Bespoke is a much misused term in modern times. London’s Savile Row is home to the finest gentlemen’s tailoring in the world, a street where cloth can be ‘bespoken’ for the purposes of cutting a suit entirely to the specifications of the customer. Although there have been boom times and bust, Savile Row is enjoying a little 21st century renaissance. At number 16 you’ll find Norton & Son’s shop and this year marks 190 years since the house was founded. Leading British designer Patrick Grant bought the business after answering a newspaper sale notice in 2005 and set about breathing new life into the brand.
“We have a very simple proposition for Norton and Sons, it is just bespoke; we make shirts, we make suits, we make jackets, trousers and overcoats and that’s what we do. We try and do it in the most uncompromising way that we can. What I wanted to do was just take it back to doing what it should have been doing all along. That is, making well-cut, well-constructed bespoke clothes in the best fabrics that we can find. That happens to be British fabrics for woollens, and Scottish fabrics for tweeds.” Grant’s zeal for the provenance of his fabrics has led him to champion the quality of the Harris Tweed product appreciated by his customers. He spoke up to defend the threats to rural employment from big business as the mills in the Outer Hebrides faced a significant threat of closure. His growing reputation was acknowledged recently with the Menswear Designer 2010 title at the British Fashion Awards for his ready-to-wear label, E. Tautz.
“We help our customers to make their choice of the clothes that they buy from us,” says Grant. With eight or nine thousand cloths to choose from, putting new customers at ease is all part of the service. “We produce between two and three hundred suits each year, all made by hand in the shop.” A Norton and Sons suit has a classic silhouette and their loyal customers return year after year. Former Norton’s men include Alfred Hitchcock, David Niven, Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby and the company ledgers record the names of more colourful clientele including Egyptologist Lord Carnarvon and Baron Manfred von Richthofen (aka The Red Baron).
“We have a great team of tailors under head cutter Stephen Allen. We favour the simple: no fuss, no frills; we don’t do fancy coloured buttonholes or funny linings. The point of a bespoke tailor is that we will cut it the way that you want it, so we are not prescriptive. Everyone will have a different view on how much shape they want in the waist, how full they want the sleeves, how wide they want the shoulders. Each suit is entirely personal.”
Does his inestimable taste extend to whisky? “Funnily enough, I enjoy it a lot,” he remarks, indicating a box of hidden whisky bottles snug under a table including a couple of bottles of Laphroaig 10 Years Old Cask Strength. “I enjoy The Dalmore and I used to drink The Balvenie regularly, particularly the 21 Years Old Portwood. There are some really delicious blends out there too. I’ve got a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label over there”, he gestures. “I think when I was younger, I was very snobbish about these things, you know ‘I’m only going to drink single malts’. I think you can add a lot of complexity by blending it. That’s all part of the art of whisky making.” His introduction to whisky came courtesy of a friend whose father had a particularly fine selection, “There were always whisky bottles in the house although neither of my parents drank a lot of whisky. It was something I didn’t get into until my early 20s when I was staying with friends at the weekend. We would wrench open the drinks cabinet around two o’clock in the morning and sit there for hours polishing off a really good bottle between us.”
So do people in the fashion industry drink whisky? “To be honest, yes. You do see people drinking whisky at fashion events and we’ve certainly served it at ours. Just last night I went to a magazine launch
with Dunhill, and they had a cigar and whisky room.”
Grant has translated his love of hand-crafted products and his passion for tweed into a particular draw for Norton and Sons and his E. Tautz collections. “It’s a shame that someone forward-thinking back in the day didn’t trademark tweed and say that it all has to be made in Scotland because it really should have been. At Norton’s, we have four bunches with 30 Harris tweeds per bunch to choose from. We carry a small stock of tweeds from Donald John MacKay of Luskentyre Harris Tweed. We use Breanish Tweed, another hand weaver in the top of Lewis in Ness, and John MacLean at Garynahine which are both one man weaving operations. They’re all fantastic guys to work with and they are amazingly, I mean, appropriately passionate about what they do.”
“Harris tweed is the most iconic textile brand in the world” continues Grant, keen to see the famous Orb Mark cloth thrive in a challenging marketplace.
“They need to treat it like any other good textile brand by designing collections every season, engaging with the big brands and making clothes to their designs, selling and promoting it globally.” Grant describes a film made about Marion ‘Morag’ Campbell, an icon of the Harris Tweed industry who produced every aspect of her tweeds by hand from raising the sheep to spinning and dyeing the wool. She even used a hand-thrown shuttle, a rare traditional weaving technique. “That is what real luxury is about, not about excessive fineness and ridiculous price tags because you’ve got somebody who has crafted every ounce of that cloth by hand.
“People want things that are special in the right kind of way. What I find really offensive is when you take something and stick a load of diamonds on it. That’s not special in the slightest and I couldn’t be less interested in that if I tried. It’s amazing products like Morag Campbell’s tweed that gets to the essence of luxury.”