The latest styles from Savile Row are anything but stodgy. Will they fly at work?
(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE SUIT IS SILKY-SMOOTH as I slip my arm into the sleeve, the three-button jacket's gray, white, and blue windowpane pattern offset by an eye-catching canary-yellow lining. It's the last thing I expected to find on Savile Row, the heart of traditional British tailoring, but it's exactly the mix of bold colors, beautiful cloth, and a bit of bling that's made designer Ozwald Boateng a favorite of City lawyers and traders in London as well as American music stars like Usher.
I'd always been a bit intimidated by Savile Row. With leather armchairs and fireplaces, most showrooms resemble the posh private clubs that dot London's West End, and I'm not a member of one of those either. But Boateng is different. The son of immigrants from Ghana, he is young (39), brash, and self-taught, an outsider until recently on the Row, where most tailors toiled for decades at old-school shops before setting up their own establishments.
"I've revolutionized Savile Row," says Boateng, never one for understatement. "Before it was gray, white, or black. I've made color wearable for men." Jamie Foxx wore a Boateng suit in Miami Vice this summer, and as one of Boateng's hip salesmen tells me, "we get footballers, film stars, City boys, and the odd gangster." It's no wonder Boateng's the only Savile Row tailor with a reality show (House of Boateng, on Sundance).
Savile Row's traditionalists might scoff at Boateng's designs (and bemoan the fact that newer, less experienced tailors are driving up real estate prices), but they realize the Prince Charles demographic alone can't sustain the Row. "If it brings the 25-year-olds in, they will eventually make their way up the pendulum," sniffs Simon Cundey, manager of Henry Poole & Co., a 200-year-old firm that is considered the oldest on the Row. And even the old guard is happy to indulge modern sartorialists. In between showing me moleskin-bound volumes detailing measurements of past clients like the Kaiser, Disraeli, and the Maharajah of Jaipur, Cundey confides that Poole's tailors recently created a $20,000 vicuña-and-cashmere suit with pinstripes made from real platinum.
The truth is that Boateng, along with new-breed couturiers like Richard James and hip traditionalists like Richard Anderson, has changed the feel of the place. Tweedy Englishmen still abound, but recently Pete Doherty, the bad-boy rocker and boyfriend of model Kate Moss, was seen shopping for a custom Richard James suit. Buzz is good for business, and the new blood has helped prevent Savile Row from following other once-stylish British icons like MG into business oblivion. Sales at Richard James rose 12% last year to $7.6 million, and Boateng's empire is growing by 15% annually.
Although Savile Row is known for bespoke tailoring--custom suits created from a bolt of cloth you select, which is cut to your exact measurements over a series of fittings--most newer tailors have introduced less expensive ready-to-wear versions as well as made-to-measure, an in-between category balancing the unique fit of bespoke with the preselected shape and material of ready-to-wear. Off-the-rack suits start at about $1,500, made-to-measure are about $3,000, and bespoke require up to four fittings over several months and cost north of $5,000.
So does Boateng & Co. fly in the boardroom? Although the canary-yellow lining and the bold checks might not be annual-meeting attire, his dark worsted wools would fit more traditional types just fine. Says Boateng: "I sell a hell of a lot of black suits."
Undoubtedly he does--to people with deeper pockets than mine. But a few doors down at Richard Anderson, when I slipped on a ready-to-wear suit, I had to admit I was tempted. The store was welcoming. The style was fresh. But the suit had enough of that classic English look that you know it's a Savile Row suit--one-button jacket, suppressed waist, high armholes, and none of the usual bagginess in the middle. "It's clean as a whistle," declared Anderson's partner, Brian Lishak. At $3,000 it was a stretch. But, hey, on my way up the fashion pendulum, I've got to start somewhere.
BESPOKE A garment made from scratch to a customer's measurements
MADE-TO-MEASURE A preexisting pattern that is altered to fit the customer
OFF-THE-RACK A finished item sold in standard sizes
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If you can't get to London, Poole, Anderson, and others regularly visit cities around the U.S. to fit clients (see fortune.com/lifestyle for their itineraries). Here's how far your money will go--on either continent.
$1,500 A modern ready-to-wear Richard James suit.
$3,000 A Richard Anderson made-to-measure suit in your choice of fabric.
$6,000 A bespoke Ozwald Boateng suit with contrast lining.
$1,200 A made-to-measure two-piece business suit at 40 Savile Row.
$4,000 A traditional bespoke suit from 200-year-old Henry Poole & Co.
$5,500 An edgy bespoke number from celeb favorite Richard James.