The world of bespoke suiting is a romantic enigma to menswear enthusiasts. Though many of us are enamored with the history and quality of true bespoke suiting, such a suit is typically well out of our budget. It’s difficult to access this world we so much want to be a part of.
I once worked for a made-to-measure shop that did some full custom work, and even as an employee I was priced out. What’s a guy to do?
Thankfully, Richard Anderson wrote Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped And Smoothed. His down-to-Earth prose provides us with the behind-the-scenes details of what it was like to work for Huntsman, one of the most storied houses on Savile Row.
Brief Background On Huntsman
For those who are unaware, Huntsman is a bespoke tailoring house on London’s Savile Row. Founded in 1849 by Henry Huntsman, it originally made military breeches but changed with the times to offer tailored civilian clothing. While they offer ready-to-wear garments, they’re known for expertly crafting fully custom garments.
At the time of Bespoke‘s publishing in 2009, it was also the most expensive house on the Row. They’re known for a house cut that includes a single-breasted one-button closure with a relatively low button stance, suppressed waist, and a slightly flared skirt.
Melding the smartness of evening wear with the comfort and silhouette of a riding jacket, it’s known as a unique silhouette in the industry and is highly sought after.
All labor was completed in-house by an expert team of cutters, tailors, pressers, and seamstresses. Over the years, Huntsman’s clientele list has been a who’s who of royalty, Hollywood stars, and tycoons. Gregory Peck, Katherine Hepburn, and even the Duke Of Windsor himself were all clients.
Bespoke firms on Savile Row are simply the best you can get when it comes to tailored clothing. For many, Huntsman is the best of the best.
Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped & Smoothed Book Review
Bespoke is unlike many books on menswear insofar as it is light on pictures. This is a book, not an extended photo essay. Thankfully, it requires no menswear expertise to enjoy. At approximately 265 pages and by no means dense, you can get through it in a day.
Anderson is also a talented raconteur, so the book is a pleasure to get through. It also has an extensive glossary in the back so it’s a decent supplement to more extensive tomes like Dressing The Man.
Thinking he’d grow up to be a rock star, Anderson takes us from the beginning of his tenure with Huntsman as a teenaged apprentice who showed up two hours late for his interview to owning his own shop on the Golden Mile.
Throughout the work, Anderson (referred to as “Young Richard”) zestfully brings his cast of characters to life. Huntsman’s chain-smoking Managing Directors at the time were the gruff but technically brilliant Brian Hall and the artistic, slow-moving Colin Hammick. There’s also:
- Fred Lakey the trouser cutter who one of the only people to treat Richard decently
- Toby, his fellow apprentice who ended up leaving the industry
- Michael Downey, the drunk presser who grilled sandwiches with his pressing iron
- Markus Berkovic, the trouser alterations tailor who conned Richard into giving him extra lining out of the company stash
Anderson spends his first few years essentially as an errand boy, fetching cigarettes and sandwiches for his bosses or shuttling garments in various stages of production between departments. The firm’s exacting standards with regard to the quality of their work extended into this as well, and Anderson is verbally hauled over the coals nearly every day.
One such infraction is getting an egg and cucumber sandwich for Hammick that had too much salt.
It seems brutal and unnecessary, but the vibe that you get is such that working for Huntsman is like military training: you get broken down in order to be built back up.
Above: A tailor creating hand-sewn sleeve buttonholes.
As time passes, Anderson learns to “strike” (cut) cloth and cut his own patterns, developing his own book of business as a cutter. He even takes part in sales trips to the U.S.
In one such trip, Brian Hall literally throws a pickle in his face on account of the fact that his sandwich had a pickle that he didn’t want.
There mustn’t have been an HR department at Huntsman.
Eventually, he earns the respect of Hammick and Hall. After nineteen years with the firm, he became disillusioned with Huntsman’s direction in terms of quality after a couple of changes in ownership. His solution? Open up his own shop across the street at 13 Savile Row, Richard Anderson Ltd.
Anderson makes it a point to note that the Hunstman’s current ownership seems to be righting the ship. He’s confident that it will continue to be a standard-bearer for Savile Row.
The overarching theme in the book is the pursuit of perfection. Anderson admits that it’s an abstract ideal that’s impossible to achieve, but knows that the best garments in the world are the best because their makers are chasing perfection. In bespoke tailoring, it seems that the journey is just as important as the destination.
Final Thoughts On The Book
Above we see some secret advice for dealing with fussy clientele.
This is a well-written, fun, easy-to-read book. Anderson is an apt storyteller and though the book isn’t instructional per se, you learn a lot and there’s even a glossary of terms in the back. It’s a great read for novices and experts alike.
- Hammick and Hall’s presence dominate most of the book. Anderson mostly treats both men fairly, juxtaposing their personal foibles against their technical mastery. While he mentions that Hammick won Best Dressed Man Of The Year awards consistently and had a glamorous clientele, he fails to mention Hammick’s revered status within Huntsman, which I only learned via Google. In fact, his influence on the brand was so profound that on their company timeline, 1942 is noted simply as the year that he joined the firm as an apprentice. Surely Huntsman has seen its share of apprentices in its 168 years, so Hammick is clearly a significant influence on the house. It seems that 1942 is to Huntsman what the year 1 is to the Church: a dividing line based on the introduction of a hugely influential entity.
- The number of artisanal skills in a bespoke tailor shop is dizzying. There are coat cutters, trouser cutters, strikers, tailors, trotters, pressers, and of course sales and administrative staff. For the place to run properly, it has to be a well-oiled machine.
- Before the days of air travel, many London tailors would have two wives: one in England and the other in America, where they would spend many months a year doing fittings and sales.
- Rex Harrison, a British actor, once ordered a coat from Huntsman that cost £10,000, and that was in the early eighties. As of 2017, that would be more that $46,200. You could therefore say that the firm offered garments that were so high quality in terms of material and construction that some cost about as much as a BMW 328i.
If there’s a guy in your life who’s a clothing enthusiast, he must own this book!