A Conversation with Anda Rowland

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Anda Rowland

It used to be the convention that gentlemen always paid their tailor last, which meant that often a tailor was never paid at all. Transactions were made by gentlemen’s agreement, sealed with a trusty handshake, and it certainly was not the done thing to chase an outstanding payment up, that would be far too embarrassing for all concerned. When Anda Rowland arrived at Anderson & Sheppard in 2004, the Savile Row tailoring house to just about every famous man ever considered elegant in the twentieth century, she discovered hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of unpaid bills, money which once collected, has been used to caress A&S into the twenty-first century. The shop, a century old tailoring mainstay, now resides in a chic new boutique on Old Burlington Street, it boasts a busy website as well as a blog after years of avoiding publicity, and the firm has just released a luxurious hard cover book “A Style is Born” detailing the brands considerable history, as well as its never-ending list of glamorous clients. To say Anda is thriving in this one-time male only universe is an understatement. Since leaving Paris and a job with Parfums Christian Dior to take over the reins of Anderson and Sheppard following the death of her father, the multi millionaire businessman Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, Anda, in conjunction with the firm’s managing director and legendary head cutter John Hitchcock, has rejuvenated the brand, overseeing a rise in profits after the doldrums of the American Gigolo styled 80’s and the dress down 90’s. “No customer,” it is said of the firm, “is ever rushed, in the old days, it was not uncommon for a gentleman to build a leisurely day around a visit to Anderson & Sheppard.” I spent a cold December afternoon within the snug grandeur of the shop and talked with Anda about the tailoring process, the art of changing the familiar and the current state of male elegance.

What types of people make up the Anderson and Sheppard clientele? Is it what you would imagine, the moneyed gentry for example, city executives and royalty? Or is there a much wider spectrum?  

There is a real mix. There are things which surprise people. The number of creative people we have as clients for example. People always think it’s a lot of finance and city types, but we have a lot of journalists, photographers and designers. We’ve always historically had actors, writers and songwriters, musicians and directors, that is very much this firm’s heritage. Some other firms have politicians or military men, or royalty. We have more creative people here.

Some people might come in, as one customer did a few years ago, and because he had a number of homes he ordered eighty suits, so he could have five suits here and five suits there. Very rarely you will have people who behave like that, people who are able to spend money to have an amazing wardrobe. And then right at a different end of the scale you have people who pay a hundred pounds a month into their account here and save up over time to buy a suit.

Oh, I didn’t know that, you can set up an account here?

Yes, we take a fifty percent deposit at the time of order, so they might save up over a couple of years by paying into their account, carry on with the fittings and order when they can pay the deposit, and when they can afford to pay the second fifty percent, they come and fetch the suit. So you get two ends of the scale, you get people who say I want one really lovely suit that they can enjoy and are seduced by the involvement and the process and the quality. And then we have other people who are just in a different league financially.

A lot of times with men it is not only the quality and the fit, but the fact that there is a value in it, you can bring the suit  back for repair and changes, and really get years of wear out of it, which you can’t with ready to wear shop bought garments. With a lot of people it’s the convenience too, because once you’ve had something made here you can phone Colin or James up and say “I’m interested in a grey or chalked stripe, and I don’t want the stripe to be too wide,” and they will send you a selection of cloth based on what they think you might be interested in and you can say “that’s the one.” We already have the pattern (the shape and measurements of your figure that the cloth is cut to match) so you can come in and get it fitted and try it on. So customers don’t have to shop around and worry about the fit, convenience is really what brings people back, as well as the quality and the experience.

The snug grandeur of the front of house

Why have you always attracted creative people? What is it in the style of cut which brings them to you?

