A Memoir from an English Bespoke Tailor

I’ve been meaning to write a capsule about this book for some time, but the demands of post-production and fundraising for my film have gotten in the way. Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed is a compelling memoir of how a 17-year-old kid from the London suburbs fell into an apprenticeship at Henry Huntsman & Sons, the bespoke tailoring film on London’s famed Savile Row. More importantly, Anderson recounts how this experience 29 years ago transformed his life and gave him a lifelong vocation and a penchant for perfectionism that he never could have dreamed of as a lad.

At the age of 34, Anderson became the youngest head cutter in Huntsman’s 150-year history. Since 2001 he has been at the helm of his own tailoring firm on Savile Row, Richard Anderson Ltd.

Anderson writes that the first three months at Huntsman caused him “relentless mental and emotional chaos.” The environment was like being in the army, “where one must resist being broken down,” and where your superiors never let you forget that you’re at the very bottom of the food chain.

It’s amusing to read that despite all the miles he had run and all the football games he had played as a teenager, this had in no way prepared him for handling the massively heavy cutting shears in the workroom. It’s also fascinating to learn about the firm’s frequent forays abroad to service its vast American clientele.

Bespoke tailor Richard Anderson (photo by Neil Gavin)

Anderson writes movingly about being inducted into the private world of bespoke:

To put a true and properly made bespoke suit on for the first time is a revelation: immediately you take to its positive influence on your posture…you stand up straighter and feel at once more comfortable and confident…that you have it in you to be a better person, a person of unique capacity, sensibility and class. And for me this was like a drug.

The Quandary of the “Made in Italy” Label

Two recent articles published in the New York Times are like bookends on the Made in Italy label and the economic malaise in the Italian textile industry.

In August journalist David Segal reported from Biella, Italy, at the foothills of the Alps, where he interviewed Luciano Barbera of the famous Carlo Barbera fabric mill for a widely disseminated piece titled “Is Italy Too Italian? From Taxis to Textiles, a Nation Chooses Tradition Over Growth.”

This piece brought back memories of my visit there in 1999 when I was working for the men’s wear newsmagazine DNR (WWDMens). I was thrilled that Carlo Barbera, who was in his ‘80s at the time, gave me a personal tour of the mill. He took me to the grotta, the subterranean cave cooled by the waters of the River Strona, where the yarns sit and rest in wooden crates for six months to a year, in a sort of natural aging process. The theory is that the yarns need time to recover after the stress of the combing and dying process, and they absorb the river’s humidity as it seeps through the grotta’s brick walls. In the Times article Carlo’s son Luciano calls it “the nobilization of the yarn.”

The clothier Luciano Barbera in his family’s “spa for yarn,” where crates of thread rest for months. Economists fear that such small-scale artisanship cannot sustain Italy’s economy forever. (Photo by Dave Yoder for The New York Times)

The mill supplies fabric to dozens of luxury brands like Ermenegildo Zegna, Armani and Ralph Lauren. An executive that I interviewed at Hickey-Freeman for my DNR article said “Carlo Barbera is the premier family of Biella. It has been and continues to be one of the very select mills of the world noted for innovation…. They would rather be very, very good than very, very big.”

But the firm is now struggling financially and its orders are down. Luciano Barbera has been focusing on the “Made in Italy” label and claims that “a growing number of clothing designers have been buying cheaper fabric in China, Bulgaria and elsewhere and slapping “Made in Italy” on garments, even if those garments are merely sewn here.”

He’s now fighting against a new law taking effect in October which would allow manufacturers to use the label if at least two stages of production (out of four) occur in Italy. He maintains that the law “will wreck the national brand, which has long been built on the skill of its craftspeople.”

Barbera advocates for a label “that simply lays out the origins of a garment, stating where its fabric was made, where it was constructed, and so on.” David Segal writes that “Mr. Barbera says he has no qualms about globalization. In his opinion, Italy can’t compete when it comes to low-skill labor and shouldn’t try.” He is hoping that the European Commission will overturn the law. Meanwhile, garments in the collection that he designs are labeled “Entirely manufactured in Italy.”

More recently, Times reporter Rachel Donadio visited Prato, another textile hub located further south in Tuscany. The title of the piece says it all: “Stitched in Italy, by Chinese, Newcomers Redefine a label.” Having been familiar with the efforts of the Italian Trade Commission and its “Made in Italy” promotions, this article was almost painful to read.

The first few paragraphs set the scene:

Over the years, Italy learned the difficult lesson that it could no longer compete with China on price. And so, its business class dreamed, Italy would sell quality, not quantity. For centuries, this walled medieval city just outside of Florence has produced some of the world’s finest fabrics, becoming a powerhouse for “Made in Italy” chic.

And then, China came here.

Chinese laborers, first a few immigrants, then tens of thousands, began settling in Prato in the late 1980s. They transformed the textile hub into a low-end garment manufacturing capital — enriching many, stoking resentment and prompting recent crackdowns that in turn have brought cries of bigotry and hypocrisy.

The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe — some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.

It is a “Made in Italy” problem: Enabled by Italy’s weak institutions and high tolerance for rule-bending, the Chinese have blurred the line between “Made in China” and “Made in Italy,” undermining Italy’s cachet and ability to market its goods exclusively as high end.

In Prato, Italy, the Chinese manager of a textile factory closed it down after a police raid. (Photo by Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times)

And the following description brings to mind a sweatshop in China:

The work — long hours at sewing machines — takes place in back-room workshops with makeshift sleeping quarters. The heart of the “fast fashion” sector is an industrial area on the outskirts of town, Macrolotto, filled with Chinese fashion wholesalers.

