The Church Commissioners for England have just executed the sale of Savile Row and Cork Street to the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund (NSWF) for £343m for a 57.8% stake in the Pollen Estate property, which constitutes a substantial part of Mayfair in Central London. No stranger to Mayfair, the NSWF also owns 25 percent of the neighboring Regent Street portfolio, purchased in 2010.
The sale affects a total of four acres of London’s Capital West End. An additional 6.4 percent share of the Pollen Estate has also been sold to the Crown Estate of the British Crown, for a grand sale of £381m.
According to the Guardian, more than 990 parties received a sale brochure with 86 interested parties including banks, pension funds and charitable foundations touring the estate as potential buyers of the Mayfair property, including Savile Row, world renowned for its bespoke tailoring.
Mayfair’s sweeping, worldwide fame is fairly recent. Around 2008, interest in men’s style escalated as young men of the Western World who grew up with fathers wearing button-down shirts with chinos or Dockers to work, rebelled by dressing-up. Online forums and niche blogs about male elegance sprouted, eventually taking root in the mainstream press and igniting widespread interest in the golden mile of tailoring.
Television shows like Mad Men premiered in 2007, followed by Boardwalk Empire, Suits, and feature films such as Gatsby, all of which bombarded the world with images of elegant men, and the intrigue with male style continued to rocket.
In 2007 and 2008, author, archivist and preservationist James Sherwood, aka “the Guardian of Savile Row” played a major role in generating worldwide media interest in Savile Row. In 2007, Sherwood curated the first ever exhibition featuring London’s historical tailors of the Row in “The London Cut” exhibition, presented in Florence, Paris and Tokyo. In 2008, he published a Thames and Hudson definitive book on British tailoring entitled “Savile Row” which gave gentlemen around the world a chance to discover the iconic street of bespoke tailoring.
Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Imgur has since blanketed the web with images of smartly clad gentlemen who could pass for dandies and gangsters. Hipsters, business men, geeks, metropolitan men, and the occasional countryside gentleman responded by creating blogs of their own to reflect their developing taste in clothing.
With the menswear market growing at a faster rate than the female fashion market, business entities, luxury groups and marketing divisions are taking notice and the move is on to acquire lucrative houses and stores in order to invest in the apparent craze.
One of the dwindling number of Savile Row tailoring houses still family-owned. Dege & Skinner, Savile Row No. 10. Pictured here: Chairman Michael Skinner with the Prince of Wales.
Trying to capture the gist of Savile Row is like trying to describe the blues scene on Beale Street.
Ask the cutters, tailors and craftsmen, as well as customers who’ve frequented Mayfair for decades to describe the Mayfair district, and they will likely tell you that this place defies description.
The ritual of entering an atelier, selecting fabric, getting measured and sharing a coffee and a chat with your tailor, followed by subsequent fittings, are all part of commissioning a handmade suit. But interest about Savile Row has a further reach. Many men who will never step foot on Savile Row still follow the news of the iconic Mayfair tailoring houses and keep up with the latest activities of the master tailors who run the ateliers, as if they were monitoring the goings-on of a football or rugby league.
The Mayfair district has a culture all its own with an unspoken language, where the word “perfect” is not really spoken, since made-by-hand is less about perfection and more about interjecting the character of the master tailor into the clothing. In this culture, you know when your tailor says your suit will be ready in eight weeks, that he actually means three months (or more).
It’s a place where clients know to keep quiet when the tailor is working with a measuring tape, and where time stands still whenever a customer steps through the atelier door, and commences only after the client has been properly greeted. Price isn’t spoken about in the company of others, but sincere praise is spoken quietly, as the tailor receives his lifeblood from satisfied clients. Master tailors are looked upon as godfathers of the trade, and the intrigue for the tailoring scene easily becomes contagious and addictive.
Norges Bank oversees Norway’s $808-billion sovereign-wealth fund and the government has given a mandate for the fund to put 5 percent of its assets in property. With a penchant for English territory, Norges bank is the second-largest shareholder in British Land.
NSWF is likely well aware of the story of Savile Row. Although the fund disbanded it ethics board this year, NSWF has been known to make weighted-decisions that have sacrificed profit in the name of a good cause, including foregoing drilling a highly lurative oil site in favor of protecting an endangered fish species.
Is it possible that the NSWF could take up the cause of the preserving the heritage of Savile Row? Not likely, but we can dream.
1. Fung Capital/Trinity Ltd. Buys Four Savile Row Houses
In the last few years, the Hong Kong based Fung group has acquired three tailoring houses located on the Savile Row main strip (i.e., No. 1 – 23).
