Book Review: The First Tailor of Savile Row


January 2006. I push the door of Henry Poole in Savile Row for the first time, a length of unusual alpaca Shetland tweed under my arm. A nice-looking young tailor courteously greets me and discusses my initial order. He introduces me to the cutter who’ll be travelling to Paris so that my orders and pattern will be handled by the same person who will be doing my fittings, and takes my measurements expertly. My other specifications – the exact color of the mother-of-pearl buttons I want, the softness of the shoulders, the touch of roping ‑‑ are noted diligently. Our pleasant yet professional interaction terminated, I amble out into the chill winter sun, only to hear an eager, “Sir! Sir!” behind me. The nice young tailor is racing up to me, the firm book he had forgotten to offer this new client under his arm. I smile. “It’s all right. I already have one.”

That was not this book, Henry Poole & Co.: The First Tailor of Savile Row.  Like Poole’s neighbor and contemporary Gieves & Hawkes, Poole has followed up a studiously dry, detailed tome from several decades ago with a heavier, flashier collection of pictures and monographs on famous customers, including their recorded lifetime spend at Henry Poole (with helpful conversion into current-day values) and signature garment. A shortened history of Henry Poole the tailor fills a couple of sheets every 25 pages or so. And just like Gieves (which has made much of its address coincidentally being at No. 1 Savile Row), Poole cannot emphasize more its own firsts: it happened to be the first tailor to have an address actually on the street of tailors, even if it is by no means the oldest tailors’ shop there.

But that factoid, like the fact that so many emperors, once-notorious swells, or legendary impresarios were once Poole customers, has little relevance to the present day, except in the daydream world certain prospective customers populate with these figures and trivia, in order to rub elbows, if only metaphorically, with so many supposed connections to some earlier exaltation.  This book’s many pictures, and its helpful tiny biographies of all various names the earlier Poole book only checked, make that clichéd dreamworld easier to realize.  So does the foreword by Poole scion and current joint managing director Simon Cundey, who recalls his father saying “a customer is not a customer until he has ordered a second suit.” Zounds! This performative crotchetiness and snobbery is perfectly targeted. It suggests a closed world of complicated codes, one that the reader is welcomed into and that awaits if he becomes a customer… but only if he can pull off the flex of ordering (if not paying for) two suits. One suit, this suggests, is just not enough to really become part of this secret world.  And author James Sherwood hints that this secret world’s broad geography, encompassing Poole itinerary points from Atlanta to Zurich (via Beijing, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Monterey, Singapore and Washington) has in fact been part of Poole’s own centuries-long empire.  An empire, in fact, far longer-lived than those of many of its emperor clients: Napoleon III of Second Empire fame, who seized power in 1851 and lost it, disastrously, during the Franco-Prussian War 20 years later; or Maximilian I, executed by revolutionary firing squad not long after Napoleon III set him on the throne of Mexico, for example.

This book says little about the actual cutting process or making of a garment, and in fact has few pictures of current offerings of the house.  The earlier books about Savile Row tailors conveyed information, history, designed through its dryness to satisfy the intellectual pretentions, as well as the curiosity, of its readers. An efficient dryness, as crisp as the invoices I received directing payments to Poole at Coutts, the Queen’s bankers (of course), and as well-organized as the fittings I had in a very comfortable, very anonymous room at the Hotel Bedford, one of the expensive anonymities in a quiet side street off the Madeleine.  There, my garments took shape and form: my alpaca sportcoat into the soft but sharply cut masterpiece it still, rather more hairily, is; a single-width length of ancient McNutt Donegal tweed into a magnificently dense jacket with every gorgeous motley hue of a windswept seaside speckling forth from it; and, thank goodness, at least two suits, each wonderfully if discreetly cut and comfortable, so that I can still, despite old Mr. Cundey’s interjection, consider myself a onetime customer. There once was a saying, its meaning lost to time, that it took nine tailors to make a man.  (McCarthy-era rat and erstwhile Poole customer Adolphe Menjou borrowed it for the title of his autobiography.) Does that mean that he had to have ordered at least eighteen suits?

Today’s readers, apparently, need to be introduced to the denizens of a supposedly glittering world who can populate a set of illusions, not least the illusion of permanence Poole, and certain other tailors, try to create with books like these.  A tailor, any tailor, is only as good as its current cutters and patternmakers, as well as the associated tailors and garmentmakers involved in assembling and creating its coats and trousers, and the attitude of its management to ensuring it makes things right.  That the customer receives a garment of quality that lives up to the house’s reputation, and that the house promptly and courteously corrects oversights.  I finally got beyond the polite reserve of my former cutter, Mr. Alexander, to a laugh when I apologized for bringing a length of Holland & Sherry linen that my cat used to sleep on.  Mr. Alexander no longer travels. To stay current, Poole has created a collaboration sneaker with Adidas, among other things, whose packaging and navy blue color are designed to evoke Savile Row. I guess. Friends who have remained customers of Poole tailoring have sometimes had to fly to London to get mistakes noticed and corrected, although given the small world of luxury tailoring customers out there, all information is necessarily anecdotal.  I, too, once populated a very empty world with dead client denizens, trumpeted by former Poole customer Lucius Beebe in The Big Spenders, for instance. Dead addresses, too, as I hunted for memorabilia of the Poole Paris shop on rue Tronchet, evacuated in a hurry before the city fell in World War II.  Today, thank God, that empty world is long gone, and I can instead populate a past with my own memories of small orders and small wonders.  I already have the book.

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