Ozwald Boateng strides across the sawdust-strewn concrete floor, giving a tour of his new store on Savile Row, the short London street that's been the home of Britain's bespoke-tailoring industry for nearly 200 years. Amid a jumble of exposed wires and beams, Boateng points out where the fitting areas, showrooms and workspaces will be when the store opens in December. The British men's fashion designer and tailor he calls himself a "bespoke couturier" opened his first small outlet on the street in 1993. Though his flashy personal style seem at odds with the Row's more discreet, clubby image, Boateng is a champion of classic English tailoring and the street on which it was born.
"Savile Row and bespoke, for me, is a passion," he says. And his new 6,800-square-foot store is testimony to the street's revitalization. A mere 18 months ago, the British press was writing obituaries for Savile Row's tailors, whose hand-sewn suits typically start at around $6,000. Even some of the oldest and most august establishments were threatened by rents that had jumped 50% in 10 years. The street also faces growing competition, both from cheap Asian knockoffs and from expensive made-to-measure suits by luxury brands such as Tom Ford and Giorgio Armani. "But now, at least, we're fighting back," says Anda Rowland, vice chairman of the venerable tailoring firm of Anderson & Sheppard. And, according to the industry's 14-member association, Savile Row Bespoke, it's seeing signs of success.
Last year the group joined the local government and the street's two principal landlords in an alliance to keep the tailoring industry intact. "You tell me the name of a street more famous than Savile Row in Britain," Boateng says. "It has so much tradition and history. It needs to be protected." Property consultant Mike Jones agrees that the tailors give Savile Row a unique and valuable cachet: "It would be silly not to recognize that."
Under a new plan, the upper floors of buildings will be dedicated to office space, which fetches higher rentals, while almost all of the tailoring shops will move to street-level and basement premises on the street's east side, where most of them are already located. The move will free up more retail space for high-end off-the-rack clothing stores in an attempt to make Savile Row more of an exclusive shopping destination. (Many of the tailor shops operate on an appointment basis and aren't set up to attract casual shoppers.)
The tailors are optimistic about the planned changes, but they also foresee potential problems. The tailors fear that some of the newly available retail space will be filled by men's outfitters they consider rivals. And despite rent increases, the tailors have historically paid much less than the going retail rates in the neighborhood Savile Row tailors pay an average of $255 per square foot, while rents on nearby Regent Street are around $820 per square foot. Although the tailors will continue to receive substantial discounts, their rents will almost certainly continue to creep upward. "It will remain survival of the fittest," Rowland says.
To boost revenues, some Savile Row tailors have licensed franchises in Asia. Others, like Boateng and Gieves & Hawkes, also sell ready-to-wear and made-to-measure clothes. The latter, unlike bespoke, are altered from block patterns rather than being custom-made bespoke suits are cut by hand from scratch to meet the buyer's exact build, gleaned from 35 different measurements and requiring at least three fittings, and then stitched almost entirely by hand.
Jones argues that poor marketing and promotion, rather than stiffer rents, had been the industry's main problems. "Two years ago, the industry wasn't confident. Now, it is." Rowland agrees: "We let 'Savile Row Bespoke' be used right, left and center." Today, a "collective mark" trademark registration of the term requires that anyone wanting to call their wares Savile Row Bespoke must meet a long list of quality criteria, including at least 50 man-hours per suit, and be located on the street or within 100 yards of it. Though interlopers could be sued, the mark is mostly a strong marketing tool, to give Savile Row Bespoke the same kind of legal brand exclusivity as, say, French Champagne.
The efforts are paying off. Total annual bespoke revenues currently around $51 million have grown by more than 10% a year for the past few, according to the industry group. Savile Row's tailors have long attracted heads of state, captains of industry, and the stars of music, film and sports, from Prince Charles and Cary Grant to Mick Jagger and David Beckham. Now, a growing number of younger customers, weary of big-name, overexposed luxury brands, are joining the club. Explains Rowland: "They're looking for something more authentic. They're asking, 'What's new?'" And for some, the answer is classic tailoring, an art that goes back nearly two centuries.