Book Review: Richard James Savile Row

As Troy McClure said about playing the human in a musical adaptation of Planet of the Apes, reviewing this book is “the role I was born to play!”

Simply entitled Richard James: Savile Row, this book commemorates the 25th anniversary in Savile Row of the fashion house and tailors of the same name.  A read is somewhat disappointing, full of short essays by what amounts to a rather incestuous school of longtime Richard James fans in British media and entertainment, among them British GQ’s Dylan Jones and Richard’s most notorious client, Elton John.

Elton’s known as a voracious devotee – to not say addict – of his favorite outfitters over the decades, buying out entire shopfloors at times.  His twenty-year devotion to Richard James is a key to understanding Richard James’ enormous if unrecognized positive influence on contemporary men’s clothing and British tailoring. Forty years ago Elton dressed head-to-toe in psychedelic Tommy Nutter, switching in the 1980s to over-the-top Gianni Versace glitz.  Since the end of the 1990s, he’s evangelized Richard James.

Tommy Nutter, the last tailor-designer in Savile Row, dominated British men’s tailoring in the 1970s.  Custom tailoring took a back seat to the cult of the ready-to-wear designer, mostly the Continentals: Pierre Cardin, then Armani and Versace.  Nutter had a few isolated 1980s hits, like dressing the Joker in 1989’s Batman, before dying in 1992. 

What had become of the British? 1980s attitudes towards luxury and clothing meant regression, selling an image of Britain as Raj, pith helmets, and gin among palm trees, not progress. Ralph Lauren did a much better job selling that ethos in his more expensive lines than any of the British could.  Some tried; those of us of a certain age (me) remember seeing cashmere sweaters made in China sold in Bloomingdales under the label of Savile Row tailor Gieves & Hawkes, or blocky ready-to-wear suits at Barneys sold with the name of Savile Row tailor Kilgour, French & Stanbury, although made in Canada by Samuelson.  An ersatz Britishness for export markets, an ersatz image and look created by ready-to-wear licensees with little input from the British tailors desperately trying to sell their names abroad. 

Into this breach came Richard James. Like Nutter, James is categorically not a trained tailor.  What he is, though, is an inspired designer who, since opening on Savile Row, has offered true custom tailoring as well as ready-to-wear in visionary designs.  I remember the first Richard James items I noticed, beautiful belts and wallets of gorgeous quality hand stitched in England with contrasting linings in deeply saturated color.  I still have one of those belts, in all its magnificence.  What did they have to do with British custom tailoring?  Nothing – and everything. For the first time a Savile Row name appeared to be doing something relevant, interesting and elegant – and doing it to the fullest extent and the last detail. Savile Row survives by its export markets and by the reputation its tailors have forged for beautiful items of a certain Britishness.  No more uninspired licensed items that has as much to do with British elegance as a Sterling car (derided by Consumer Reports for “Industrial Revolution-era” English technology, remember those?). What Richard James has done is modernize British elegance from the creepy colonial-obsessed ethos that today only blinkered Brexiteer bluestockings and Internet edgelords cling to.  Even the past James references uses other, more inspired touchstones of British greatness, including his bespoke offer (initially serviced by the Savile Row tailors Anthony J. Hewitt and James Levett before being brought in-house), but also ready-to-wear shirts in stripes that recalled the best of Swinging London; handmade ties whose lush, delicate patterns rivalled the best of midcentury Sulka or today’s Charvet; magnificently, decadently warm alpaca pile ‘teddy bear” coats originally created for 1920s motorists; astonishingly soft leather or suede jackets in the café racer style 1960s London Mods would have died for; and even the made-to-order cashmere socks with custom monograms Corgi used to make for defunct shops of yesteryear like the custom shirtmaker Beale & Inman.  It was a vision of Britishness far, far from Lauren’s fantasies, a Britishness that admitted the turmoil of Ted Heath’s premiership, that added much-needed glamor after John Major’s greyness.  And James reminded us what was wonderful about the British suit by invoking all that was dashing in its cut.  Ready-to-wear suits were made in beautiful cloths from British mills like the impeccable Taylor & Lodge, in unexpectedly evocative colors and patterns: sharp mohair sharkskin, gorgeously patterned real Scottish or Irish tweeds or a French navy that was lighter than the normal shade; even rainbow chalkstripes on a sober dark ground.  The cut was always tapered at the waist, double-vented, slant pocketed in the “hacking” style, a look espoused by Patrick Macnee’s subversively too-British John Steed in the 1960s.  Richard’s linings were often boldly colorful, to remind us what could be playful about the suit, everything that 1980s pretention (clinging to all the trimmings of colonial oppression) had repressed.

Richard James the book shines in cataloguing those designs in beautiful detail.  James really has been the best colorist in the business, as Jones termed him.  Even more importantly, this book also shows how James has aced the tricky game of tennis without a net of innovating within the classic: in addition to recreating ruffle-fronted tuxedo shirts like those of George Lazenby’s louche Bond in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James also invented tuxedo shirts whose fronts (instead of pleats or stiff waffle-weave Marcella) were hand-beaded by Hand & Lock, beaders and embroiderers to Her Majesty the Queen; Corgi (knitters and hosiers to the Prince of Wales) knitted thick, thick cashmere sweaters with hand-inlaid abstract intarsia designs; elegant cufflinks (always double-sided) recalled childhood marbles in the forms of hand-blown translucent glass or semiprecious banded agate (a real “Aggie”) or amber set in sterling silver; and even a travel bag that recalled the bags given away by Pan Am or Concorde in the early days of jet travel was rendered in ballistic nylon with reflective silver piping and brilliantly contrasting linings.

I’ve never owned a Richard James bespoke suit.  I know that his ready-to-wear suits were disappointingly half-canvassed or fused, despite their wonderful materials.  But they helped remind me that Savile Row could still be relevant, and that those tailors, despite past reputation, could be approachable and contemporary – and that has been my experience with the other tailors of Savile Row, including the impeccable, evocatively named Steed, whom I loved for their name before ever using them.

Every item with the Richard James name carried and carries the same visionary, whimsical design philosophy, a Britishness less fanciful and more romantic than Paul Smith’s, and far less caricatural and cynical than those of Ralph Lauren or Hackett.  Socks, always made to a high-standard by Pantherella, are accented in amusing contrast colors or mad patterns. I have a number that are doing fine almost 20 years later.  My Richard James Concorde bag has been a beloved, perfect gym bag for years, while his larger, tougher Japanese denim bag (trimmed in the best British bridle hide) is my go-to travel holdall no matter where on Earth I go. My beaded Richard James tux shirt is a prized piece of design genius, as is a magnificently waterproof raincoat made for him by Mackintosh in a beige twill that cunningly iridesces turquoise or orange from certain angles. For years I’ve searched for the same shade of gorgeous Thomas Mason turquoise twill cotton that an old Richard James shirt is in, but most of his materials are specially made for his designs; even the fine-gauge cotton knits that John Smedley or Peter Geeson created for him seemed to be in special colors and to his own patterns. 

That wealth, that treasury of a vision and genius, tumbles out of Richard James’ new book, pictures that really are worth thousands of words and that speak for themselves about the importance of this designer’s contribution, reminding us that Savile Row, indeed British menswear itself, still had things of wonder to offer us. 

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