Sometimes kindness can be lost in a cruel world, and sometimes when you meet a person with pure intention and light, you are reminded that such people exist. That’s how it felt upon meeting Michael Skinner, today’s patriarch of one of the last of two family-owned Savile Row Houses.
A few years have passed since meeting the man and his son–managing director William Skinner, as well as Cass Stainton and the staff at Dege and Skinner, but I still reflect on the immaculate manners and graciousness of the people who make up this formidable Savile Row House, which many say has the most beautiful store window in all of the Row.
At a shop in London where about one out of every four bespoke ‘suits’ is a military uniform, Dege & Skinner can rightly claim to craft suits with commanding silhouettes. Caps, overalls, boots, tunics, and decorations are also made by hand in the workshop, translating into experience that can’t help but sharpen the skills of the tailors who are crafting a shooting tweed or a city suit.
You may already know that Michael Jackson wore a D & S military coat to some of his performances, but never mind that. The key point is that 75 percent of the work at D & S involves crafting classic suiting–timeless ensembles with structure, clean shoulders and carefully-fitted proportions (indeed suits with the potential to outlast a lifetime).
Creating a mood of casual nonchalance is not an objective here; instead, creating a defined silhouette is the charge, with many D & S clients being so discreet that you’ll be hard pressed to find photos of customers, as these clients still guard the name of their tailor. Here, things are done much like they were done in the late 1800s.
In 1865, America saw the end of the Civil War while Englishman Lewis Carroll was wrapping up Alice in Wonderland and Mark Twain’s fame was on the rise in the U.S.
But in London, the new tailoring shop of Dege was raising its founding flag. Back in those days, young men from the city dressed up—a practice that held strong for the next century and half (up until the 1960s).
During the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, sons looked to their fathers as sartorial examples and many a lad watched his dad, day after day, armor himself with a suit and tie and then lace up his leather shoes before topping his head with a fedora or bowler.
In the city, social class standing did little to deter the practice of putting on a suit, which was standard fare, and tailoring houses responded to meet the growing demand.
Some boys approaching their own coming of age, were lucky enough to accompany their fathers to visit the family tailor to have their first suit commissioned. Englishmen, in particular, saw no better way to signify the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood than to have their sons ‘suit up’. Even as a kid, a city boy from this era must have imagined his eventual trip to the tailor, as he observed the busy streets of London filled to the brim with elegant men in smart suits.
As the mid-1900s industrial ‘ready-made-era’ unfolded, many tailors closed shop due to financial difficulties, lack of demand, or because no one in the family wanted to take over the business when the tailor retired—which often meant when the tailor was so old he could no longer put his hand to the cloth.
Jacob Dege was a German immigrant who came to London in 1855. For eight years prior to his immigration, Germany had been a difficult place, as attempted reformations on taxation and censorship repeatedly failed—with leagues of fed-up citizens packing their bags to build a new life in a less turbulent location.
Whether the political climate in Germany influenced Dege’s decision to immigrate or not, ten years after he moved to London, he established a tailoring business at No. 13 Conduit Street, in 1865.
Jacob continued working in London well into his elderly years, until anti-German sentiment in 1917 caused him to leave as chairman of the company–a difficult ending to an accomplished career.
A few years before Jacob left the tailoring house, his son Arthur attended Merchant Taylor’s School where he met a young Englishman named William “Tim” Skinner, whose family was trading on Jermyn street at the time. The two names united briefly to form Dege & Skinner. But tragedy struck the Dege Family when Arthur’s two younger brothers died, putting Arthur in a position to give full attention to the Dege former family business; thus, dividing the Dege & Skinner name. In the meantime, William carried on the tailoring business on his side.
In 1939, William bought the royal-robe maker Wilkenson & Son (and two years later opened outposts in the military towns of Aldershot and Catterick).
In 1947, the industrious William ‘Tim’ Skinner decided to buy the Dege name. His son and current chairman Michael Skinner entered the business in 1953. Then, in a bold move in 1967, ‘Dege’ bought Rogers & Co. as well as John Jones—both military tailors, creating a tailoring-force to be reckoned with in the industry!
Current chairman Michael Skinner is an international visionary and is among the first in the business (starting in 1964) to arrange visits across England, the USA, Japan, Gulf locations, and Europe.
Imagine the cerebral and copious work involved in cutting and tailoring, and add to this the sheer energy required to visit such varied international locations and manage client requests from all around the world.
In the year 2000, Michael at last re-established the name Dege & Skinner. More about Michael and his son William (named after his venerable Grandfather) is detailed below.
Happily, Dege & Skinner’s longstanding operation keeps alive the old tradition of allowing a person to ‘stay true to his tailor’, for the lucky man whose family predecessors happened to select Dege as the family tailor of choice.
Keeping in mind the goal of choosing a tailor for my own family—a great tailor who could stick around for generations to come, my son Elliot has completed two fittings with Dege & Skinner, during their bi-annual trek to Atlanta.
Even if Elliot’s suit may take a year and a half to complete due to the distance between Atlanta and London, his suit should be finished in time for his law school graduation next Spring.
Elliot chose a single breasted navy blue suit. His first fitting was with William Skinner himself; and his second fitting with cutter Nicholas De’Ath. We hope to keep you updated on the final result.