When the firm was founded in 1906 and certainly in the 1920’s a lot of the other Savile Row firms, the more traditional firms, didn’t really take an interest in actors, they didn’t want that kind of trade. What separates us from many other firms is that we have a very distinct cut, which is the soft shoulder and the high arm hole, the English drape, as the style is called. This necessitates the sleeve being sewn in by hand, because you need to cut a very high arm hole, you need some room in the sleeve to move, so the sleeve is actually bigger than the armhole, which is why it needs to be sewn in by hand, not by machine. All of this means the clothes actually stay on your back when you’re moving around, so if you’re an actor, or if you’re Fred Astaire, who was one of our iconic customers, you need that suit to move with you, and you don’t want to be thinking about where the shoulder pad is going, as shoulder pads tend to have lives of their own, and when people sit down, and they’ve got the suit buttoned, the suit rises up, because the arm hole is too deep, due to the fact the sewing has been done by machine. If you’ve got a tight little arm hole, then the suit stays on your back whatever you do.

And then there’s comfort, which today is more important than ever, because people are not used to not being comfortable anymore, they are so used to wearing casual clothing, so when they put on a suit, often people feel terribly uncomfortable. But with us, because of the construction of the cut, you get comfort and you get movement, which is what appeals to creatives. So for instance our journalists or photographers, Jonathan Becker who took all the contemporary pictures in our book, who works for Vanity Fair, he works in our jackets. Writers and journalists can move around, they can wear our clothes, feel comfortable and do their jobs.

So there would be a completely different feel if you got a suit from a different Savile Row house?

It depends, there are variations. Some tailors have a very militaristic style cut, if their history is military then there is that big shoulder, the strong, very constructed chest, the nipped in waist. We don’t have a military history; we didn’t come from making uniforms. The firm started out in the civil sphere, dealing with people’s everyday lives. Per Anderson (A&S founder) was trained by Frederick Scholte, who was a very well known cutter and tailor to the Duke of Windsor, who famously had that English drape look. He was wearing his clothes a lot, comfort was important to him and you can see that in the way he stands, it’s very posed. So we started through that, that’s why we have the drape and the softness.

The cutting room. Mr. John Hitchcock - Head Cutter (far left) and Mr. Leon Powell - Undercutter (far right)

So I’m a first time customer, maybe a little intimated by walking in off the street, what can I expect? What is the process?

If you’re a first time customer you come in, and the process is the same as it has been for years and years, hundreds of years in the same way. You would meet one of our two salesmen and they would talk you through what you are actually looking for, what you will wear the suit for, what kind of cloth and style you want. Some people know exactly what they want and the process can take fifteen minutes, some people might be here for an hour and a half, or longer, looking at different cloths and that will lead them onto weights and usage.

What we find a lot of the time is customers tend to think that fine and cashmere blends are what they really want, and then actually when they spend time with Colin and James, they realise that with the usage of the suit, travelling and so forth, that they are better with a heavier weight of cloth, eleven of twelve ounces, something that is a bit more hard wearing, because that’s where bringing back the suit six years later comes in, for repair, if you get a strong cloth you are able to have repairs and changes done, if you get something that is extremely fine, you might find that it is bagging and moving on its own through wear and tear after a while. So that’s a very important process and we have samples of over 4000 cloths and 90% of those cloths are woven in Britain.  Sometimes people look at a particular cloth and say, “oh it’s got a diamond pinstripe in it,” well, that’s not really what we do, we want people to be able to get wear and enjoyment out of the suits, rather than just make a talking point.

How much would a basic lounge suit cost me?

A two piece suit with a large range of cloths is generally upwards of £3000. If you think about when you are buying from one of the Italian designer names, you might find something that is £2000, its probably been marked up eight times because of the name and it’s not really going to last you, the shape goes, so you’re not going to get long term use out of it. So in relation to that, this is very good value at the very high end of suit making.

Pin stripe double breasted jacket

You recently moved the shop around the corner from Savile Row itself to Old Burlington Street. Was that something of a risk, given the resonance of the Savile Row name and address?

