Book Review: Patrick Grant's Original Man

by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

Any shop that’s had a nameplate on London’s Savile Row or its neighboring tailoring streets (Old Burlington Street, Conduit Street, Clifford Street and the like) for more than a few decades has acquired a variety of different identities. Shop signs added extra names as tailors, the historical residents of that neighborhood, merged with other firms or simply bought the goodwill and customer list of a firm that was closing. If anything, this trend ought to accelerate now that rents in London’s West End continue to increase. 

Norton & Sons, which Original Man’s author Patrick Grant acquired after graduating from business school, is a case in point: a respected tailor’s shop that had weathered the rise of casual clothing and ready-to-wear in the 1980s and 1990s. The author Richard Walker noted in 1987’s Savile Row that the firm’s owners of the time had even tried to re-orient it to look like a cozy Hamptons shop rather than what we now expect a tailor’s shop to look like. Fast forward several decades and an owner or two: Grant saw an ad for the shop being up for sale, bought it, and saved it from closing. He also wisely played on one of Norton’s hidden identities, one of the shops it had absorbed. Grant launched an expensive, high-profile and fashion-forward clothing line using the name of E. Tautz, a tailor famous prior to its acquisition by Norton. What exactly it was famous for doesn’t really have actual relevance to its current incarnation. Tautz was one of the dozens of West End clothiers whom Winston Churchill patronized. The reason Churchill patronized so many is because he famously hated to pay them, and so would move to different tailors, shirtmakers or shoemakers after using up his credit. 

Just as the association with Churchill elevates Tautz’s profile, Tautz’s association with Norton & Sons no doubt helps keep the latter afloat. The new Tautz has (or had, I haven’t followed it closely in some time) a carefully select distribution in chic specialty stores around the world, rigorously odd designs, UK manufacturing that seems idiosyncratically idealistic in this age, a niftily retro fox logo, and punishingly high prices, all of which garner it attention, with perhaps a mention of its London custom tailor parent Norton, in international fashion media.

One of Tautz’s more interesting, affordable and palatable creations is Original Man: The Tautz Compendium of Less Ordinary Gentlemen. I’ve had my eyeballs, to say nothing of my fingers, burned reading what usually passes for books on style icons. So I came to this book warily. Fortunately, while few of the icons will shock (the book ends with Prince Charles, for Pete’s sake), it profiles a great many of them. Thus, the reader can choose to flip past profiles of well-trodden style icons like Gianni Agnelli, Marcello Mastroianni and Churchill himself for engaging quick bursts of text on hard to kill war hero Adrian Carton di Wiart, German leader Helmut Schmidt or the architect Walter Gropius. The reader will realize that the gentlemen this book profiles are not just selected for their dress sense, which gives the book more than a single dimension – and no doubt explains the inclusion of Ozzy Osbourne, George Orwell and Federico Fellini, among others. And Original Man does well even by those gentlemen we expect with heavy heart to see named in a style-focused set of profiles.

It is, in point of fact, an ideal breakfast book: perfect to flip through and read a several page profile while sipping that morning coffee before the dash to work. Brief as its writeups are, we must willingly suspend our knowledge of any greater context about subjects in order to fully enjoy it, forgetting some of the less sanguine, more bloody or bloody-minded acts certain were responsible for. I found it diverting enough to make that suspension, despite my concerns about our forgetful age. We all need a momentary diversion, and Original Man is original enough to provide many.

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