“What the hell’s the point of me cutting the cloth precisely if you stitch it together any old how?” said the head cutter of one Savile Row tailor on a bright Thursday afternoon. The latest delivery was in from his jacket-maker, and he was not happy.
Sitting beside him as he vented down the phone, I thought the jacket looked fine. But I knew this was his personal technique for managing out-workers: disproportionate anger and attempting to instil fear. It seems to work for him, and remote management is not easy. That’s one reason Savile Row’s tailors have always been so keen to have their workrooms on-site, whether above the shop or – more commonly these days – in the basement below.
Tailors with bad experiences of outsourcing to China complain of a similar problem. It’s very hard to monitor quality consistently. Things slip; mistakes are made. And it’s difficult to discover who or what was to blame. This is one of the biggest reasons for respecting locally made goods, whether in the UK or US: it means there is an immediate, hands-on connection between brand, design and product.
That’s easy to achieve when you’re small. The workshops at George Cleverley are still upstairs from the store in London’s Royal Arcade. The first time you go up there it seems very incongruous: all that sawdust and elbow grease, just a few feet from the dapper gentleman of Mayfair. Some of the work is done by outworkers, but managing director George Glasgow still has a crucial view of the production as it goes through its various stages. That’s why you have to ring the bell – to summon him down into the world of the customer.
Going up a bit in scale, Michael Drake has a few dozen ladies working around his factory in North London. But within a minute he can stroll around the whole place, taking in the cutting, sewing, finishing and inspection of several hundred ties. He can inspect the two rejects hanging in the corner and glance at the notes to see what went wrong. He can get a snapshot of the whole season’s colours by looking up the serried racks in the centre – mostly oranges, browns and blues to my eye. It is all before him and it is all easily managed.
Turnbull & Asser’s shirt factory in Gloucester is a little larger. But it is still close enough to be flexible. Staff tell the story of the first set of shirts they made Daniel Craig for Casino Royale. Measurements had been taken at 23 Bury Street before the summer break. When Craig returned for shooting, he had beefed up and the shirts didn’t fit. Cue frantic calls to Gloucester. Production was stopped, a special order put through and the new shirts flown out to the Bahamas just in time for shooting. Try doing that if your factory’s in Nanjing.
But you have to go to Italy for the next jump in scale. Factories like those of Kiton and Brioni hardly deserve that name. They are more like villages, communities of artisans, all working independently but towards the same aim. As the local saying goes, they make the same jackets but they all wear different ones.
Britain has never been good at that scale of artisan production, and the US was lost early as the first country to industrialise suit production. But there are many smaller British and American companies that deserve patronage for their old-fashioned connection to product. All tailors have this in common, for example, as do bespoke shoemakers.
There are many other good reasons for buying local. It supports regional crafts; it consumes less carbon dioxide. But for me, the most important is the quality guaranteed by personal, local supervision and the work ethos that comes with it.