In his 1987 book Savile Row, still the best book on the topic from which all later books on the subject have borrowed extensively, author Richard Walker described the difficulty the tailors of Savile Row, generally small establishments of a few highly opinionated craftsmen each, had trying to agree with their neighbors to form an association and find a PR who could make the case for that neighborhood of English craft trade against the threats of rising rents, changing fashions and the incursions of Italian and Japanese designers . 25 years later, it seems that in James Sherwood, author of The London Cut, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke and most recently, The Perfect Gentleman: The Pursuit of Timeless Elegance and Style in London, they have finally found a worthy marketer. One can only hope that it is not too late.
The Perfect Gentleman is essentially a companion volume to Sherwood’s picture book Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke, apparently intended to round out the wardrobe and habits of the man who, parthenogenetically, has sprung into the world with nothing more than Anglophilia and a well-stuffed Asprey wallet. That is, The Perfect Gentleman presents the remaining bespoke shirtmakers, shoemakers, jewelers, gunmakers, stationers, umbrella shops and other related purveyors of gentlemen’s requisites in London whose product would complement the clothes and the fantasy lifestyle conveyed in Sherwood’s earlier coffee-table book on the tailors (and designers styling themselves tailors) in Savile Row. As such, it is lavish in size and in the number of gorgeous photos of elegant shops, their merchandise, and their emblematic customers (although, predictably, Astaire, Churchill, the Duke of Windsor and the Duke’s grandfather Edward VII reappear with enough frequency to become almost tiresome). And while many of the shops discussed aren’t surprises (the bootmaker John Lobb, the wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd and the gunmaker Purdeys, for example), certain, such as Fox Flannels, the shoemakers Foster & Son and my beloved Edward Green, or the wonderfully wonky shirtmakers Budd of Piccadilly, delight with their unexpected inclusion.
Similarly to Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke, The Perfect Gentleman discusses each shop in individual chapters of several pages of prose studded with interesting factoids and sensuously shot pictures. Perfect in length and depth for the purchaser to peruse for inspiration or aspiration over his morning coffee. Charmingly, however, each set of chapters forms a chronological section, framed with a short history of the styles and fashions of the period during which the shops giving rise to his subtitle’s “timeless elegance” were founded, from the Restoration to the past century. Thus, The Perfect Gentleman commences its survey of stores with the hatters James Lock, founded in 1676, and finishes with discussions of the contemporary shoemakers Gaziano & Girling and the jeweler Shaun Leane. Afterwards follow short pieces on the shopping arcades, hotels, restaurants and men’s clubs that the notional perfect gentleman would patronize, with no surprises. But setting out that comprehensive, hermetic world of perfection, throws into relief the cliché of this book’s premise – a perfect gentleman of yesteryear would be too occupied in the sniping and one-upsmanship of the hierarchy of London clubs to discuss them monolithically, and would spurn any discussion of his shops as they were, simply, shops and not dream destinations. But this book is not intended for deep or critical thought.
Reading The Perfect Gentleman did provoke some depth of thought about how it differs from Thomas Girtin’s wonderful 1960 book Makers of Distinction (published in the US as Nothing But the Best). Like The Perfect Gentleman, Makers of Distinction discussed gentlemen’s craft makers in the West End of London, including some of those covered in The Perfect Gentleman, but with far fewer pretty pictures and much more content about history and craft. Then as now, each author introduced his subject with fear for the future and a recognition that these artisans of British luxury were threatened. And then as now, the perfect gentleman who would read such a book and visit the gunmakers, wine merchants, shirtmakers, shoemakers and so on featured might have been a perfect gentleman, but would have been too perfect, too clichéd, and in the current day too wealthy, to be a British one. No doubt such gentlemen, if they exist, would not have needed such a book about shops theirs ancestors were born to patronize and that they could not afford. Perhaps the difference in approach between these two books says something about the difference in the ages they were written. It certainly says something about knowledge and interest in quality clothing, which now is treated as a fad and was then taken as a given. Thus, The Perfect Gentleman’s pictures and prosody are likely as essential to its goal of broadening the scope of clientele by interesting the readers of its day, attention-deprived and magpie-eyed, into becoming new customers of the London craft trades as Makers of Distinction’s no doubt seminal investigation into shops and crafts whose original, nearly extinct patrons took for granted was in its day.
A wonderful surprise opening The Perfect Gentleman is its introduction by one of my sartorial heroes, the actor Terence Stamp, discussing his fascination as a young man prior to his big break in Billy Budd with the shops of these arcades and hushed West End streets, urging the reader to visit them metaphorically and physically before their threatened “dilution” becomes a reality. Stamp was famously not only a customer but a knowledgeable devotee of the best classical men’s bespoke makers in London (among them the original George Cleverley (pre-retirement) and the Savile Row tailors Helman), choosing a home in the abode of perfect gentlemen for centuries (Albany in Piccadilly), yet appropriated what he loved best of their heritage, craftsmanship and tactile beauty and rendered them his with his own indelible, well, stamp. And I instantly recognized his photo in The Perfect Gentleman, standing in the Burlington Arcade in sharp suit, white bespoke Cleverley shoes and rakishly flared-brim hat, from the inaugural issue twenty years ago of the shortlived Esquire Gentleman, a wonderful little publication that introduced me to Stamp, Bryan Ferry, Cleverley, Ballantyne and so much more. Even in 1993, he was stockpiling bolts of cloth and observed that the best makers and suppliers were under threat. It made an impression on me. He was right.
Given The Perfect Gentleman’s emphasis on the best of British-made craftsmanship, it is ironic that a major signing of this book took place at Ralph Lauren’s enormous new flagship on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris, as Lauren has made billions using the ethos of these makers and small shops to sell clothing and accessories made more cheaply in Italy and China, contributing to the dilution Stamp identified, and to their likely inexorable disappearance. (In anticipation of counterthrusts from internet punters about Lauren’s continued use of certain British makers for his top lines, fewer and fewer of his Purple Label shoes are made by Edward Green or Gaziano & Girling, both of whom are profiled in this book, with production instead moving to somewhat lesser quality shoes in the same styles from Silvano Sassetti.) I hope that this book inspires some of its readers to graduate from Ralph Lauren to the real thing: from the shirtmakers Budd of Piccadilly to the cloth house Fox to the umbrella makers James Smith, this book has that in spades. And following the example of Terence Stamp, to make their own explorations of these shops, and based on those discoveries, their own interpretations of the trappings of a contemporary gentleman, avoiding the trap of chimerical, nonsensical perfection.