Above, from top to bottom : Nicholas De ‘Ath, Senior Bespoke Cutter, Tristan Thorne, Cutter and Peter Ward, Head Cutter.
Even if it’s true that today we can enjoy the recent phenomenon of buying ‘top level’ ready-to-wear suits, the age-old experience of having our clothes sewn by hand remains an encounter to be cherished. One day, I at least imagine that Elliot may make the journey with his future child or grandchild to visit the family tailor at Dege & Skinner at Savile Row No. 10 in London.
In April, Dege & Skinner celebrated 150 years of bespoke services. In 2012, the workshops of D & S moved into the basement underneath the shop, fully integrating operations at Savile Row number 10.
A summary of the ceremony (taken directly from the company’s website) :
Fittingly held on St George’s Day (St George being the Patron Saint of England), our team of bespoke cutters, bespoke tailors and bespoke shirt makers were joined by a number of our long standing customers, dignitaries and notable faces from the media, to celebrate 150 years of bespoke tailoring at Dege & Skinner.
Gathered together to raise a glass to our company’s continued health, Managing Director William Skinner, who is the fifth generation of his family to work in the tailoring trade, gave a rousing speech to mark the significant milestone in Dege & Skinner’s illustrious history, as the assembled guests enjoyed Chivas cocktails, Champagne and delicious canapés .
To close formalities, The Queen’s Master of the Horse Lord Vestey, who has been a wonderful customer at number 10 Savile Row for nearly twenty years, kindly gave the official toast to the company’s continued good health.
Also highlighted at the celebration was their permanent bespoke shirt-making service. Many of you may already be familiar with famous shirtmaker Robert Whittaker of Dege & Skinner (see above), who cuts and sews shirts from scratch in the Dege & Skinner workshop. Most every sartorially-inclined man in the world would be honored to own a shirt crafted by Mr. Whittaker.
1. Dege & Skinner is one of the founding members of the Savile Row Bespoke Association.
2. Michael Skinner attended the Queen’s Coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953 where he, his father, and John Dege dressed the Peers of the Realm.
As written by our friend and contributor James Sherwood :
A coronation commission is little short of a lottery win. The Row does not anticipate a British coronation for many years to come and would benefit little, considering the English peerage’s habit of holding onto things Dege chairman Michael Skinner, who attended the 1953 coronation, says, ‘Peers and peeresses robes are stored by the tailors and simply tarted up when the next coronation comes along. Many date back to the 1902 coronation of Edward VII. So a British coronation isn’t really the jackpot. But foreign royal houses are another matter entirely. … Skinner is speaking from experience. His house holds the royal warrant for the dandy Sultan of Oman as well as the King of Bahrain.
3. Today, the British army may need fewer new uniforms due to its gradual decrease in size, but Dege & Skinner has seen a rise in demand for their suiting bespoke services, since other family-owned Savile Row institutions have sold out and many “abandoned” bespoke clients have made the pilgrimage to either Dege & Skinner or Henry Poole, both still family-owned—as a way to continue the generational experience of suiting up on the Row.
4. For centuries, royal warrants of appointment have been issued by royal families to tradesmen who supply to the royal court or royal persons, lending prestige to the supplier. Dege & Skinner is the holder of three royal warrants from HM Queen Elizabeth II, HM the Sultan of Oman, and HM the King of Bahrain.
5. Michael rode in the 1961 Badminton Horse Trials and eventually became sought after as a prominent equestrian tailor.
6. Dege & Skinner had the honor of making the uniforms for TRH Prince William and Prince Harry when they were commissioned into the Blues & Royals. Their cutters and tailors visit the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst on a weekly basis to measure and fit uniforms for the British Army Officers of the future. Dege and Skinner is also the exclusive firm entitled to make officer dress jackets for the King’s Troop.
7. Dege & Skinner travels to the U.S. (New York, San Francisco, Atlanta) three times a year . In America, Savile Row still rules supreme for bespoke suiting, so when an institution like Dege & Skinner shows up in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s a big deal for men who cherish the story of the Row and all that it represents.
Making a suit at a place like Dege & Skinner is not about buying suit, it’s about something else. Something larger than life.
First, a lot of stress is removed in life when it comes to worrying about what to wear when you have a bespoke suit or two, because a bespoke suit really can last a lifetime if you take care of it and keep your body in reasonable shape.
Next, the experience of commissioning a bespoke suit is really special as it celebrates a trade that has been around since people first started wearing suits and jackets. Supporting craftsmen by investing in their work feels right, even if it isn’t easy for a lot of us to afford a bespoke suit.
Some people feel that commissioning a suit is too lavish, but I don’t feel that way because I’ve seen how much money is wasted on industrial clothes and “fashionable” clothes that are worn for a year or two and then thrown out or given away, only to be re-bought again.
Dege & Skinner is one of those companies that helps men (and yes women) finance their investment because they really have a heart for others. Trying not to sound overly sentimental—but the people of Dege & Skinner give an often ‘difficult’ London a good name and I really admire the people of this company and am inspired by their beautiful spirit and impeccable work.
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DEGE & SKINNER LTD
10 Savile Row, London W1X 1AF, England.
Telephone +44 (0)207 287 2941
Fax +44 (0)207 734 8794
USA Toll Free: 1-800-200-3744
Open: Monday – Friday: 9.15 a.m. – 5.15 p.m.