The Observer, Saturday 9 March 2013 20.59 GMT
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Rolls of cut cloth on a cutters table at a bespoke tailors. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters
As the month-long circus of designer catwalk shows drew to an end last week, and the world’s boutique buyers closed their order books with the big fashion houses of New York, London, Milan and Paris, a quiet revolution has been taking place among the style cognoscenti, who have been placing their own advance orders for their wardrobes.
The smart money is being placed on a more discerning way of buying clothes, with bespoke garments rapidly becoming the most coveted pieces. “We see so many women who have access to premium merchandise, but clients are getting more demanding and want a personal connection with their purchases,” says Judd Crane, director of womenswear at Selfridges. In a homogenised world, where we can order Burberry’s and Topshop’s latest collections as we watch a live stream of their runway shows, and every capital city features the same glass-fronted, glossy temples to expensive designer brands, this is the antithesis of the marketing and hype surrounding what we traditionally know as luxury labels.
In fact, those savvy shoppers who are spending their money on unique, made-to-measure pieces are part of what is being coined “the new luxury”.
The likes of Cameron Diaz, the Duchess of Cambridge (who, unlike many of her royal predecessors, rarely wears full “haute couture”, instead adopting more budget-conscious bespoke dressmakers and made-to-measure cobblers) and an army of chic female high flyers are being measured up by a new breed of discreet designer-dressmakers, contemporary tailors and artisan shoemakers. This breed is meeting the demand for a more anonymous look that perfectly meets the needs of the customer in terms of fit, lifestyle, and individuality.
And while it is certainly not a trend that will be accessible to all, it is a movement that is set to shape the way businesswomen and polished socialites dress for the foreseeable future. Hannah MacGibbon, the design consultant and former creative director at Chloe, has recently ordered three bespoke suits from Henry Rose, a Savile Row-trained tailor who has spent the past decade as an in-house tailor at Stella McCartney and has just set up his cutting table in a new dedicated bespoke atelier on the womenswear floor at Selfridges.
“There is so much on offer in the world of high fashion, you can feel inundated,” explains McGibbon, fresh from her first consultation with Rose last week. “It is fast and furious, with a constant demand for instant gratification, but this feels like the ultimate personal luxury. There is something about the process of being measured, choosing the details such as the right shoulder line, the lapel, the silhouette, going for fittings, the impeccable finishing. You gain a level of craftsmanship and quality, from skilled workers, that is simply not possible in a ready-to-wear garment.”
Like many women who don’t conform to the fashion industry’s ideal in terms of height and body shape, MacGibbon had become disillusioned shopping ‘off the rail’. Plum Sykes, the author and contributing editor at Vogue, though tall and willowy, felt the same frustrations and already owns two highly individual tweed suits, made for her by Rose and inspired by the idea of “Mick Jagger on a shooting weekend”.
“Nothing I ever bought off-the-peg fitted properly,” she bemoans. “The sleeves were always too short, and things just don’t sit right because they are made to a standard cut, and no woman is the same shape. I have found as I’ve got older, I need durable, well made clothes that are flattering and well cut. I can get a bespoke suit from Henry for the same price as one in a designer boutique on Bond Street, and I’ll never see another one the same anywhere.”
You only have to look at the best dressed men to see that bespoke is the way to go: it is one area where we can learn from the boys.”
Jack Tobin, the newly-appointed head of bespoke at the department store, says the concept has come about because many women are sidelined by mainstream designer fashion, where sizes often stop at a size 14. “Good tailors and made-to-measure designers are sculptors with cloth and can offer something that delivers so much more than you’ll get from even the most expensive factory-produced garment.”
“With bespoke you can create illusions of being slimmer, taller, curvier,” says Rose, a diminutive, nimble-fingered man who is considered a genius in sartorial circles. “One of the biggest concerns for women is their tummy, and we can conceal and flatter, just in the way the skirt or the trousers pull that in. And we leave a lot of inlay (excess fabric) in bespoke pieces, meaning you can let garments out by up to six inches if you change shape or want to adapt the silhouette slightly.”
Alongside Rose, Selfridges have recruited the services of 29 year-old New Zealander Emilia Wickstead, already one of the best-kept secrets in the upper echelons of London society and amid more elegant executives. Her pared-down design aesthetic suits women who no longer want to be doing with whimsical trends, but want to focus on creating a hard-working, sophisticated wardrobe. “I wanted to shake off the slightly mumsy image of made-to-measure and make bespoke relevant to young, contemporary women,” says the softly-spoken designer. With dresses created to a client’s specification ranging between £450 and £2000, it’s not High Street prices, but is instead on a par with many of the designer garments hanging elsewhere in the store. Well-heeled clients include Julia Peyton-Jones, the sassy head of London’s Serpentine Gallery, India Hicks, Samantha Cameron and handbag designer Anya Hindmarch.
“I used to drive past Emilia’s atelier in Belgravia,” says 35 year-old Emmanuelle Rio, a former investment banker turned interiors entrepreneur. “I thought everything would be too expensive, but was amazed to find how favourably priced it was to commission something unique to me. It is not about making a statement with trends and flaunting labels: it is an understated way of dressing that means you are confident you have the most flattering garments in your choice of fabrics, with exactly the neckline, hem length, sleeve shape etc that you like. Once you have started buying like this, you rarely go back.”
THE RISING STARS
A new generation of artisan makers are dressing women in the ultimate investment pieces. Here’s our pick of the best:
Henry Rose Considered the master of women’s tailoring, has dressed Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunst and Stella McCartney. He doesn’t have a “house style”, but rises to the challenge of collaborating with women to create a perfect suit for their body shape, lifestyle and tastes.
Emilia Wickstead Known for her pared-down, flattering silhouettes; dresses the likes of the Duchess of Cambridge and Samantha Cameron.
Katherine Hooker A favourite with Pippa Middleton, Zara Phillips, aristocratic country dwellers and smart City executives, her business has grown by some 300% in 18 months.
Emmy Scarterfield A bespoke designer whose shoes and boots start at £360 and take 12-14 weeks to craft with traditional skills. Has made for Clare Danes, Elizabeth Hurley, Jacquetta Wheeler, Duchess of Cambridge.
T&F Slack Offer a made-to-order shoe service for men and women, allowing you to select from a range of leathers, suedes and other materials.