Men’s wear, it is often said, is about details. It doesn’t do revolution. And yet, were Winston Churchill to stroll down London’s Savile Row today, he likely wouldn’t recognize the bright colors and international brands sparkling in the shop windows of the stately Georgian buildings. The de facto headquarters of bespoke tailoring since the early 19th century, the small Mayfair street became a stomping ground of invention for the upper class, offering three-piece trouser suits, raincoats, and Wellington boots. Tailors like Huntsman and Henry Poole & Co. never stopped turning out impeccable attire for prime ministers and the landed elite; but by the mid-20th century, with the exception of a flare-up by Tommy Nutter, tailor to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, innovation had pretty much left Savile Row. It was a place where a gentleman could expect to be told what colors and fabrics to choose for which occasion, according to established rules, in order to maintain tradition rather than subvert it.
“I remember coming here and thinking the place felt like Dickens, and not in a good way,” says Sean Dixon, who set up shop on the row with his business partner, the designer Richard James, in 1992—and then proceeded to change everything.
The interior designer David Linley, who happens to be 18th in line for the throne, was an early client, and remembers the sea change. “Richard was the first of the imaginative men’s tailors,” he says. “I went to all the other ones and they’d say, ‘Stand at attention!’ Meanwhile, Richard would measure me on my motorbike.”
Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, with a ready giggle and loopy sense of humor, and dressed in a pristine dove gray suit, a knit peppermint tie, and white Jack Purcells, Richard James may have an edge, but it’s always served with a smile. Since opening his small boutique—“white, bright, and welcoming, with contemporary art on the walls,” according to Dixon—James, who has a keen eye for combining color and fabric, and a permissive attitude toward what’s appropriate, has attracted rock stars (the Gallagher brothers, Alex James from Blur, Mark Ronson, Sean “Diddy” Combs), fellow fashionistas (Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, countless editors), and royals (Linley; Prince William, Duke of Cambridge).
At Mark’s, the tony Mayfair club where this story was shot, a rack brimming with James’s greatest hits was marveled over by the habitually dressed-down actors Tom Ellis, Tom Bateman, Ben Robson, and the model Toby Huntington-Whiteley. A few standouts: the Swarovski-studded dinner jackets James designed for Elton John; the highlighter yellow fluorescent cashmere felt jacket from fall 2000; and the camouflage suit, first made in 1998 using authentic British Army fabric, that launched a thousand imitations.
This fall, Richard James ready-to-wear and full bespoke services will be arriving in New York, at the Ritz Tower, on 57th Street and Park Avenue. It’s an opportune moment: Men’s wear sales continue to climb in the U.S., and the American market, the company’s biggest after the United Kingdom, holds untapped potential. Richard James cutters—tailors are the people who sew the cloth; the pattern cutters are the true visionaries of bespoke—will visit four times a year to take measurements, then finish the clothes back in London.
Though the new shop will mostly retain the look and feel of James’s airy ready-to-wear boutique at 29 Savile Row, the designer’s silhouette in vivid neon will hang on the wall just as it does at his bespoke headquarters at 19 Clifford Street, across the way. It isn’t clear whether the dressing room will reprise the pulsing lights and infinity mirrors that greet clients there, but one can hope.
In addition to the New York opening, the Clifford Street store is being expanded to make way for even more bespoke services and customization options. Which is why James’s archives, which are moving up to the building’s third floor, were in disarray on the day I visited James and Dixon. We practically stumbled over the July 2017 issue of British GQ, with Prince William, a loyal Richard James client, on the cover. There was, according to Dixon, a stipulation for his participation in the story that he wear only his own clothes. “So he turned up at the shoot in a suit, which was one of ours. The editors said it was a bit tired, so he bought a new one off the rack.”
Prince William had agreed to appear in the magazine to support the royal family’s mental health charity, Heads Together. This was especially touching for James, who had only just returned from a self-imposed hiatus of two years to deal with his own long-term depression. “If you’re not careful,” quips James, “depression can really go to your head. But really, it’s important that people talk about it.” Since his return, he’s taken gentle steps back into day-to-day operations, continuing to rely on design and brand director Toby Lamb, a Central Saint Martins graduate whose first job was on the Richard James shop floor. James lives near the office, and he pops in and out frequently, chatting with the sales staff, straightening mannequins, and, increasingly, consulting on the collections.
Being in the shop “is fantastic” for his outlook, James says, because “it’s wonderful to be somewhere where people know what they’re doing.”
James hails from Barry, Wales, “a beautiful place to grow up,” he says, with parks and beaches, not too far from Cardiff. As a child he loved to draw, “at first cars and things like that, and then, all of a sudden, ladies’ wear,” he recalls, chuckling. He wonders aloud if the urge to sketch gowns was inherited from a favorite gay uncle, an interior designer who would later give James his first suit—elegantly cut in gray wool. (“I didn’t have anywhere to wear it in Wales, but it sort of started me off.”) After graduating from art school in Brighton, James moved to London. He was staying with his older brother and scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins when he wandered into Browns, the first cutting-edge designer boutique in the country.
Its owners, Sidney and Joan Burstein, were known for introducing labels like Comme des Garçons to the U.K., and would put designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen on the fashion map. “This was back in the late ’70s,” James recalls. “I was wearing orange shoes, and the store was so posh and scary, and all the boys in there were posh and scary.” Still, that’s where he met Dixon, who worked the sales floor on Saturdays. (“You spent some time driving Mrs. Burstein around too, I remember,” James says teasingly.) And it was also there that he learned the business, eventually becoming the head buyer for men’s wear in 1982. Six years later, James and Dixon paired up on a fashion-forward ready-to-wear men’s line—think colorful English dandy with a dash of Boy George. The problem was, “the energy and effort went into shows in Paris and publicity,” Dixon says. After a few seasons, they shut it down. A desire to “really focus on the product” was what drove the two of them to ultimately team up again and open a store.
Still, when James landed on Savile Row 25 years ago, he was, at best, a curiosity. The airiness and fresh flowers of the newly opened boutique drew lookie-loos at first, even if “we’d go weeks at first and only sell a few ties. It was tough,” recalls Dixon. The press was unwelcoming, claiming that the Savile Row upstart didn’t know his way around a thimble. But soon enough, the mood and look of the neighborhood started to change. Elton John and David Furnish brought in their pal Gianni Versace, and they bought out the store; Diddy started dropping by; and so on.
Another new-establishment tailor with a flashy color sense and love of sexy silhouettes, Ozwald Boateng (who was mentored by Tommy Nutter), opened nearby on Vigo Street. Stella McCartney, while still at Central Saint Martins, apprenticed with the cutter Edward Sexton. And Alexander McQueen’s brilliance with a pair of scissors can be traced back to his own stint on Savile Row, first at Anderson & Sheppard and then at Gieves & Hawkes.
James says his approach to men’s wear is “to make it all a bit silly, in a way,” but he has straddled tradition and disruption brilliantly. Thanks to him, ready-to-wear and bespoke have become inseparable, as well as old-school tailoring and eccentricity. The most fashionable men in London routinely pair James’s brightly colored printed cotton shirts with sedate suits, or use a low-key shirt as a foil for, say, a sorbet-colored double-breasted linen blazer or a navy pinstriped super-140 virgin wool suit with an acid-bright lining.
Now that high and low, whimsy and tradition are tossed on and off like so much lightweight cashmere, it’s easy to forget that this was, in fact, revolutionary in its day. Allow Richard James to underline his contributions in highlighter yellow.
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