In his autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, former Sex Pistol John Lydon pauses in his justified excoriation of Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren to note with uncharacteristic offhand awe that “Malcolm McLaren was a real menswear obsessive. He actually knows a lot about the history of menswear. He knows all the looks, the youth cults, and stuff like that. That’s where many of his ideas came from.”
The late Mr McLaren is not featured in the sumptuous new picture book Anderson & Sheppard: A Style is Born, although his near-contemporary in what used to be termed “piss-elegance” Manolo Blahnik figures proudly. But like many another “menswear obsessive,” McLaren was a customer of perhaps the most controversial bespoke tailors in Savile Row. With the publication of this book, Anderson & Sheppard completes its makeover from a close-mouthed and aloof legend to a newly approachable and friendly (publicity- and otherwise) firm. A large part of the book is devoted to photographs of these past and present friends. A Style is Born intimates that these customers have seized onto the timeless elements of style and quality that A&S has preserved while jettisoning past quirks that were more pleasant to recount than to experience.
In the manner of recent books about tailors and so-called heritage brands, A Style is Born emphasizes the sensuous and the classic: its title itself is a self-conscious wink to the British and American stars of 1930s Hollywood who popularized both Anderson & Sheppard and its soft “drape cut” and hints that, finally, A&S is ready for its close up. As to the sensuous, the book contains page after huge page of images of fabrics (particularly those in elegant patterns exclusive to A&S), garments and tailors in various stages of progress, and A&S’s shop at 32 Old Burlington Street. (I note that “Savile Row” can refer to tailors located not just in the street of Savile Row itself, but in the rabbit warren of tiny streets surrounding it and west of Regent Street.)
A Style is Born also includes a warm introduction by Graydon Carter, who co-founded the American satire magazine Spy and is now editor of Vanity Fair, as well as an engaging history of Anderson & Sheppard and its cutting style by David Kamp. Kamp describes the early history of A&S at a period when Northern European immigrants such as the Dutch Frederick Scholte and his Norwegian undercutter Per Anderson rose to prominence in Savile Row. Scholte, as many readers may know, reputedly invented the drape cut that was characterized by a roomily cut jacket chest and suppressed waist, giving the wearer both an illusion of better proportions and real comfort. As Kamp notes, this style, in its softest and least padded form, was a favorite of the menswear idiot savant the Duke of Windsor, who made it popular. Kamp finally addresses the question those of us who think too much about these things have been wondering, namely how Anderson & Sheppard (founded 1906) became identified with Scholte’s cut, which didn’t become popular until the late nineteen-teens. Unfortunately, Kamp’s answer is that it’s unclear, although he does point out that A&S’s willingness to take clients refused by the famously rebarbative Scholte played a role. From there, in Kamp’s account, the rest was history, and the reader gets a litany of famous clients and their famous referrals.
Kamp continues the sad tradition in menswear writing of setting up a false conflict between the drape cut practiced by A&S and Scholte and the tailoring style of the rest of Savile Row, characterized as sharply cut and mischaracterized as tight and constricting. This canard is used by Italian tailors to demonize all English tailoring as military-influenced and restrictive. Certain other tailors use it right back at A&S to attack its cut and its heritage as promoter of the drape cut, accusing it of inconsistency, imprecision and God knows what else. An A&S director once famously stated that some swear by A&S’s cut, and some swear at it, and this is surprisingly literally borne out by the amount of sniping and grousing (some perhaps justified) about A&S on various blogs and internet forums. Fifty years ago Ian Fleming delivered the best summation of the A&S style I have ever read: “casually well-cut.” At its best, an A&S suit is exactly that: unself-consciously elegant, effortless, discreet, relaxed. Then again, he put that suit on a villain.
A Style is Born also contains a section of more than a hundred pages of photographs of clients past and present wearing Anderson & Sheppard clothing, from Rudolph Valentino, Noel Coward, and George VI to more recent clients posed Slim Aarons-style. (I was hoping for a picture of Pandit Nehru, who was supposed to have been a customer, in his best A&S, but was disappointed.) Pace Lydon, there are no punks, although two enfants terribles of the 1980s literary scene, Jay McInerney and Fran Lebowitz, appear in their grown-up finery. At first thought it may seem a bit self-indulgent to devote this much space in the book to pictures of customers, but on consideration it’s a splendid – and uncommon -- opportunity to see a tailor’s clothes on the real people for whom they were made instead of on a dummy or a model, as in so many other publications. By sheer force of numbers, we can see people of different shapes, walks of life and periods wearing a variety of different bespoke clothing and get our own sense of the A&S cut and style along with inspirations for experimenting with new patterns, colors and weaves of cloth. Of course, bearing in mind the varied dates of the pictures, the reader may attempt to judge for himself whether the A&S drape cut has stayed the same over the decades as A Style Is Born suggests, or whether it has varied in the hands of different cutters over time. And Liam Neeson really looks like he could use a hug.
A section on the A&S shop contains interesting photographs of its former premises at 30 Savile Row, which didn’t look much different in the early 2000s from their 1930s picture in Apparel Arts. In 2005, drastically elevated rents drove A&S out of its old address; Ozwald Boateng moved in. These pictures give a rare look into the era when A&S were famously secretive, its lair closed to inquisitive reporters and writers, and indeed it looks distinctly spare and un-designed, with bolts of cloth heaped on rows of tables. The ineffable magic, the reader presumes, emanated from the cutting rooms. The writers note that the elegant new shop on Old Burlington Street, with its couches and fireplace, recalls a “gentlemen’s club,” and most of us who will never set foot in a West End club can’t disagree. Indeed, the writers don’t mention that the new shop was designed to look like an idealized version of a tailor’s shop by Jérôme Faillant-Dumas’ L.O.V.E. Editions, a reimagining of a tailor’s shop for a generation and class that needs to visualize its myths.
Any brand coming out with a book has something to sell, something its product can’t communicate or can’t communicate loudly enough. Sometimes it signifies a sea change, such as with the recent Rubinacci book that accompanied that tailor’s push into retail expansion. In the case of Anderson & Sheppard, even as we read David Kamp’s paean to A&S’ remaining “a single bespoke tailor’s shop” “different from its bespoke brethren” in not diluting itself with “ready-to-wear or made-to-measure,” licenses or “satellite locations,” we can also read in Thursday’s news that A&S has announced it will open a second shop on Clifford Street in Mayfair selling ready-to-wear jackets, furnishings and accessories. We can at least hope that it helps support the survival of the bespoke side of the business.
Full disclosure: I am a satisfied A&S customer, and flipping through prose and pictures as sensuous as the soft Scottish Reid & Taylor cashmere of a recent sportcoat A&S made for me which this book inspired me to wear this morning, I was again tempted to brave the experience and contact them for something new despite the limits of budget, storage and sanity. This is a gorgeous book, and you do not need to be a menswear obsessive to appreciate it. One of its goals is to chronicle the first hundred years or so of Anderson & Sheppard’s existence as a bespoke tailor since its founding in 1906. I hope it helps them stay open for a hundred more.
-Réginald-Jérôme de Mans