I have to hand it to my friend Hari Sakka, a member of long standing of the Pairov Institute, for reminding me of the ridiculous list of baseball player names made up in an attempt to sound American for a 1990s Japanese video game. Among them, Willie Dustice, Sleve McDichael (which itself sounds like one of the nine billion names of Dave Ryder) and Bobson Dugnutt. Of course, this sort of cultural identity theft – the sort of appropriation that involves a dubious pose of identity, generally for the purpose of confirming fetishist stereotypes, generally works in the opposite direction – more recent examples include a Marvel Comics editor-in-chief whose secret Japanese pen name signed stories about ninjas (and was touted as an example of representation). All of this in pursuit of what Sakka would term the tang of authenticity, or sounding to outsiders like you have the right provenance.
For all of the silly made-up Western names that we can use as an excuse for what the newspapers might call racially-tinged humor, sometimes reality needs no assistance, as the above list (in appropriate video game format) of proper Savile Row tailors’ names from over the decades shows. No invention is needed to encounter the splendidly dirty-sounding Lovegrove, Brown & Silcock, so much more interesting of a name than the sham names created by certain companies seeking to give themselves ersatz history and heritage. Because as all of the foregoing suggests, a name has power, the power to suggest belonging, and to exclude others: a mere name conjures up identity, culture, and in the case of the name Savile Row itself, craft and carefully cultivated cachet.
“Savile Row” suggests authenticity, so much so that various tailors brand themselves as the first tailors on Savile Row, or (thanks to their address), Number One on Savile Row, while others have delighted in the press dubbing them, for example, the first tailors on Savile Row since Tommy Nutter, the 1970s arrival who became famous for wild designs and patterns. As my list, none of them known even to iGents, suggests, there have been dozens of tailors in Savile Row over the years – cutters and salespeople came and went all the time, opening up shopfronts, even in a basement, in the neighborhood, or laying claim to Savile Row by meeting customers by appointment at Number 12 Savile Row, which happened to be the address of a major cloth merchant which as a courtesy would let tailors see and fit customers there. And - when it comes to tailoring terroir – Savile Row itself is not just the rather poky street of that name, but the entire neighborhood of mazelike side streets west of Regent Street that at one time burst with tailors. Tailors and waspish commentators made barbed distinctions between suits made by tailors in that West London neighborhood and those made by tailors in the downtown business district (the City), who were somewhat cheaper, even though they ostensibly made for a banking clientele that before the Big Bang must have been comprised of the well-off, relatively well-bred men who otherwise could have been customers of the Row.
What gave that name its halo of jealously guarded cachet was the primacy of cut and customer. The men who made fashions, men of wealth and power and fame, once patronized it and had their whimsical orders made real in a symbiosis with the tailors and cutters there, makers who because of their prestigious addresses and clientele could charge what they liked and were expected to make the highest quality. The rise of the cult of the designer, whose elevation floats on lucrative licenses, who sells widely available expensive, factory-made, ready-to-wear, caught those tailors off guard. Even the largest was tiny compared to a famous designer, who no longer made their money on the couture creations of an atelier, but on items produced in their name by eyewear conglomerates or huge cosmetic firms. Like women’s couture, classically made custom men’s clothing is not scalable. A famous name, like those of certain famous couturiers, extendable to all sorts of other items. However, unlike their address –most of the firms, like those of the list above, are not famous enough to trade on widely sold licensed goods bearing their name. And in recent years, some of the most successful designers, themselves benefiting from the associations conjured up by their Italian names, attacked Savile Row, and by extension all of the little-known firms associated with it, for being rooted in the past. This attack registered because the name these tailors trade on is rooted in romantic ideas of a certain past, and associations with a certain lack of commercialism, like these somewhat odd-sounding names. Their very clumsiness made them ring true.
Because that was what was in the name: intimations of long, dreary years spent in apprenticeship by dour men who concealed the accents they’d grown up with when they spoke to you; patterns scrupulously drafted by hand after the taking of elaborate measurements and special codes barked out to describe the embarrassing contours of your body; multiple fittings on laboriously constructed bastes involving all sorts of materials from flax to horsehair, followed by teardowns, tiny adjustments to angle or hem; sweaty pressing and shaping in back rooms using steam and irons patented in the Industrial Revolution; and emerging from the address as if from some sort of overcast chrysalis the beautiful covering promised to be an extension of self, the purest interpretation of customer dream.
And yet today that name, too, may be becoming a chrysalis, if not a husk, as those that dwell within it find themselves compromised by rising rents and a shortage of personnel who are both trained and talented. The men who set fashions may no longer patronize custom tailors, let alone those of Savile Row, and certainly not exclusively. Remaining custom tailors around the world trade on what Savile Row had come to mean: custom tailoring at its apex. Ages of myopic nostalgia for the closeness of the laborer with the product of his labor, like the 1980s and the Noughties, prolonged Savile Row’s lease on life, but couldn’t hold its rents down. Physical address now matters less than ethos. Latter-day Bobson Dugnutts in their made-up glory walk the Earth. So it is that today my favorite Savile Row tailor is not based in Savile Row, but in the north of England: Steed, itself named for the Avenger, and all he stood for in playful, elegant, hard-drinking appeal. Like a handful of other tailors, the principals remain committed to the idea that the Savile Row name once meant: quality, and reputation staked on each order, no matter how large or small. Admixed with the affability and dash that the idea of John Steed conveys, it’s a cocktail that the Avenger himself might imbibe as a pick-me-up, if only we can think of a wonky enough name.