Note: this is to serve as the preface for a series of articles that will focus on tailors, custom clothiers, businessmen, suit makers and others who are involved in a more traditional method of the made to measure and bespoke suit craft (so nearly anything minus the online mtm operations). Part of each article will focus on the story, suits and craft of the individuals. But another part will focus on the legacy of those individuals.
For suits of a certain level of quality it is true that sometimes said suits will outlast their makers (and ever their wearers) leaving behind only the work of the tailors, patternmakers, cutters and all the others who had a part at bringing the suit into existence. The final product, the suit, is the embodiment of the years, decades, of experience, refinement and knowledge housed by the aforementioned individuals. Their legacy, of sorts.
But I propose we delve further into this idea of a legacy. I propose that a legacy is not only embodied in the clothes that were produced but also by the pupils who were endowed the wisdom and experience of those who came before them. And I believe this is where people often get lost. It is so much easier to judge by tangible means, like a suit. However, it is sometimes the intangibles, like knowledge and experience, that are equally, if not more important. And in the case of fine tailoring, that knowledge is essential in carrying forward the history, tradition and craft.
Obviously, this concept is neither new or groundbreaking. In fact, Vicki Vasilopolous is in the final stages of production for her documentary Men Of The Cloth, which explores a similar topic. But I do feel like there is not much focus on it in the mens style ‘blogosphere.’ True, there is focus on the heritage of brands as well as the great families and houses. But little emphasis, I suppose understandably so, on the next generation. On continuing a legacy.
I have traveled to and been in some of the finest and well known tailoring establishments of the western world; Cifonelli, Dege & Skinner, Henry Poole, Centofanti and Martin Greenfield among others. And amongst all of them, aside from their craft, there are a few other commonalities. First, the demand and interest in tailored garments (whether they be MTM or Bespoke) has increased in recent years. Second, the average age of the workforce making tailored garments. The most striking example is at Centofanti in Ardmore Pennsylvania where two of the three tailors are over 80 years of age and the third is in his 70s I believe. The average age of the workers I saw at Cifonelli must have been in the 70s.
Finding a good successor, from what I have heard, is sometimes said to be the hardest task of a leader. And at the same time one of the most important steps in carrying on a legacy. But at these establishments and institutions, it seems that the first problem is getting potential successors in the door. The allure of becoming a professional tailor is not what it once was. But fortunately, there still are a handful of men who strive to carry on the legacies of those before them. They do it for themselves as their jobs and passions. And whether intended or not, they are doing it for us. At the foundation of every custom pattern, every hand stitch and every hand pressed garment there is a person. That’s how it has always been, that is how it is now and that is how it will have to continue to be.
Taking another angle; at a time when the Brooks Brothers, Indochinos and SuitSupplys of the world seem to be in stages of respectable growth which undoubtedly comes with its struggles. At the same time, the bearers of the great tradition of tailoring who carry on the legacy of those before them face their own plights.
Perhaps nothing symbolizes this struggle more than Abercrombie & Fitch on Saville Row. The oldest of old school losing ground to one of the institutions of a nearly tasteless new school. Even more symbolic, or perhaps ironic, if you take into account what Abercrombie & Fitch once was. Something I never saw, as I was not born until after its fall. I have only seen the bastardized version of the once great name.
I am sure that the great names in the tailoring world will carry on, their names worn proudly upon the inside of each of their customers jackets. Not emblazoned across their chests. But what of the men and women who made his suit? What of their legacy? The man may bestow his suit to his son or mentee. But I fear for all of us that the tailors of the world are having more trouble finding a suitable heir.
But for those that do find successors, what of them? Who are they? Take these men and women away and all you have is clothes, which are only half of the story, half of the legacy. It is the clothes, and the people, that tell the stories.