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Sun, Jan 21, 2007 - Page 12 News List

Savile Row tailors dread arrival of chain fashion stores

AFP , LONDON

A tailor working at Bespoke Tailors Maurice Sedwell makes adjustments to a client's suit at a shop on Savile Row in central London on Jan. 10. Tailors on London's exclusive Savile Row fear that a 200-year tradition of hand-crafted gentlemen's suits could be under threat as the arrival of chain fashion stores pushes up rents.

PHOTO: AFP

Tailors on London's Savile Row fear that a 200-year tradition of hand-crafted gentlemen's suits could be under threat as the arrival of chain fashion stores pushes up rents.

Prince Charles, actor Cary Grant and Britain's World War II leader Winston Churchill have all shopped on the row, which, though just moments from the pounding Oxford Street retail hub, can feel more 1807 than 2007.

Shops often stay closed on weekends and see customers by appointment, while bespoke, or custom-made, suits are still cut and stitched in workshops above or below the shops themselves.

Tailors say this makes for a better fit, and with a typical bespoke suit costing at least ?2,000 (US$3,870), sartorial perfection does not come cheap.

But as off-the-peg menswear brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch and Evisu Jeans set up shop amid the royal warrants, rents have gone up and the street's character is starting to change.

Joseph Morgan, of Chittleborough and Morgan, said his firm had survived repeated moves in recent years.

"There are other tailors that have had to move and, tragically, gone out of business," he said.

"The tragedy is, because of rents and rates now, what some people do is to sell ties, shirts, shoes and accessories instead of bespoke suits, which are very labour intensive," he added.

He said his firm would not consider such diversification into ready-to-wear, saying it would be akin to giving up "your ideas and your ideology."

Traditional suit-making on Savile Row is a niche industry -- close to 100 tailors make some 7,000 bespoke suits a year, generating an annual turnover of ?21 million and many businesses employ fewer than 10 people.

One major problem for small firms striving to stay in the black is that rents vary significantly depending on what the building is used for.

This has led to concerns that "landowners seek to maximize profit by attracting land uses that can afford to pay higher rents at the expense of bespoke tailors," a report last year by Westminster City Council said.

For example, Hardy Amies, one of the biggest bespoke names on the row, pays an estimated rent of up to ?245 per m2 for ground floor showroom and office space, the report said.

This compares to ?107 per m2 for workshop space on the first floor in the same building, where the suits are made.

By contrast, a non-bespoke retailer a few doors down is leased at an estimated ?840 per m2, the report added.

Tailors also cite examples of landlords dividing buildings previously occupied by bespoke businesses into smaller units when their leases end, thus netting more rent.

The Pollen Estate, which owns about half of the freeholds on Savile Row, denies that rents have risen disproportionately.

It says that Savile Row has seen a 57 percent increase in the last 10 years compared to 72 percent in Oxford Street and 125 percent in Bond Street.

The estate wants to encourage high-end fashion brands on to the row "to act as further draws for the street as a whole and complement existing occupiers," it said in a statement.

Mike Jones, of the estate's property advisors Drivers Jonas, said the new names would bring "fresh people coming in and seeing things -- it must be good for business."

And he questioned how long Savile Row could remain untouched by modern commercial concerns.

"Can you rely just on people coming and knowing you're there? Can you afford to ignore drop-in trade?" he said.

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