Savile Row, London. No introduction necessary. So much so that a Japanese synonym for suit is sebiro. However, changes are afoot, which lead one to question how much, ahem, 'brand extension' is possible in urban space, before it loses the sense of identity that created the brand in the first place.
For nearly 300 years, the street has been known for a form of quiet creativity and service - indeed, what might be currently known as service design - through bespoke tailoring. That kind of historical altitude often hides incremental change, but recent years have seen acceleration towards perceived new markets and it's too easy to characterise the street as an anachronism, or as a Dickensian vestigial nub on the gleaming form of globalised W1.
Of the original tailors on the street, most of which currently remain, Gieves & Hawkes and Kilgour have diversified their business carefully, to retain a sense of their original tailoring brand whilst enabling a ready-to-wear market and attract a younger clientele. They provide an example to much of the street; a microcosm of how the Savile Row area could modify from within. Duffer provided a similar example from another angle - casual becoming smart, if you like. Questionable, but a fringe case. Elsewhere, new British tailors like Ozwald Boateng and Richard James have joined the throng - not without causing ripples, despite their apparent deference to the hand-made tradition. But a creative tension between the original tailors and the new entrants could ultimately be managed in interesting ways.
Now, however, the likes of Evisu and Abercrombie & Fitch are pitching up on the street, and the landlord of over half the freeholds on Savile Row (Pollen Estate) has designs on further transformation into "an upmarket, quality retail-fashion area". In other words, not tailoring. According to a recent article in the FT [subs. reqd.], their mechanism for this transformation now features 40% annual rent increases. Despite consistently full order books, the nature of hand-made production means that bespoke tailors cannot scale to match such an increase. And so, slowly but surely, they're having to move out. Many of the tailors thus see these changes as the quiet death of the street's meaning, and therefore the street.
John Hitchcock, father of Stephen Hitchcock, was more than wistful about being forced out of the street by a rent increase, but was already beginning to wonder about whether to look back, other than in anger. "With all these changes, it has not got the same class anymore", he said of the new street emerging. Malcolm Plews, a tailor at Welsh & Jeffrey, grumbles that "these people aren't tailors - they're outfitters", describing Evisu's stocking of two hundred quid jeans as "sacrilege".
Of course, progress is inexorable and must be embraced so as to create an ally rather than an enemy. However, the importance of history and continuity in creating a meaningful sense of place cannot be underestimated. Psychogeographic rivers can run deep but when Chinatowns and Little Italys lose their original character, their solid form may not melt into air but their meaning does. Look at the difference between Les Halles and Santa Caterina. The latter's sense of progress from within a framework illustrates how it's possible to preserve the best elements of the past in order to define a future.
That 'meaningful sense of place' is what the developers are playing with when they talk of "reinforcing the Savile Row brand", but are they best placed to handle this kind of nuanced brand experience? Rhetorical. London and Britain has long suffered the iron grip of property developers on urban fabric. How is a 40% rent increase going to reinforce anything except the simple displacement of the current tenants? From this distance, this would appear to be another example of how British landlords often reject of the opportunity to combine history, context and innovation, and the long-term economic base that could engender, in favour of a short-term profit which (inadvertently?) changes a place's identity forever.
Savile Row is where it is for very pragmatic reasons - situated in Mayfair, the best slot on the Monopoly board (where 'Boardwalk' is on the American version) and therefore close to well-heeled, fashionable customers. Initially, therefore, the relationship between place and space is tenuous and transient. But having been there for a quarter-millenium, it's now in a position to truly reinforce a particular manufacturing and product design base, such that the symbiotically-preserved Savile Row brand enables its small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to thrive, even in the centre of this most money-obsessed of cities. This is good for the city, the citizens and the companies. And utterly at risk if short-term profit forces out what made the street in the first place. Note again, order books are full - just not as full as those enabled by the high volume production of the incoming global fashion brands.
There's an excellent description of who's who in the current Savile Row at the fascinating blog of bespoke tailor Thomas Mahon. Mahon appears to have a far more acute sense of the worth of the Savile Row name - and what it means - than the property developers who are taking shears to the street. He describes how his market is now truly global from a local base - see also the Japanese-language version of the Gieves & Hawkes website - and appears to understand that the global market attracted by the name is balanced on a carefully articulated relationship between history, place, craft, design and technology. He describes how his base is now split between Cumbria for cutting, his customers in Paris, New York, Chicago or wherever, and Savile Row itself, suggesting that the latter has a role to play within this new mobility:
"And of course, if the client is wanting more than just the suit, and desires the full-on, real-time Savile Row experience with all the local history and colour, I happily meet them there at Number 20, where I have my London offices. To me, Savile Row is a proper business, not a tourist attraction. But now my market is global. Some of my customers come to London now and then, but seriously, they live and travel all over the world, and it's my job to keep track of them. However grand and magical Savile Row can appear on an early morning walk, all that's really needed to do the job is skill, a tape measure, a cutting table, a sharp pair of shears and the ability to keep one's word. I'm as happy meeting my clients in a Manhattan hotel suite as I am meeting them in London. Ergo, I’m open for business, anywhere on the planet. Who wants a suit?"
This is good news for Mahon, clearly, but to some would question the role of the street as anything other than shop front. However, despite his apparently utterly contemporary 'global information worker' trappings, through his careful recording of the street's history and characters Mahon knows his ability to sell himself is reliant on being an intrinsic part of the Savile Row experience - the brand, the history, the highly localised particulars of the manufacturing and trade itself. It's something over and above the skill, the tape measure, cutting table and sharp pair of scissors. It's Savile Row. He's smart enough to contribute to this ongoing subtle brand development - though he may not phrase it like that - and therefore take advantage of being able to call his blog 'English Cut' and have the subtitle 'the blog of thomas mahon, bespoke savile row tailor, london'.
But if this quiet centre of quality design and service is rubbed out from the area itself, like all those chalk marks currently being daubed on cloth up and down the street, then surely it's a matter of time before the area is tacked on to the rest of W1's global high street - increasingly indistinct from Anywhere Else - and we lose a core component of British cultural capital in creativity and design.
If you are no longer able to actually visit Savile Row, and visit "a proper business, not a tourist attraction"; if the meaning of Savile Row is not inculcated into the next generations of fashion and textile students as anything other than history; if we allow those businesses themselves to fade away as a result, unable to compete with waves of global fashion brands, then how much longer will Savile Row mean anything genuinely useful, even as a prime piece of real estate? It ceases to have 'added value' even to property developers in the long term.
Ultimately, it's the ability to see that a place is a portrait of a community over time that will enable us to shape our cities and creative industries into forms that fit. Cities and industries as bespoke designs, tailored to their specific histories, will be meaningful globally and locally.