The Story of Savile Row: The Home of Bespoke Luxury Tailoring
There’s a reason why the term Savile Row carries immense weight in the world of fashion. For over two centuries, this thoroughfare in Mayfair, London has been synonymous with luxury fashion, and particularly, bespoke men’s tailoring.
The London din seems to soften as you step away from Regent Street onto The Row, as if in reverence. Tailoring is quiet work after all, demanding focus and concentration – measuring, cutting, stitching, fitting. The street is lined with the headquarters of some of the world’s most eminent tailoring houses, each shop window promising the last word in luxury suits. Behind closed doors and away from showrooms, master craftsmen apply their skills and knowledge to the finest cloths and materials on earth, always striving for perfection with the finished product.
This place has become something of a Mecca in the fashion world, and though it’s had its ups and downs through the years, Savile Row has made a resurgence in the last decade. Some might say that tailored clothing is back. We would disagree – we would say it never left. But we’re pleased to see that the respect it garners is on the rise again.
Savile Row is also where Marc Oliver has been operating by exclusive appointment since launching in 2008. It’s a well-worn path on our daily rounds through this great city.
When we meet new clients, particularly those visiting Savile Row for the first time, they often ask about the history and heritage of The Row. It’s a story we’ve told hundreds of times, so we figured it’s about time we put it in writing.
The Origins of Savile Row
Savile Row was built in the 1730s as part of the development of the Burlington Estate, which was owned by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. Boyle was considered something of an authority on fashion and good taste, and regularly hosted the best artists of the time at Burlington House which predated the wider estate on nearby Piccadilly.
Today Burlington House is home to a number of eminent institutions including the Royal Academy, the Geological Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Named after his wife Dorothy Savile (and then known as Savile Street), the expansion of Burlington Estate brought with it the arrival of many more artists, aristocrats, and indeed high ranking military officers. One house in particular, No.15, was occupied by the Countess of Suffolk who was the mistress of George III.
From a design perspective, Savile Street was heavily influenced by the Earl of Burlington’s admiration for Palladian architecture – a Renaissance style which had emerged in England the previous century, but took inspiration from the work of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. However, Burlington and his architects’ rendition of Palladianism was distinctive enough to warrant a new term for the style in which Savile Row was built – Burlingtonian.
Alas, much of Savile Row has since been modernised as building facades were redesigned by tailors to allow more light into their studios. That being said, some well preserved Burlingtonian design can still be seen from numbers twelve and sixteen Savile Row, which are home to SCABAL (right next door to Huntsman & Sons), and Norton & Sons respectively.
Though much of the architectural heritage has made way for the modern, Savile Row has lost none of its mystique really. The fact that it’s still just one block over from Regent Street helps, as does the fact that it remains the home of some of the world’s finest tailoring houses.
How Savile Row Became a Tailoring Hub
With so many affluent aristocrats and artisans and crucially, military personnel, in the area, the late 18th and early-mid 19th century saw a growing influx of tailors coming and going from Savile Row to create clothing from scratch – bespoke clothing – that reflected the status of the residents.
It’s important to note that during the late 18th century, there was a tidal shift in dressing styles, particularly for men. These changes helped pave the way for the classic Savile Row suit. Muted, darker toned suits with ankle length trousers and shorter, natural hair had begun to replace the foppish “Macaroni style” of lighter colours, lace cuffs, frills and ruffles, powdered faces, flamboyant wigs and knee breeches. In short, the androgynous aristocratic look made way for a much more masculine, sober fashion sense – one that still exists today.
With so many classes of society now dressing along similar lines, it became important for quality to stand out. Hence, the rise of bespoke clothing on Savile Row. The world’s best fabrics, cut and fitted perfectly to help them stand apart from the rest.
Savile Row Tailoring: A Military Story
But there’s much more to this story – why did this change in style happen?
The answer, in a word, is Revolution. The French Revolution (1789-1799) across the Channel was the catalyst. To dress like an aristocrat in revolutionary France was to put a target on one’s own back, thus the emergence of this more egalitarian, democratic look, which also took hold in England. The fall of France’s silk industry and the collapse of trade relationships in the wake of the Revolution also played a major role here, with wool taking centre stage.
Both revolution and the Imperial expansion were a major theme around the world at this time, with the American Revolutionary War having only ended in 1783, and Great Britain still very much in conflict with France in the War of the Second Coalition.
While the spread of modern democratic, liberal ideals explains the shift in style, it doesn’t quite explain how Savile Row itself became such a tailoring hub though. This, however, can be attributed to war.
Savile Row was home to scores of high ranking military figures, and as Great Britain continued its global campaigns, the demand for military tailors rose. This led to a major increase in travelling tailors making their way to Savile Row to create formal military clothing, but just as importantly, everyday and weekend sportswear too.
So regularly did these tailors frequent Savile Row that by the mid 19th century, many had set up shops in and around Soho, Fitzrovia, and other nearby areas. Among these tailors were Henry Poole Senior (who is credited with the invention of the Dinner Jacket), and his son James (who inherited the business in 1846), as well as Thomas Hawkes and James Watson Gieve – they of Gieves & Hawkes fame.
This was long before the Gieves & Hawkes banded together (that was in 1974), but each had close ties to the British Military. Gieve was a well known supplier of Royal Navy uniforms, while Hawkes worked predominantly for the British Army.