There’s this thing about Savile Row, the reality is in this business, you are the destination. It’s very rare for any of the serious businesses who produce bespoke clothing to get someone who has come in off the street, who just says, “oh well, I’ll walk down Savile Row and I’ll see what I like in the window.” And that was always the case in the past because you needed recommendations and references to get in, everybody operated like that and we operated like that until relatively recently. These days people look online, so even if a friend says they like the product, people will still check, even if they read an article, whatever, they will always check online if they are a new customer. They will look at the different web-sites, look at the forums, there are several forums about menswear, where people chat about bespoke tailors, we’ve got a blog on our web-site too, which talks about apprentices. Most new customers will have checked the web-site. On Savile Row there is very little passing trade, somebody might come in and buy a pair of cufflinks, just for the experience of coming into a tailoring house, but to order a suit, they know where they are going, so it doesn’t really make that much difference to us. And in prestige terms, we’re 105 now, we don’t need the address anymore, the reputation can take a move a couple of hundred metres away.

What about changes? You’ve mentioned the new web-site, what other things have you done to modernize the business?

In terms of changes all we’ve done is re-configure the way that people work to make it friendlier. In the old shop there was a huge counter with cloth everywhere, people would feel disconnected. Where as in this environment, because it’s much smaller primarily, but also because of the nature of how people want to interact these days, we’ve made it friendlier so there are not those barriers, you walk into the shop now and its open plan and less intimidating. Same thing with the cutting room, years ago it was hidden behind a curtain in the corner, now you’re welcome into it. It really just been about re-arranging things, there are no changes to the craft and process, it’s the same set of twenty seven measurements for the suit, twenty for the jacket, seven for the trousers, and the order is taken in exactly the same way as before.

Mr. John Hitchcock - Head Cutter (left) and Mr. David Walters - Trimmer (right)

What about the recession, have you been affected by the big squeeze on pockets and the sudden need to save money?

We are very, very lucky. In many ways since 2008 and the financial crisis and the attitude towards value and people being ripped off, about conspicuous spending on outrageous things, about bankers spending this and that on bottles of wine, about Russian oligarchs on their yachts, after all that, people are in response returning to traditional values. What’s also happened since 2008 is that people question prices more, people question value, people want to know what they are getting for their money. Before it was a case of “I can afford it, charge it.” Now people are saying “well, actually no, I think that’s too expensive, can I get a discount?” People will haggle and browse now. All of the shops are doing some kind of private sale on Bond Street, Sloane Street, either through mailings “come in the next two weeks and get 40% off,”  pre-sales, everyone is doing discounts, but discreetly, because they don’t want a sale sign in the window. People are just not going to shops and believing the hype anymore. For us this is good news because if someone comes in and says, “Tell me why this is good,” we can tell them. So luckily we are up 8% on last year.

Is that a scenario that is replicated over on the Row itself?

I’ve heard that the other tailors are quieter, but they are not in the same situation as some of our high street brand competitors. It’s still pretty good. These last two months (October November 2011) things have slowed down a little because of the non-stop bad news about the Euro. But we have been investing in our website and particularly with our new book, which we’ve had a very good reaction to, we’ve sent it out to some of our bigger customers and some people have even commissioned new suits based on designs they’ve seen in the book, we’ve also had a very good reaction to it press wise. You just have to hope it hits the right people and strikes a chord. It won’t with everybody because there are still so many people, friends of mine even, who will say well “why would I want to wait that long (usually eight to twelve weeks, with two visits for fittings), when I can go to a shop and get a suit straight away?” But there are some people, like wine, who want to go all the way and visit the vineyard. Or like watches, you can have a beautiful watch and someone says “well, my Swatch cost £12,” of course it did and it performs the same function, but you will not be enjoying it in the same way, or be able to hand it down to your grandson and beyond, and you don’t have the same relationship with it, plus it doesn’t look as good.  

Patterns from figures and frames past

I read you said this “There are certain periods in history where men are absolute peacocks and women are downright dowdy. All of that was lost in the culture of ready-to wear, which wiped out creativity and options.” What is the state of men’s elegance today, are there still peacocks amid the dullness?

Well, men’s style is perking up; men are beginning to enjoy dressing again. You can see that a lot of the big brands are going into menswear and investing more and more into menswear. A lot of the big groups are buying and developing menswear brands too, I mean you’ve got PPR which just bought Brioni for example, and people like Tom Ford, who perceive menswear as being a great opportunity for growth because there is a lot more interest.