These acquisitions include Gieves and Hawkes (No. 1, purchased by Trinity of the Fung Group), Kilgour (No. 8, purchased by Fung Capital of Li & Fung) and Hardie Amies (No. 14, purchased by Fung Capital of Li & Fung). The three menswear companies are planned to be part of a new portfolio called “Savile Row Brands”, whose products will be sold through luxury department stores and online outlets worldwide. Last November, a fourth house, Kent & Curwen (purchased by Trinity of the Fung Group in 2008) opened a flagship store at the Savile Row No. 2 address.
Li & Fung bought Kilgour in September of 2013 from London’s Luxury Group JMH Lifestyle. The acquisition of Bernard Weatherill at Savile Row No. 5 (also owned by JMH) was considered but did not pan out.
In the recent past, other ateliers have also been acquired by outsiders (e.g., Huntsman was acquired by Roubi L’Roubi in the beginning of 2012), but Fung Group ownership of multiple houses has been a sore spot for those who have been loyal to these acquired ateliers for decades, even introducing their sons and grandsons to their cherished tailor as a rite of passage into adulthood.
2.Retail Conglomerates are Locating Directly on the Row
After a prolonged battle by local tailors to prevent Abercrombie Kids from taking over the Savile Row No. 3 location (formally owned by The Beatles as their Apple Records location and where they performed their final rooftop performance in 1969), A & F has apparently prevailed, with construction moving forward to install their first ever Abercrombie Kid’s stand-alone store.
With the historic street no longer free from the common sight of chain-stores, local tailors risk being forced to relocate to avoid foreseen hikes in property rental costs, and the golden mile risks becoming littered with chain stores that can be found on most any busy city street around the world.
3. The name “Savile Row” is printed on the labels of a mass-marketed menswear brand
The French mass-marketed “fashionable” brand with a computer-generated name The Kooples, who produces economy suiting (with accessories such as timepiece chains sewn directly into their clothing), and is known for its barely-there jacket lapels and drain-pipe trouser legs, places the name Savile Row directly on its clothing labels, with an apparent collaboration with Savile Row’s Norton & Sons.
The Kooples even attempted to locate on Savile Row No. 5, but abandoned the attempt under Row opposition in 2012.
4. Bespoke tailors introduce ready-to-wear lines—with only some ateliers offering RTW that actually looks similar to their handmade suits.
Some of the most distinguished ateliers of the Row are introducing ready-to-wear (RTW) lines.
There are two schools of thought for introducing a RTW line: (1) produce a clothing line that emulates the house suit-cut and style , giving many cost-conscious men the chance to own a RTW suit that resembles suits made from their favorite Savile Row house, or (2) produce a RTW line (usually made in Italy) with suits that often look nothing like the bespoke house style, other than the label itself.
5. As a way to make more suits faster, most tailors are outsourcing work to keep up with demand
A surge in outsourcing work has been seen in the last few years, with bespoken fabrics being sent to tailors outside the country to ease the workload and meet the growing demand for handmade suits.
Some outsourcing work is quite good and reflects the house style, while other foreign outsourcing work shows less concern for strict adherence to the house design, thus losing some of the finer points of British tailoring (see Of British Tailoring).
A premise to remember about Savile Row is that here, elegance is rarely confused with snobbery.
The belief that “snobbery sells” is simply not in tune with the times since more and more people are not impressed with labels and marketing hype, and are instead returning to the notion of placing value on the quality of the product itself.
When it comes to bespoke tailoring, commissioning a good suit creates an intense sense of nostalgia because there is a realization that the cutters and tailors who create clothing for the body are practicing a form of craftsmanship that must be taught to them by another master tailor.
These cutters and tailors are artisans—a point apparently not understood by those who play loosely with names like “bespoke” and “Savile Row”.
Just a generation ago, the idea that Savile Row would remain British to the core must have seemed like a given.
Back then, Brits observed the example of France, when in 1965 the heirs of the iconic institution of bespoke shirt-making Charvet sought to sell the business and were contacted by an American buyer. The French government grew concerned and got involved. The French Ministry of Industry instructed Denis Colban, Charvet’s main supplier–to locate a French buyer for President Charles de Gaulle ‘s favorite shirt-maker. At this point Colban decided to buy the landmark store himself, thus retaining the Charvet legacy as being French-owned. Surely the Brits believed that an institution like Savile Row would be equally protected if necessary.
Maybe today is just too different from the time of Charvet in the 1960s. Perhaps the importance of ‘heritage’ has become so overplayed as a marketing strategy to sell clothes and accessories, that no one takes heritage seriously anymore.
