Why the home of bespoke tailoring, Savile Row, is facing extinction

Savile Row is widely recognised as the world's most sartorial street and Henry Poole & Co has been a fixture on the Mayfair street since 1846.

The bespoke suit maker is widely acknowledged as the "founder of Savile Row", and is one of just two remaining family tailoring businesses there, the rest being owned privately. It is currently run by managing director and seventh generation of Henry Poole, Simon Cundey, and his father Angus.

The tailor is credited with creating the dinner suit, otherwise known in the US as the tuxedo, after the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII was visited by American guest James Potter who asked his tailor, Henry Poole, for advice on what to wear to dine with the Prince. He was dressed in a short celestial blue evening coat, which Mr Potter continued to wear upon his return to New York, including to the Tuxedo Club, where other members soon started having copies made for themselves.

The design was never patented by Henry Poole, but having the original lineage of the suit has been a big part of self-promotion for the company, Mr Cundey explains.

An institutional crisis

He has been at the helm of the company for six years, and is heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the business. He's intensely passionate about maintaining Savile Row as the home of bespoke tailoring, and is concerned about the effect that business rates are having on his neighbouring outfitters.

While his business has faced an "incredible hike on its lease", Mr Cundey says, he is more concerned about the smaller tailors on The Row, which may be forced to move their workshops elsewhere, potentially jeopardising their business. "Keeping workshops on site is incredibly important for tailors, as customers want to be able to see their suits being made and be able to talk to the person making their clothes. If tailors are forced to move their premises off Savile Row they may not survive," he says.

"I'm worried that in future The Row won't exist as a street dedicated to the tailoring trade, if business rates continue to rocket. We'll be replaced by bigger, global brands and the street will become just like Bond Street, rather than a place whose reputation has been built on bespoke British tailoring."

Despite increasing cost pressures, Henry Poole turned over an impressive £4m ($7.3 million) last year, thanks in part to the devaluation of the pound. With 40 er cent of its customer base in the US, the favourable exchange rate boosted the business at a time when taxes were pushed up.

International favourite

Henry Poole & Co has been a favourite among Americans since the early 1800s when it would host trunk shows, where customers could try on suits, shipped in trunks, in hotel rooms or other locations that were easily accessible for time-strapped businessmen, such as long-time customer John Pierpont Morgan, founder of the eponymous bank.

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The tailor's roster of past and present clientele represents a who's who of historical heavyweights, including Charles Dickens, emperor Napoleon III, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Prince Otto von Bismarck, Buffalo Bill, Sir Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and emperor Hirohito of Japan to name but a few.

While Henry Poole still has some royal clients, the majority of its customers today are businessmen working for financial, legal and accountancy firms. There are around 5,000 clients on its books, 10pc to 15pc of which return to the store each year.

The type of client that walks through the tailor's doors has changed over the past few decades, Mr Cundey says, with today's customer younger, more vibrant and more experimental with their fashion. "Our customers are no longer part of the elite, and we are always adapting our products to accommodate our new customers."

Lifeblood of The Row

Last year, the tailor collaborated with German sportswear behemoth Adidas to produce a pair of trainers in midnight blue "tuxedo" and "three-chalkstripe", both of which feature intricate touches, such as the trademark red fabric commonly found in the tailor's ties and suit linings. These collaborations help the company reach a different demographic, and keep the brand's image fresh.

Mr Cundey believes the firm's success has endured because of its service and quality. The suits typically take 90 hours to make, are built to last 10 years, and almost everything, from the fabric to the manufacturing, is British. Customers are invited to see their clothing being crafted at the back of the store where around 40 people labour over suits that will cost thousands of pounds. As well as attracting younger customers in store, Henry Poole is keen to get more youthful apprentices to work for the company. Until recently, the average age of tailors on The Row was 60-plus, but today it's around 40. Tailoring businesses see young talent as essential to the industry to rid the stuffy image of well-to-do gentleman with tape measures.

In fact, five big names in tailoring – Anderson & Sheppard, Dege & Skinner, Gieves & Hawkes, H Huntsman & Sons and Henry Poole & Co – set up the Savile Row Bespoke Association in 2004 to "ensure that the lifeblood of The Row can be passed on to the next generation". Most of the firms run apprenticeship programmes with the aim of inspiring young entrants to the field.

London's heritage

Mr Cundey hopes that Savile Row will continue to dedicate itself to gentleman's tailoring, and won't be affected by any trade barriers introduced as a result of Brexit. Many of The Row's tailors rely on American custom, so favourable trade deals on textiles and clothing with the US is paramount to their success.

"We hold a unique spot in London, and no other street in the world is known for what we do. That's why it's so important that we maintain The Row as the home of bespoke tailoring," Mr Cundey says.

The Telegraph, London