If you go to some of the military tailors and see the beauty and colour of their uniforms, in Dege & Skinner for example who have made dress uniforms for Prince William, they are really and completely over the top, full of dashing colour. And if you saw Prince Harry at his brother’s wedding, he was much more stunning wearing uniform than some of the guests. So thank God now between dress down Fridays and this and that, people seem to have really had it with all that dullness.

Take our new line of jumpers and sweaters that we have started to sell, people are totally driven towards the bright colours, if we offer it they jump at it. And you can do that with sweaters because they are a little bit secondary, a subsidiary to if you’re wearing a nice grey flannel or a blue blazer, you can go quite crazy with colour because you can always take it off. People are much keener now to experiment and to make an effort, which is good news for us.

Of course we’re operating in a very niche environment here, but if you just look at music videos there is much more interest in the dandy-esque style at the moment. For instance if you look at GQ France it has pages and pages on how to wear your pocket square, how to wear a tie-pin, things that appear very old fashioned to some people, yet they are in GQ, which means they do appeal to a wider audience. Most people aren’t quite ready to go for it yet, but there is definitely an interest.

Is something like the television show Mad Men partly responsible for this renascence? Has it reminded men that it is certainly no sin to look good in the workplace and that in the past excellent clothes have tended to be associated with power and confidence?

Mad Men helped, it hit a nerve because people wanted it. A television programme can’t make people change their minds completely, but it came along at the right time when interest was starting to peak. Men want to see the style on a real body, so even though they are actors, they are more real than say a sixteen year old model.

It’s like with women’s fashion, they use a lot of very young girls and when anyone questions it they say “well women don’t want to look like their seventy five year old mothers, they want to look like their daughters.”  But with a man he generally wants to look like his hero, and his hero, more often than not is probably dead because he’s a 1930’s guy, or he’s much older and he’s Clint Eastwood, but they tend to be from an era gone by, and that works for men in a way that models don’t.

Or the younger men are inspired by their grandfathers. After years in the hat business, a friend of mine says he has never known such demand for hats at the highest end. They had a real problem when the grandads’ gave way to the baby boom generation in the 70’s and 80’s and they didn’t want to look like their fathers, so the hat was scrapped. But the grandson thinks grandad is very cool and likes retro and those dead heroes in their hats. So the fathers who previously spurned the hat see their sons wearing them and suddenly they want to buy a hat too. And the fathers now have got the money to buy their hat at the top end. Their sons might be buying theirs at Topman or on holiday, their fathers can go round to James Lock.

Single breasted jacket with carnation boutonniere and pocket sqaure

Is basing your style on an old icon a recommended path? Taking Cary Grant for example and using him as a basis for a look? As you say those dead heroes have an effect.

I think you have to be a bit more sophisticated than that, although you might see someone like Cary Grant and think “oh yeah he wears that with confidence.” That’s another thing, some people are not used to wearing suits in their everyday life, so when they do, their stance changes because they are dressed up, and that makes it difficult for people to take that step to dress up a bit because you’ve got to be doing it fairly frequently to be able to get away without feeling self conscious.

How does Anderson and Sheppard adapt then to what is basically becoming an informal age in many respects?

As the need to wear a suit gets less and less we do a lot more jackets here than we used to, single jackets, so people can use them as they want. When you speak to someone in their thirties who says “oh I never wear a suit anymore,” you think, “so what do you wear when you’re not wearing a suit, jeans?”  You have to actually think even more about what you’re wearing when you’re not wearing a suit, a suit is pretty easy, it’s like a uniform, and when you’re not wearing a suit you’ve got to think a little bit more about it. If you have several really nice jackets, then you can wear one with a shirt and a pair of jeans and you’ll look fantastic.

But as a Savile Row tailor we also have to think about how to get that point across, so people don’t think that just because you don’t wear a suit everyday that we can’t help you. People think it’s always going to be traditional or they think, “oh well I don’t need a suit.” They’ve got to get past that.


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