The Chester Barrie factory in 1948 Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The name might be one of Savile Row’s most widely recognised, but there never was a tailor called Chester Barrie: it is an amalgam of the town in Cheshire and the author of Peter Pan. Its inventor was Simon Ackerman, a man whose own name should be far better remembered – because with Chester Barrie, Ackerman created a template 70 years ago that is still followed by much of today’s globalised fashion industry.
Although born in Britain, Ackerman made his fortune in New York. The entrepreneur built up a chain of eponymous stores (one of them in Times Square) and overcame several sticky run-ins with the fearsome American unions to become a major force in the mass manufacturer of clothing, specifically suits.
Then he returned to England in 1935, took a shop at 32 Savile Row, and executed a devilishly clever scheme. He set up a factory in Crewe (convenient for shipping routes across the Atlantic) where staff hand-sewed suits to predetermined blocks and sizes that were then labelled with that posh-sounding Chester Barrie name, “English made” and Savile Row. The only thing left unfinished were the buttons: for if they arrived in the US buttonless, the suits remained exempt from import duty. Ackerman had a product none of his rivals could offer: “Savile Row” suits, and lots of them.
Under Ackerman’s son, Myron, the Barrie production lines expanded first into an unused block of the Rolls-Royce factory and then into a purpose-built building. That Savile Row snob-value – plus the excellent quality of the suits – won Barrie thriving markets in Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan and Italy. In fact, many of the still-peerless menswear manufacturers that emerged during Italy’s “industrial miracle” in the Fifties and Sixties were created in Barrie’s image – Myron even purchased one of them, d’Avenza, to expand the family business still further around the globe.
Chester Barrie’s most popular suit of the moment, £850
By the Sixties, Barrie reached its apogee: just under 1,000 people in Crewe sewed the suits, which were worn by Sean Connery in Dr No and Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. But Barrie’s management started to falter, and in 1964 the Simon Ackerman stores shut. While Brioni had become famous in America it had never managed to crack its home market because Barrie was so dominant: when the Savile Row brand ceased exporting to Italy, its local rivals rushed to fill the gap.
In 1978, Barrie (by now employing 760) was sold to Austin Reed and continued to fare not badly – although the Barrie marque faded a little the factory produced suits for Turnbull & Asser (as worn by Prince Charles), as well as chinos for Ralph Lauren.
In 2000 Barrie was sold again, the factory and the brand name were split asunder, and for a while this 20th-century fashion pioneer languished on the critical list. Now it’s in recovery: Barrie’s Savile Row outpost is at number 19, and its clothes are no longer produced exclusively in England. Since 2007, the name has been owned by Prominent, a Japanese trading conglomerate.
The 2013 vintage suits, refigured by the veteran tailor Edward Sexton, feature strong shoulders, roomy arms, and half-canvassed chests that give even the skinny presence in the pectoral area. Barrie has also branched out into knitwear, diversely-collared shirts, excellent informal jackets, accessories and more – the selection is wide and the quality seems high.
The re-invented Chester Barrie might just fly again.
Get it at
John Lewis and House of Fraser stock Chester Barrie nationwide, or you can visit 19 Savile Row W1S 3PP; chesterbarrie.co.uk