The best book about Savile Row in 30 years is not actually about Savile Row.
No one tailoring house’s history could, really, do justice to the neighborhood of tailors. It is a community, with confusing interconnections of alumni and exiles, cutters and front of house men who carry a new or ancient house’s reputation and worth on their shoulders, and who sometimes carry it out the door with them to cross-fertilize some other establishment, or even to start their own firm. It is dry, difficult-to-describe corporate maneuvers that drive budgets, reopenings, or ignominious closings.
Rarely is the street’s history actually ever aligned with the destiny of one man. In House of Nutter, Lance Richardson brilliantly persuades the reader it was.
Tommy Nutter rose meteorically from humble beginnings to become by the early 1970s the most chic tailor in the world. That second-act conflict inevitable in all tailoring histories? He survived those unexpected twists, including the improbable one that led to the Tommy Nutter tailoring house he ran existing up the street from the original firm with his name, Nutters of Savile Row, run by the tailors who had pushed him out. He prevailed on hard-headed conglomerates and corporate titans to dust him off and back his new endeavors on little more than charm and swagger.
Charm and swagger seem to have been Tommy Nutter’s unlikely genius. With little design training or experience, this good-looking, puckish lad from humdrum Edgware charmed Beatles manager Peter Brown (an erstwhile boyfriend) and singer Cilla Black into financing the launch of Nutters. With no real tailoring knowledge, Nutter persuaded ace cutter Edward Sexton to accompany him: both wanted to experiment with new, daring proportions and designs – and couldn’t within the confines of tailor Donaldson, Williams & Ward in the Burlington Arcade.
Even if Nutters steamed out of the 1960s’ pop culture cauldron, Tommy’s designs were a reaction against the 1960s suit silhouette: shoulders were heavily padded and wide, lapels gigantic, trousers flared, with madcap patterns. They were playful, ridiculous, and damned hard to execute well, meaning that it took real cutting and tailoring chops to make such crazy clothes, a testament to the dedicated, sardonic Sexton and his colleagues Roy Chittleborough and Joe Morgan. They executed Tommy’s sketches, fit his customers, carried on the business when Tommy failed to show up due to social commitments or just plain drama.
What did Nutter do that was so important? Devotees of supposedly classic menswear must roll their eyes at my description of the Nutters cut, so far from the supposed perfect balance of subtle proportions with which we now associate good custom tailoring. Tommy’s reign was the last moment when the custom tailor truly drove fashion. Nutter designed custom apparel, customers flocked, and his tailors realized his whimsical creations. Early attempts at accessories and ready-to-wear fizzled. Today, several designers on Savile Row call themselves tailors, but all of them made their names with eye-catching ready-to-wear designs and accessories, with their bespoke tailoring mostly a prestige operation for a halo effect, and mostly executed in the classic tailoring cut. Richardson ably makes the case that the Nutters tailors complemented with their skills Tommy’s daring and difficult designs… and persona.
That persona appears to have been a genius for intuition and opportunity. After his exile from Nutters, the Lincroft Kilgour conglomerate scooped up Tommy as a salesman at tailor Kilgour French & Stanbury, where he soon prevailed on management to give him his own dedicated retail space. His look, though, seemed broadly similar 12 years after his launch to the original designs he had made his name with. Intuition – the intuition for change, splashiness, bombast, irreverence – didn’t seem to have made the step to mature inspiration for a coherently evolving design philosophy. After he burned through commercial credibility there, another textiles magnate came to Tommy’s rescue and set him back up as the face of a new Tommy Nutter tailoring business with new cutters and tailors, where he stayed until close to the very end.
The very end. For all of my review above thus far elides what is most affecting about House of Nutter. It’s not about Tommy Nutter the tailor and designer. It’s about the Nutter brothers, Tommy and his brother David, two close, talented brothers who swept themselves up in the 1960s – David photographing John and Yoko on their honeymoon, then becoming a friend and court photographer to Elton John for the duration of the 1970s. Two talented, emotionally tormented brothers who, in retrospect, self-medicated with alcohol to blackout. Two talented brothers who happened to be homosexual, who were close to glamor for most of their youth and middle age, a glamor of what we now might call glitterati and entourages, David foggily remembering Studio 54 and all too clearly remembering the horrors that AIDS wrought upon friends, roommates, brothers.
Tommy Nutter, a man of many things, died of AIDS in 1992. Richardson’s book does the man justice, opens up many different worlds, provides a different, exceptionally well-researched, informative and thought-provoking look on Savile Row, for those who care about it, but also on a great many other things, some fun, some serious with the flood of memory and association that all of us who grew up in the 1980s can remember, that all of us who grew up thoughtful, troubled, dark, can intuit and identify with.