In 2013, one fervent individual composed an e-petition to the UK government as an appeal to protect the heritage of Westminster and make Savile Row a World Heritage Site. Here’s the text:
Give Savile Row, Westminster – World Heritage Site status
Responsible department: Department for Culture, Media and Sport
“I want the government to put forward Savile Row for UNESCO World Heritage Site status to help protect and nurture the craftsmanship, skills and talents of the tailors of Savile Row, to keep their traditions alive. Also to stop the ongoing encroachment of huge corporate fashion houses wishing to bask in the Savile Row glory; this could be executed through an exclusion zone around Savile Row where no companies could operate without the agreement of all parties already within Savile Row.”
Unfortunately, not enough people knew about the petition and it only received 13 votes…
These relatively sudden changes in Mayfair compels us to ask:
* Will the Fung Group, who now controls four Savile Row houses, let their interest in mass-marketing RTW clothing lines bearing the Savile Row name, cause the staunch reputation of these four iconic houses to become obsolete?
* How can one who knows the story of Mayfair, not feel affected upon seeing the bizarre site of an Abercrombie Kids store at Savile Row No. 3?
* Is something amiss when an atelier’s RTW suits look nothing like the cut/style of the house’s bespoke suits?
* How can the name of Savile Row not be heavily diluted when a pure mass-market brand like The Kooples bears the Row’s name on its clothing labels? And, is The Kooples brand not ‘sawing the branch that it is sitting on’ by associating the name of Savile Row with industrial fused products?
In the discreet world of tailoring, these are reasonable questions to ask, but it still feels somewhat sacrilegious to even challenge many of these beloved tailoring houses, simply because they. are. beloved.
We no longer take for granted those ateliers that stay true to their roots, guard the methods of British tailoring and feel a responsibility to keep the story of Savile Row alive.
But, when everything is said and done, maybe we don’t care so much about who owns which atelier, or whether outsourcing is done by our favorite house, or if a RTW line is being sold. What most of us really care about is the product itself–and whether the suit we commission in Mayfair reflects a genuine Savile Row suit, or not.
It’s that simple and that complicated.
Sonya Glyn Nicholson, Senior Editor
William Maddox purchased the “Pollen Estate” of 35 acres of undeveloped land in 1622 for 1,450£ (a portion of the estate still remains within the Pollen family), of which is now made up of 43 retail and office buildings between Regent Street and Bond Street, including the famed Savile Row, known throughout the world as “the golden mile of tailoring”, where iconic suits are made by hand with each suit taking between 40-80 man hours to complete.
* Before Savile Row was extended to Conduit Street in 1937, the original Savile Row held 23 prominent addresses.
* Since 1622, the raw land that evolved into being the most famous tailoring street in the world is still partially owned by William Maddox’s descendants as part of the Pollen Estate.
* The Row is built between 1731 and 1735, on freehold land known as ‘Ten Acres’ — belonging to merchant and tailor, William Maddox.
* In 1773, the row is named after Lady Dorothy Savile, wife of the third Earl of Burlington.
* Under the inspiration of Burlington’s interpretation of Palladian architecture, Daniel Garrett supervises architects Colon Campbell and Henry Flitcroft, who serve as the key architects for the Savile Row construction and design plan. However, it is William Kent who designs the beginning and the end of the Row at the time, specifically No. 1 and No 22-23.
* Initially laid out under the name Savile Street, Savile Row ran from Burlington Gardens (then Vigo Lane) to Boyle Street, with houses only on the east side. A full century of time passed before houses were built on the west side.
Today, some well-known addresses on Savile Row Nos. 1 – 20 include:
No. 1 – Gieves and Hawkes (Trinity of the Fung Group)
No. 2 – Kent & Curwen Flagship Store (Trinity of the Fung Group)
No. 3 – Abercrombie Kids (bought August, 2011)
No. 5 – Bernard Weatherill (London’s JMH Group)
No 8. – Kilgour (Fung Capital of Li & Fung)
No 9. – Alexander McQueen (opened September, 2012)
No. 10 – Dege & Skinner (original owners)
No. 11 – H. Huntsman and sons (Roubi L’Roubi )
No. 12 – Chittleborough & Morgan (original owners)
No. 13 – Richard Anderson (original owners), Cad & Dandy (original owners)
No. 14 – Hardie Aimes (Fung Capital of Li & Fung)
No. 15 – Henry Poole (original owners)
No. 16 – Norton & Sons (resumed by Patrick Grant)
No. 19 – Maurice Sedwell (successor: former employee Andrew Ramroop), Chester Barrie (Prominent Europe)
No. 20 – Welsh & Jefferies (successor: former employee James Cottrell and his partner Yingmei Quan).