He must have learnt quickly because 27 years later Richard Anderson, now a Master Cutter and a tailor with a star-studded clientele, has written what his publishers are calling 'the first behind the scenes exposé on life in Savile Row.'

A Row of Houses

Naturally enough, the nobility played a key role in the creation of Savile Row. It was developed in 1695 on land owned by the Earl of Burlington and Savile Street was named after the Earl's wife, Dorothy Savile.

Street sign
The street was named after the Earl's wife Dorothy Savile

The street was built up on one side with a row of terraced houses and the opposite side was left for gardens. Many of the original occupants were military families.

The neat row of identical houses would, from 1810, give the street its new name, Savile Row.

Henry Poole, a name which still has a presence on the street, is commonly cited as being the founder of tailoring on Savile Row in 1846. However, tailors had been based in the area as far back as 1785 and their numbers grew continuously until the early part of the 20th century.

Inevitably, high rents in one of London's most exclusive areas have taken their toll. Today, there are less than a couple of dozen bespoke tailors left on Savile Row.

The apprentice

Richard Anderson's Savile Row history began when his father saw an advert in the newspaper for an apprentice. When he successfully applied, Richard gave up his sixth form studies, and joined Huntsman, which was and still is, one of the oldest and most traditional tailors on Savile Row.

It was a real culture shock for the boy from St Albans who grew up wanting to be professional footballer.

Richard Anderson
The apprenticeship instilled an almost military discipline in me... But I loved it!
Richard Anderson

"The apprenticeship instilled an almost military discipline in me, which I probably needed at the time," recalls Richard.

"But I loved it. I loved the work and the characters that I was working with. It was a completely different world to what I was used to."

"For the first couple of years you are running around taking jobs from one tailor to another. You are getting your boss his cigarettes and sandwiches and getting screws for the pictures on the walls. You were the lowest of the low."

A job that suits

Slowly and gradually, Richard started developing the skills that would give him his trade. First, he was taught how to 'strike' - to cut - the fabric.

The different roles in the process soon emerged: A cutter outlines the pattern, who then passes this to the striker who will cut the cloth, who then gives the cloth to the master tailor to create the suit.

By the age of 26, Richard was running his own 'book' of clients and regularly representing Huntsman on business trips to the United States. At 34, he became youngest Head Cutter in the company's history.

Bespoke v off-the-peg

If the first thing that most people know about Savile Row is the quality of suits, then the second thing they will know is that those suits are also hugely expensive. A bespoke suit by Richard Anderson will cost several thousand pounds.

Richard Anderson
A bespoke suit can cost several thousand pounds

"Bespoke is really made for you. It's bespoken for you. We'll have a chat to you, your personality will come into it, and from that we'll construct a pattern."

For each client, Richard can take up to 19 measurements and consider disparate details such as their posture, how they walk and what they want the suit for before actually making a pattern that is unique for each customer.

"Bespoke suits are largely made by hand and they are very labour intensive. They're a lot of money but as long as you look after them, then they really do retain their shape. So, they're an investment."

Tailor to the Stars

If the expense of a Savile Row suit will put some people off, for other people it will be part of the attraction: The rich and famous.

Over the years, Richard has made suits for many celebrities, some of whom such as Keifer Sutherland, Benicio Del Toro and Simon Cowell, are happy to lend their name for promotional purposes.

"When I was at Huntsman it was great to meet Henry Kissinger and Gregory Peck and those guys. The Westlife boys are great fun to work with and Sir Ian McKellen. I can't really talk about our clients but they're the ones that have given us their blessing. "

The foreword to Richard's book has been written by another fan of his work, André Leon Talley, editor-at-large of Vogue USA.

Richard Anderson's tailoring house

Bespoke is said to come from 'that cloth is spoken for'

The Japanese word for suit 'sebiro' is believed to be a corruption of 'Savile Row'

The Beatles HQ was at No. 3 Savile Row, where they played a rooftop gig on 30 January 1969

Lord Nelson, Muhammad Ali and Winston Churchill have worn all Savile Row suits

Going it alone

In 2001 when Huntsman was sold Richard, with the help of his business partner Brian Lishak, started his own tailoring house.

It is now one of the few bespoke tailors remaining on Savile Row.

"When I was here in 1982 it was virtually all tailors but now it is more designer-led," says Richard, who a few years ago featured in a BBC documentary about Abercrombie & Fitch opening a store on the venerable street.

"It is sad but there are two sides to it. On the plus side, those guys bring a different clientele into the road, which is good. But the bigger and better tailors are still here."

Savile Row's Future

Richard talks freely about the spirit and community between the Savile Row tailors and, despite their ever decreasing numbers, he remains optimistic about the future.

"I think in 20 years' time the bigger houses will get stronger. Ourselves, Henry Poole, Huntsman and Gieves & Hawkes as long as we keep the cutters and keep the training going we should be alright."

And you still enjoy it after all these years?

"Of course I still enjoy it. You wouldn't last if you didn't enjoy it. It's better than working at a desk. You're meeting interesting people all the time and you're creating something. It's of a way of life."

Richard Anderson's book "Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed" is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now

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