I must say, it was a complete surprise to learn recently that I had been voted one of GQ’s Best Dressed Men [in March 2012]. It wasn’t so long ago I was voted by another panel of judges the Worst Dressed. In the past I have been named both in successive years. In fact, in the early Seventies, I swung from one extreme to another so often that when I turned up for a dinner at the Master Tailors’ Benevolent Association in London’s Grosvenor Square in 1971 I was confronted by my poor tailor, whose despair was only too evident when he responded to press questions about my being chosen as the worst-dressed man for that year. In an anguished voice, he said, “But you don’t know his measurements!”
It was probably this experience that made me decide I simply had to go my own way and stick to what I felt suited me. As that happens to involve what many once considered to be old-fashioned double-breasted suits, I can only expect to be considered unfashionable; although one commentator recently called me “beyond fashion”, which added a whole new dimension to my confusion. I am still not sure if she meant it as a compliment...
The recognition of GQ was, therefore, encouraging to say the least. I took it very much as a vote for what can perhaps best be described as the classic and timeless look of British style. If what I am told by the tailors and shirt- and shoe-makers I come into contact with is true, then this look is very much the envy of the world. They tell me their order books from overseas clients have never been fuller, and I am not surprised by this.
I have long been an admirer of British tailoring and the associated trades: shirt-makers, for instance, like Turnbull & Asser, whose long established factory in Gloucestershire is but one example of a small workforce with generations of experience who cut with precision the 30 or so pieces that go to make up every one of their shirts. I am told there are 20 stitches in every inch of such a garment. I am also reassured that its mother-of-pearl buttons are farmed from renewable sources. No wonder, then, that even though the industry is dominated by mass-production techniques and synthetic fabrics, some of the top international fashion houses turn to British companies that display this attention to detail. It is worth considering why.
For me, one reason is that quite apart from it being wonderful to wear, such crafts-men and -women offer products with excellent durability. It is a somewhat sobering thought, I suppose, that I have probably spent the greater part of my life in suits. But because I do, in my view such items of clothing have to do two things. Given the demands of my life, it is a great help if a suit looks as good at the end of a day as it did at the start; and it also has to withstand the heavy battering it can sometimes receive. So the challenge to tailors, shirt- and shoe-makers is a tough one. Clothes have to combine style with sustainability and I find British-made tailoring more than meets that challenge – much to the amusement of my staff, who are sometimes surprised to find that what I am wearing turns out to be as old as or even older than they are.
Of course, trying to fit a disintegrating body into an old suit or uniform is a somewhat nightmarish experience. But the sheer fact that such suits were clearly made to last is a critical element in the celebration about to be launched by the British Fashion Council with the London Collections: Men shows, later this month. I am very much looking forward to meeting some of the many designers and manufacturers involved when I host a reception for the event at St James’s Palace – people, for instance, like John Hitchcock, the managing director of Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard. He is a typical member of his profession: he started straight from school on the shop floor at the age of 16, learning his trade from, and guided by, the vast experience of his older colleagues. As a result, he knows from first-hand experience why British tailoring is second-to-none in the world.
Many other parts of the world have lost those skills. Hitchcock travels regularly to America, for example, where the children of many of those great but humble New York tailors of the Fifties aspired to the professions, not to trade. So the skills were not so successfully handed on. It could have happened in the UK, especially during the Eighties when nobody was interested in becoming a tailor and bespoke tailoring itself was falling out of fashion. Fortunately, companies like Hitchcock’s kept the candle burning.
They invested their own money, creating highly unfashionable apprenticeship schemes. Comp-etition to join them is now stiff. Anderson & Sheppard currently employs seven people between the ages of 19 and 28 who learn their trade over a long, six-year period in its specially created workshop. It is an expensive investment. The entire Savile Row Bespoke Association has also teamed up with Newham College in London to create a tailoring course. More than 200 students have graduated so far and the good news is that they have more students on the present course than they have ever had before. Students leave with a first-rate qualification that enables them to apply for apprenticeships with the association’s members, many of whom are on Savile Row itself.
For me, this proves the point I have been trying to remind people of for years: that craft skills matter and that, despite the wonders of modern technology, there is a huge and growing demand – particularly overseas and in Southeast Asia – for the hallmark products such skills can produce. Such schemes guarantee that the highest standards of British craftsmanship are in safe hands and are being passed on to the next generation, whereas elsewhere in the world they have died out. And there are other benefits, too...
With the acquisition of such skills comes a real enthusiasm for the natural materials with which these trades work, chief among them being wool – a miracle material the priceless virtues of which I have been trying to extol through challenging the general belief that synthetic alternatives are somehow cleaner and cheaper. This assumption has created a parlous economic situation for many of the world’s hardest-working farmers who find it can cost far more to shear a sheep than they make from the wool, despite the wonders that wool can offer.
Its production is certainly kinder to the earth. It takes a lot less fossil fuel to grow and there is no need for the sorts of noxious chemicals that manufacturing synthetic alternatives require – substances that, of course, have to be disposed of as well. Even so, flocks are growing smaller, or, even worse, farmers are giving up sheep-farming altogether, with devastating consequences for those local economies that depend upon hill-farming communities. Which is why, at the start of 2010, I launched my Campaign For Wool to highlight just what an extraordinary natural material wool is.
Not only is wool flame-retardant to 600°C – thus meeting stringent clothing safety standards without the need for any additional chemical treatments – its structure also enables it to absorb and release perspiration naturally. This is very useful in clothing, just as it is in buildings. In both cases, wool absorbs moisture without itself feeling wet and is also a brilliant insulator. For tailors, though, it is wool’s remarkable natural “drape” that makes it such a wonderful material to work with. Wool is made up of very fine fibres that have a natural elasticity and resilience that is very hard to replicate in a synthetic material. So much so that I have often wondered why so many scientists have gone to such expensive lengths to create clever, new, artificial materials, when all along nature has done it for us far more efficiently, and all without harming the planet.
I was tremendously encouraged that my Campaign For Wool gained support so quickly from all those involved in the industry, from the wool-growers right through to the top-end designers and manufacturers. The world’s major trading organisations also joined the call for manufacturers to look again at what wool can do and it gave me the greatest satisfaction when the campaign started to make a real impact on consumers in the High Street, in one instance quite literally, when Savile Row itself was memorably turned into a lush meadow in 2010, complete with grazing sheep and sheep-dog displays.
The Campaign For Wool was not just focused on the work of top-ranking British tailors. I have seen for myself on my visits to Australia and New Zealand the remarkable uses to which merino wool’s uniquely soft, fine drape is being put, not just in fashionwear, but in the manufacture of astonishingly resilient, lightweight outdoor and athletics clothing. And remember, nature does not produce noxious substances that the world has no use for. I recently paid a visit to the woollen mills in Bradford where I was shown what the by-product of the scouring process can do. Scouring removes grease from the wool and this grease has many applications, everything from an ingredient of biofuels to a staple in fish food, or even an natural fertiliser.
Some French speakers use a rather striking phrase when talking about shoes. “Ça fait un bon pied.” It makes a good foot, they say. In the end, if you were to ask me what makes a good shirt or a good suit, not only does it make as good a figure as possible, it also helps you to “feel right”. How often have we worn a new shirt or jacket that doesn’t quite feel right and so, all day long, we don’t quite feel right either. The high standard of British craftsmanship, however, can perhaps help you to “feel right” most of the time, sometimes in the most difficult or trying of circumstances.
That is why I hope that the forthcoming British Fashion Council’s event will help bolster the confidence of Britain’s clothes designers and manufacturers, much as their craftsmanship has for so many years bolstered ours. They certainly deserve our support.