According to most records however, Henry Poole & Co became the first tailor to officially set up shop on Savile Row itself, moving in from Brunswick Square. In 1913, Hawkes moved into Number 1 Savile Row – the address Gieves & Hawkes still occupies today. Number 1 was already a famous address, having been occupied by the Royal Geographical Society from 1870. Here, major British expeditions were planned into Asia, Africa, and the South Pole.
Over time, Savile Row and its growing collective of resident tailors forged a strong reputation as makers of elite, luxury gentleman’s clothing, and the street became regularly frequented by royalty from the homefront and overseas – Tsars, Emperors, Kings, and Princes – as well as statesmen, writers, musicians, sports stars and artists of the time.
The War Years, The Blitz & The Decline of Savile Row
Savile Row continued to enjoy its lofty status into the 1920s after the end of World War One, but things soon took a downward turn. While the “Roaring 20s” abounded in the US with the end of prohibition, Britain’s postwar period of peace and prosperity was more short-lived. By around 1925, the economy was struggling, poverty was on the rise, and worse yet, the Great Crash of 1929 and the Depression were just around the corner.
It’s also very important to note that fashion was changing, and the period between the World Wars was much less strict when it came to everyday dress as well as military clothing. Thus, Savile Row’s prominence began to dwindle. This only worsened in the 1930s and 1940s. As the Second World War raged, materials were strictly rationed, and the bulk of natural fibres were put towards standard military uniforms – no longer the domain of bespoke tailors, but of mass production factories.
The war arrived on Savile Row itself during the Blitzkrieg campaign, which rained over the UK between September 1940 and May 1941 as part of the Battle of Britain. In September 1940, as the first bombs of the Blitz fell, two fell on Savile Row. The building at number 7 was totally destroyed by one on September 16, while the street suffered another direct hit on September 24, with number 21A Savile Row taking serious damage.
With the end of World War II in 1945, fashion as a whole was having a resurgence of sorts – the famous Paris fashion houses were up and running again by 1947. However, the post war period in Britain was an age of austerity, with sweeping social, economic and political reforms brought in. That’s not to say that fashion had totally stagnated however. Classic double breasted suits and wide legged trousers made a comeback with the end of rationing. Indeed, the fact that these could be made again was seen by many as something of a symbol of victory, and so this style of suit became a much louder fashion statement than it had been before.
On the whole though, men’s fashion in the UK was becoming much more homogenous. After all, men of varying social status had fought together on the battlefield, and class now was rightly considered less important than deed. However, the Savile Row tailors who had made their name helping aristocrats stand out from the crowd were no longer considered as important as they had been.
The 1960s Revival of Savile Row & The Modern Bespoke Movement
Then came The Swinging 60s – the decade that shook Britain into life again, from grayscale to multicolour. Youth-driven modernism, hedonism, individuality, the early throes of Mod culture, The Beatles, The Stones, George Best, Sean Connery’s 007, Michael Caine – a new generation of cool. At the epicentre was London, and Savile Row found itself on the rise again – no longer only making clothes for the elite, but for breakout stars, style icons, and anyone who aspired to look like them.
You see, the tailors of Savile Row, led predominantly by Nutters which opened in 1969, had begun to modernise their own approach to the traditional Savile Row suit. Their classic tailoring skills were fused with modern designs, and as a result, celebrity icons flooded into Savile Row. Among Tommy Nutter’s clients were the likes of Mick Jagger and Elton John, while he dressed John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr for that Abbey Road album cover. As for the always understated George Harrison – he wore all denim.
Indeed, the Beatles made Savile Row their home, setting up HQ for their media company Apple Corps in 1968. They built a studio in the basement where they recorded “Let It Be” and played their final live performance – the famous impromptu Rooftop Concert – on the roof on 30 January 1969. Joined by guest keyboardist Billy Preston, the band played a 42-minute set before the Metropolitan Police arrived and ordered them to reduce the volume. It was the final public performance of their career and the show became the grand finale of their documentary “Let it Be “ .
It was this “New Bespoke Movement” that saw Savile Row blossom all the way up until the 1990s, incubating famous tailoring houses like Richard James and Ozwald Boateng.
The 2000s was another low period for The Row however, as suits were very much out by then, with uber-casual style taking over, while the escalating economic environment led to huge rent surges and operational difficulties for many tailors. This period culminated, of course, with the 2007 economic crisis.
Savile Row in The Modern Day: Still The Home of Luxury Tailoring
You might have noticed while reading this that with each major historical event comes something of a reset, from wars to economic crises. If you’re familiar with us here at Marc Oliver too, you might also know that we started up in 2008, just as the UK and the world economy was devastated.
However, as London began to resurge after the crash, men’s fashion too took off in a new direction. Rather, it headed in a new direction while taking its cue from the past. Popular TV series like Mad Men, Suits, and Boardwalk Empire put the suit back in the limelight, while the huge success of the Kingsman films, which featured lauded tailoring house Huntsman, as well as 007’s Daniel Craig-led revival, drove a resurgence for British Savile Row cool. Meanwhile, the growth of startup business culture drove the emergence of the modern business casual look.
With a new found demand for high quality garments, the respect that bespoke and luxury tailors had enjoyed for a long time returned, and with it, Savile Row’s place at the epicentre of cool, classic men’s style was secured.
Though there are fewer tailors than before, the modern day Savile Row has become something of a haven of quality. Long may it remain so.
When you’re ready to invest in some new luxury tailored clothing, make an appointment with us at Marc Oliver. Welcome to Savile Row.