June 9, 2011 | by Sadie Stein
“Wanted,” the advertisement read, “sixteen- or seventeen-year-old apprentice cutter for Savile Row firm. Energetic … Intelligent … Smart appearance …” I was skeptical (what the hell was a cutter?) but Dad made the call and we were granted an appointment at ten the following Tuesday. I had never heard of Huntsman before. For that matter, I am not sure that I had ever heard of Savile Row.”
So began, somewhat ignominiously, Richard Anderson’s career as a bespoke tailor. Today, Anderson is “The King of Savile Row,” as The Independent called him—but in 1982 he was a teenager with failing grades who showed up for an interview in white socks, a short-sleeved shirt, and a school blazer.
Anderson’s memoir, Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed, has been called the Kitchen Confidential of the tailoring world, an insider’s look at the industry and one that exposes a certain amount of its foibles and eccentricity. But what’s even more of a revelation than the ins and outs of cutting and fitting is the sheer thoroughness of the traditional apprenticeship, which Anderson served. Even thirty years ago when Anderson got his start, the kind of ground-up dues paying he describes was on the wane; in an era of overnight success, it’s almost unimaginable.
It’s no shock that, since everything’s ripe for the TV picking, even Savile Row got its own BBC special—a reality program that made it look, says Anderson, “quite glamorous.” And as a result, he now gets some ten or fifteen letters a weeks from prospective employees. However, their notion of apprenticeship doesn’t involve sweeping or cutting, let alone the kind of respect for institutional authority that was the backbone of Anderson’s training. “They tend to think they’d quite enjoy designing,” Anderson explains dryly, adding that they also tend to be older and “there’s a big difference between a seventeen-year-old kid just out of school and a twenty-something who’s seen a bit of the world.” Especially one in today’s England, he need not add.
By contrast, Anderson describes a world in which “Young Richard” started as the lowest of the lowly, serving a series of rotations, dealing with a series of autocratic characters, including “the formidably debonair Colin Hammick, fellow chain smoker and grumpy eccentric Brian Hall, and Dick Lakey, the company's heroically overworked “leg man,” and spending years absorbing information before he was allowed to put shears to cloth, let alone interact with Huntsman’s clientele of lords, earls, and film stars. But for all its rigors, Anderson loved the profession: he says the fast-paced, physical, hypermasculine environment, and the structure, were a perfect fit for a young man’s energies—even if it was a brand of machismo that centered around sewing.
Bespoke, to the uninitiated, means something that’s made from scratch: literally, “spoken for” by the client. He (and it’s usually a he) chooses the fabric, decides on the lapel width, the sleeve length, and the trouser cut, and submits to more than twenty measurements and half a dozen fittings before a garment’s done. (Made-to-measure, by contrast, works from a set pattern; a bespoke one is made for your body.) A typical suit runs several thousand pounds; a costly fabric can cost much more than that.
Anderson went on to become the youngest Master Cutter in Huntsman’s one-hundred-and-fifty-year history, and even after he broke out on his own, maintains that house’s signature high-armed, long-skirted cut. Of that break, which shook Savile Row to its staid foundations, he writes eloquently: it might be called the dramatic high point of the memoir. After Huntsman’s was bought out, he and his colleagues mounted what Anderson describes essentially as a battle for the house’s soul—and leaving with partner Brian Lishak was not an easy choice. “It was unbearable,” he says of watching standards decline at Huntsman’s. “Brian and I knew we had to go. And so, in the second week of November 2000, a day after my thirty-sixth birthday and nineteen years after setting foot at 11 Savile Row for the first time, I resigned.” The rupture did not go unremarked. “There’s bad feeling between Richard Anderson, the first new bespoke tailors to open in Savile Row for three decades or so, and rival Huntsman, two doors down,” reported The Daily Telegraph in 2001.
Anderson, incidentally, might be called “more Huntsman than Huntsman” these days—but his success lies at least partially in an ability to attract a younger clientele. Aesthetically, he lightened things up: his new atelier was airy and bright, in stark contrast to the accepted Savile Row decorating scheme of dark tweeds, dark woods, and dark-visaged taxidermy. And rather than have his cutters toil below stairs or in back rooms, Anderson brought them into the main space. He was also, from the get-go, open to experimenting with fabric beyond the traditional, turning out velvet suits and check overcoats for new clientele. “It’s maybe a bit less intimidating,” he concedes.
His manner, too, is engaging: a far cry from the often dour cutters of legend, Anderson (whom I met on one of his periodic New York stays, at which he sets up shop at the Carlyle Hotel) is less discursive than on the page. (He was, of course, attired in a strikingly beautiful suit: a wide pinstripe with a moderate lapel that proclaimed its craftsmanship with every line.) While most of the work of fitting takes place in the bedroom—Anderson excused himself at one point to attend to a well-known restaurateur— the sitting room was scattered with bolts of fabrics, including a blue check that would make Patrick MacDonald swoon.
If you’re hoping to hear gossip about Benicio del Toro’s inseam, or Hugh Laurie’s lapel preference, whether Kiefer Sutherland dresses left or right, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere: about his clientele Anderson is circumspect. Which trust is surely part of a bespoke tailor’s complicated job description—even if some of us would like to hear about dotty lords with dogs in tow demanding tartan suits. Never fear, however—his years at Huntsman yield anecdotes of the vitriolic, unpredictable Rex Harrison sporting vicuna and keeping the staff on the hop and an exacting Katherine Hepburn, who insisted on trousers so wide they’d “flap in the breeze like sails.” (One of the few breaks with sartorial convention the imperious cutter tolerated.)
As one might expect of an industry largely dependent on the vagaries of “The City,” business took a major hit in the past five years. “The day Lehman Brothers crashed,” he says now, “everything changed. It was that sudden.” And then, “a year to the day,” they rebounded. “Suddenly, people wanted three suits.” Business has not yet reached prerecession heights, but it’s getting there—and on this trip alone, Anderson had acquired a dozen new clients. “People are realizing,” explains Anderson, “that you can spend four or five thousand on a suit off the peg—no less than the cost of bespoke—but there’s no comparison in fit, or wear.” That said, Recession styles are holding fast. “During a recession, everything gets more conservative,” explains Anderson. “Lapels get thinner, pants get smaller.” And lapels, to those who’d care to analyze the suit index, are thinner than ever. But “some of that’s down to Mad Men.”
And even if the old hierarchies of apprenticeship are a thing of the past, there are still those invested in learning the craft. One such is Anderson’s assistant, who, as both a young woman and an Australian, defies traditional stereotypes. There’s also Anderson’s younger son, who has already expressed an interest in the family business—although at thirteen, he certainly has time to change his mind. As for Anderson’s older son, his interests are primarily “soccer and girls” at the moment—although he did take advantage of his father’s expertise to tailor his school suit to perfection.