How Savile Row Stays Relevant As Luxury Retail Evolves
No garment district on Earth has been immortalised quite like Savile Row. Stretching from Vigo Street in London’s Mayfair up to Conduit Street, “The Row”, as it is known in fashion circles, dates back to the late 17th century when the first Earl of Burlington bought up half of Piccadilly. Naturally, he purchased the surrounding land too, and, in time, filled it with tailors to ensure he and his sons were immaculately attired.
Today, Savile Row dresses everyone from Prince William and Jay-Z to James Bond and Benedict Cumberbatch, and has been immortalised in film and fiction. However, storm clouds loomed for The Row—which largely relies on the bankers of Wall Street to stay afloat—when, late last year, President Trump slapped an additional 25 per cent tariff on wool-based British exports to the US. Facing a crisis, the tailors of Savile Row turned to mainland China to find customers to help pick up the slack.
It hasn’t been an easy decade. Since the 2008 recession, men have become more careful with their spending, a trend that has been compounded by Trump’s unexpected tariffs and now the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. A bespoke Savile Row suit costs an average of £4,800—a sum only a niche market can afford.
However, savvy Asian investors are betting on brands such as Gieves & Hawkes, Anderson & Sheppard and Stowers London now that they have chosen to shift their focus to clients based in Asia at this difficult time. Gieves & Hawkes has tailoring stores in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and Anderson & Sheppard has trunk shows around Greater China.
“Asia is a very wide and varied market, but there is a general appreciation for tailoring and for dressing well for business,” says Anda Rowland, director of Anderson & Sheppard. “British tailors are far better known in Japan than China, and have been active there for many years.”
Richard Anderson, the co-founder of the eponymous brand (not related to Anderson & Sheppard), argues that it will do well in Asia because it has access to special lightweight fabrics that are expensive to manufacture but ideal for hotter Asian climates. He says that the specific cuts have been honed to fit the waist and flare over the hips in a way back-street tailors’ rarely do, and that the result is far more flattering. Asian men are now also buying just a jacket or waistcoat from the storied brands and wearing them socially, rather than to work.
But how wise an investment is luxury suiting right now? “Luxury is hit hard in economic downturns, nobody would argue with that,” says Vinnie Lauria, the founding partner of Golden Gate Ventures, a venture capital firm in Singapore. “That’s common knowledge and a market norm, but I actually think the coronavirus represents an investment opportunity. The market is a lot more nuanced than it looks—and if you are a luxury brand right now, then, yes, you are you going to have less revenue in 2020, but even if your sales are slow, this is a real opportunity to build a tactile, online brand that is built to last.”
Brands that had previously focused on women’s clothing started to shift their focus and widen their market offering before the coronavirus. As streetwear found a bigger audience and men’s style loosened up, designer brands began pumping money into their menswear collections—and stealing some of Savile Row’s market. Brands such as Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton spent far more on menswear than ever before, no doubt bolstered by predictions that the sector was set to grow at a rate of 2 per cent a year until 2022. However, with major luxury brands set to struggle through the next few months, specialist tailors could weather the storm more easily than most, making them a more attractive investment.
“Savile Row is changing,” says Brian Lee, a director at research company L2 Gartner. “While they are not going to be DTC [direct to consumer] e-commerce brands, being online allows them to control the conversation better and at least helps them tell new audiences how their cut or style is different from other Savile Row tailors. New, easy fixes like booking an appointment from a website make it easier for a younger, more digitally native suit buyer to find a time to come in for a consultation.”
(Related: 5 Suits That'll Keep You As Cool As A Cucumber)
Shaking Things Up
Pocket Sun, the co-founder of the hugely successful Singapore-based SoGal venture capital firm, thinks Savile Row brands need to go even further if they want to capture the youth market and become a safe investment.
“I think menswear needs to express a new form of masculinity,” she says. “After a recession like this, people will reflect on consumerism and rethink what they need. I think now is the time to invest in brands that make menswear sexy in a new way and blur the lines between genders, fashion and street. How do we design for a whole new generation? The ones that have an answer to that are the brands to invest in.”
Ultimately, this is not a good moment for the apparel industry, but it could be the time to invest in brands with real heritage, ones that don’t rely on complicated supply chains and are likely to weather the crisis better than most.
“Across the board, these are very good times for investors and difficult times for entrepreneurs, and luxury menswear is no different,” says Lauria. “However, economic downturns are great for people who have capital. What I would say to investors is, invest now; to small menswear brands, I’d say keep your head above water, accept a huge drop in sales and revenue, and if one year later you have navigated the storm, people are going to be throwing money at you.”