Walking through the doors into one of the most esteemed and fabled Savile Row tailors should, by all rights, be a daunting experience. As the small bell over the entrance heralds your arrival at Anderson & Sheppard, first impressions of the salesroom would seem to confirm this notion. The ornate fireplace, parquet flooring and bottle of Lagavulin placed on a simple silver tray next to a glass (I am hopeful it is offered to all guests, but suspect it is for paying clients only) give the room an air of an old world Gentleman’s Club. It certainly has the weight and tradition you’d expect from a firm of such repute, but somehow it seems to pull off the trick of also feeling strangely egalitarian.
“We’re just ordinary people” offers the General Manager and Head Tailor Mr Hitchcock shortly after a warm greeting. “We’re no different to anybody else, no different to the people working around here on the building sites. But you meet all these famous people. And you do it all the time.” A cursory glance at the client list over the years is all that is required to confirm this statement is anything but a boast. Everyone from Noel Coward and Cary Grant to Marlene Dietrich and HRH Prince Charles to modern notables such as Bryan Ferry and Calvin Klein all have their measurement details recorded in the hand written client books that reside in the shelves around the walls of the salesroom. “When Fred Astair used to be in here” offers Mr Hitchcock “he used to dance in the fitting rooms, and if the jacket came off his neck, he didn’t want it.” While this story may seem to border on the apocryphal, the tale fits with the rebellious history of the firm – as incongruous a notion as that may seem today – and the type of clientele it has always attracted as a consequence.
While the Anderson & Sheppard shingle may now hang at number 32 Old Burlington Street, its heritage most definitely resides a street away in the famed Savile Row. Established in 1906 by Peter (Per) Gustaf Anderson and Sidney Horatio Sheppard, the firm was viewed by the established tailors of the time as being somewhat of a renegade in its early days. In using the cut created by his mentor, the Dutch tailor Frederick Sholte, Per Anderson built the firm’s heritage on being a civil rather than military tailor. The London cut, or English drape as it is also known, invented by Sholte, was the foundation style that exists as Anderson & Sheppard’s signature to this day. This style flew in the face of the almost constrictively tailored military-rooted conventions of the time, with the English Drape then as it remains today defined by being: roomy over the chest and shoulders, not overly fitted at the waist with small arm holes to keep the jacket in place, and no shoulder pads to allow the coat to fall naturally with the wearer’s shoulders. In many ways the ‘softer’ cut of the suit required the wearer to carry the suit, rather than allowing the suit to wear the man. As such it seemed only natural that this style would attract men of a certain character. As Mr Hitchcock explains: “What happened was, in the 1930’s the people from Hollywood came over and they liked what we did. You had Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, they all came in and they all told their friends and we got a name of being glamorous.”
It was this, the sharing of Anderson & Sheppard amongst the fashionable ‘who’s who’, which fuelled much of the firm’s success during the 1930’s through the 1950’s. As it had long been a custom for new clients to be referred to the firm by an existing customer, someone to vouch for them if you will, this became almost a badge of honour for the Hollywood set to be able to do. It provided the tradition and exclusivity perhaps lacking Stateside and bought in to the burgeoning Anglophilia of the time. But while it was the glamour that drove the success of Anderson & Sheppard during this period, it was their refusal to alter their style during the social upheaval and resultant fashion of London in the 1960’s that unstitched their rebellious reputation and conversely established them as a bastion of tradition, something they maintain to this day.
While the Anderson & Sheppard suit itself may not have changed over the years, Mr Hitchcock has noticed drastic changes in the bespoke tailoring industry itself since he started as an apprentice in 1963. “In the 1960’s when I started there were lots and lots of tailors “ explains Mr Hitchcock “but in the 80’s young people decided not to become tailors because they thought maybe bespoke tailoring was finishing. But as you can see, we’re still as busy as ever.” Standing in the cutting room, where the patterns for each client are made and the chosen cloth cut, there is definitely a quiet sense of constant toil. It is perhaps these men, dressed in their impeccable suits, moving with purpose against a backdrops of clients’ patterns hanging on the wall, that the general public conjure an image of when they think of ‘tailors’. However, these are the cutters, and some may devote their life to just making trousers or conversely just making jackets. The art and expertise is in the creation and cutting of the pattern for each client to order, and it is a skill that takes years to learn. And it is with these gentlemen that clients often form lifelong attachments. It is downstairs that the needle and thread work is done. It is no less important but the atmosphere is quite different. Here the tailors are in casual attire, often in their own worlds; cocooned in a space created by the music in their headphones. It is a fascinating distinction from the floor above and taps in to the utilitarian aspect of tailoring that perhaps makes places like Anderson & Sheppard so comfortably approachable. For while the clientele are by their very nature wealthy and often from the upper echelons of society, the makers of their suits are unashamedly proud tradespeople.
Although there has probably always been some mystique around the art of tailoring, fuelled in the case of Anderson & Sheppard by an up until recently abandoned policy of prohibiting advertising, the discussion of clients – indeed calling attention to the firm at all – the advent of the internet and an increasing interest in the artisanal has led to a change in the way tailors are viewed these days. “For some reason tailors are becoming like chefs!” Laughs Mr Hitchcock. “funny thing is when I first started in the 60’s, nobody was really interested in where it came from, all they kept saying is get a move on! It’s changed. I think it’s changed a lot. Nowadays, tailoring people get a lot more respect…because there’s a shortage of us.”
As if by way of redressing this fact, Anderson & Sheppard have a thriving and much sought-after apprentice programme, something Mr Hitchcock is visibly proud of. It is part of his duty, it seems, to pass the knowledge he has accumulated on to the next generation of tailors to keep the tradition alive. “It’s very important. When I first started Mr Bryant (his predecessor) showed me what to do and Mr Bryant learnt from Mr Scholte. So it’s been passed down the generations and now, hopefully, I’ll pass it on to the young people here.” Offers Mr Hitchcock by way of explanation. “Prince Charles has been very very supportive of us, because he likes the fact that we are training young people; the fact we have apprentices here.” By all accounts it is knowledge worth passing on. Anderson & Sheppard suits are not seen by their makers or their owners as serving a purpose for a defined period of time, but rather are made with the intention of being suits for life. They are often returned for alterations due to “shrinking” over the years but seldom do clients retire them, such is the attachment people apparently develop for them. Indeed, Prince Charles wore a thirteen year-old Anderson & Sheppard morning suit on the day of his marriage to Camilla.
It is this focus on quality and longevity of what they make that seems to define Anderson & Sheppard and frame the passion of the tailors who work there. While appreciative of the cost of the suits he makes, and aware that they would be out of his own reach were he not afforded a suit as part of his employment, Mr Hitchcock is obviously quietly chuffed, to borrow from the vernacular, to produce the suits he does. “It’s a complete luxury. It’s a special treat.” He offers, “It’s like a lady going to a spa for a day – why not come in and see your tailor and really go out there in a really nice suit and feel comfortable in it. It’s the best you can buy”.
Anderson & Sheppard, helmed by Mr Hitchcock, is tradition without stuffiness, glamour without show. It is a culture of the unassuming that has been cultivated since the inception of the firm in 1906 that has filtered through the cloth and into the customers that wear it. It seems that it is enough for a client to know they are in an Anderson & Sheppard suit without the world needing to know also. It is something I get the feeling Mr Hitchcock’s predecessor, Mr Bryant – who once said “the minute a man is over dressed, he is badly dressed.” – would be proud was being passed on to a new generation.