Friday, March 18, 2011

A Conversation with Savile Row Tailor Richard Anderson

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Richard Anderson trained the old-fashioned way before hanging out his own shingle on Savile Row, where he's introducing a new generation of customers to the bespoke suit

London's Savile Row is famous for its independent tailoring shops that have been selling bespoke men's clothing along the short street since 1623. But in an era of outsourcing, e-tail, and mass production, these storied operations, which rely on skilled artisans to make their costly suits by hand, seem to belong to a different world.
It's a world Richard Anderson knows well. At 17 he became an apprentice at famed tailor Henry Huntsman & Sons, a fixture on the Row. For the first three months, Anderson says, he did nothing but arrange lays on fabric, eventually becoming the Row's youngest master cutter. He recalls tailors who had been at Huntsman for 30 to 40 years, including one who was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work for the Queen. Anderson was fascinated by the fact that each tailor had a specific role, affixing either collars or sleeves or doing nothing but cut trousers.
After 25 years at Huntsman and convinced there was still a market for quality custom-tailored suits, Anderson in 2001 opened his eponymous shop at 13 Savile Row, with the idea of carrying on the old techniques with a modern twist. Today he says his 22-employee business is profitable, with revenue around £1 million ($1.65 million) and clients including Simon Cowell and Benicio del Toro. He recently published Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed (Simon & Schuster; September 2009), which has been described as a kind of Kitchen Confidential set in the world of tailoring. Anderson, 44, spoke to BusinessWeek Staff Writer Stacy Perman. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
In today's world, does bespoke tailoring still have appeal as a career choice?
Actually there has been quite a strong swing back with young kids going into the trade. We're now seen as fashionable. The BBC did a documentary, and it portrayed [Savile Row] in a really good light. A lot of the kids are sort of seeing the trade and apprenticing as a good way go. Tuition fees to go to university are exorbitant, [so] this holds good appeal.
What made you decide to start your own company?
Basically [Henry Huntsman & Sons] had been taken over. New management came on board, and it really was a signal to me. I was still at a young age. I felt that I had gone as far as I could at the time and thought I could take all that I had learned and put it in a fresh new setting.
What did you bring to your own house that set you apart from the other more established Savile Row firms?
When we moved into No. 13, the clientele had changed a little bit. We wanted to mirror what we learned at Huntsman in terms of quality, customer service, and the tradition of teaching young people, but put it into a mod context. We had younger customers, and we didn't want them to feel intimidated by the surroundings of a traditional shop. But we also didn't want to upset our older clientele. We created an inviting clean, white, bright, modern shop. We put the workshops in the center so customers could see us working and not hidden away in the basement like many of the shops.
We were a new name on the Row that experimented with slightly different, modern fabrics, and vibrant, brighter colors. We experimented with cotton and velvet, and we did big polo overcoats in check tweed. In a way it was more fashionable than some.
When you first opened you put an ad in The Wall Street Journal announcing that you would be traveling to the U.S. to receive clients in 11 cities, and you came back with £75,000 ($123,948) in orders. This was a winning strategy—what was your thinking?
There is a kind of gentleman's agreement that if you leave a shop you don't go ring up all your clients and bring them on.


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