Here, vans from across Europe line the parking lots as retailers buy “Made in Italy” clothing to resell back home at a huge markup. By buying in relatively small quantities and taking advantage of the fluid borders of the European Union, most manage to avoid paying import tariffs.

On a recent afternoon, a couple from Montenegro loaded racks of cotton summer dresses into boxes in the back of their van. The wife wielded a label gun, tagging each dress “Made in Italy.”

Needless to say, the aforementioned scene has little in common with the rarefied fabric production of the Carlo Barbera firm and high-end collections designed by the likes of Luciano Barbera. Simply put, it’s night and day – and a perfect illustration of what Italian designers and fabric mills are up against.

Artisanry: Past, Present & Future

The New York Times Center was the site of a stimulating panel discussion last week called “Artisanry: Past, Present & Future,” which examined the current state of craftsmanship. It was held in conjunction with the aforementioned exhibit on The Art of Craftsmanship Revisited: New York.

Renaud Dutreil, Chairman of LVMH in North America, started the evening off by simply saying that “most of the 60 LVMH brands were born from the labor and love of artisans…It’s a subject close to Bernard Arnault’s heart – and to my heart.” (Arnault, of course, is the company’s chairman and CEO.)

The goal of this initiative between LVMH and Parsons The New School for Design was “to promote the oftentimes overlooked work of the skilled craftsperson and to ensure that their unique knowledge is understood and carried forth by a new generation.”

Students from Parsons had six weeks to interview local New York-area artisans and do their research before translating that experience into design work of their own; some of them were featured in a short documentary film produced by @radical.media, which had some noteworthy sound bites.

Unlike in the old days when people in small towns had a proximity and ready access and exposure to craftsmen, metalwork artisan Jean Wiart commented in the film that today “we are extremely remote from the production aspect – what we wear, what we use.” One student noted that “the genesis of luxury is craft.” Renaud Dutreil added that “the school of artisanry is really a school of respect. We have to respect artisans.”

Moderator Kurt Andersen, host of the public radio program Studio 360, accurately portrayed artisanry as “a religious calling.” And he characterized artisans as individuals who are “doing something with that sense of passion…you would do it whether you were being paid or not.” The flip side, he observed, is that “nowadays, everything is artisanal – the butcher is artisanal….it’s the adjective du jour.”

Andersen added that “there’s a great overlap between luxury and artisanry… but they aren’t the same things.” Panelist Ulrich Wohn, president and CEO of Tag Heuer North America maintained the “you can never sell luxury…it’s really in the eye of the beholder.”

Andersen asked if “the fraught relationship between art and craft” is changing. Panelist Holly Hotchner, director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, was of the opinion that it had changed, but “there was a reticence on the part of young artists to look at tradition.” Indeed the decorative arts were not valued by people for many years, and Hotchner bemoaned the fact that unlike Europe, “America is extraordinarily behind” in giving economic support to artisans, craftsmen and artists.

Panelist Simon Collins, the dean of the School of  Fashion at Parsons, asserted that even though his graduates would be using computers to design, “we don’t train computer technicians; we train designers… there has to be the raw hands-on experience.”

Panelist Lev Glazman, CEO and co-founder of Fresh, observed that artisan-made goods create an emotional connection with the consumer. Andersen said that “in an age when so much is virtual, people, have a desire for something that is a tactile, sensual experience.” Ulrich Wohn of Tag Heuer said that the economic downturn has precipitated “a reordering of priorities. People are looking for that authentic experience…for that legitimacy.” Hence, “the whole realm of heritage is more important today.”

“The Art of Craftsmanship” Exhibition

Up until recently, I was editing a 27-minute work-in-progress for “Men of the Cloth,” so I haven’t had much time to post. While in the midst of editing, a multi-page advertising spread in The New York Times caught my eye. Parsons The New School for Design joined forces with LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc. for “The Art of Craftsmanship Revisited: New York,” an exhibition on New York’s Governor’s Island. It’s free and open for one last weekend, June 26 and 27, and showcases the work of Parsons students and local artisans.

LVMH knows all too well that artisans have been the driving force behind many of its illustrious brands — which includes Fendi, Berluti and Hublot. This is one of LVMH’s social responsibility initiatives in New York City and around the world. And I, for one, applaud it. There will also be a panel discussion at the Times Center on artisanry’s “Past, Present and Future” on June 22, which I’ll be attending.

The LVMH program brought 23 teams of Parsons students from diverse disciplines together with local artisans working in areas ranging from architectural and ceramic arts to graphic arts. Through an extensive collaboration with the artisans, the student teams created original fashion ensembles and short documentary films, which were previewed in February, during New York City’s Fashion Week.

Renaud Dutreil, chairman of LVMH in North America, said:

“This exhibit allows us to expose thousands of New Yorkers and visitors to the City to the enormous talent of our local artisans and to see the work of our next generation of design talent come alive. The designs created by the Parsons’ students reflect exceptional vision and innovation as well as an understanding of the importance of craftsmanship and precision in creating a work of art. In artisanry, like in luxury, it takes skill, talent and hours of precise and passionate work to create every product.  It is important that the next generation of design talent understands their responsibility in ensuring that the traditions and heritage of craftsmanship survive.”

Decorative Painter Osmundo Echevarria in his studio

Claire-Aude Staraci, a spokeswoman for the company, added that the artisans in the project were selected among hundreds of New York Artisans.

“The ones selected were so inspired and eager to transmit their knowledge to the next generation embodied in this project by the Parsons students. They were also very articulate about their art and processes, which added a critical educational component in the project.  It was a tough decision but an important one considering that teams of 5-6 students each were assigned to one master artisan whom they spent many hours with in their studios, watching and learning from the artisan’s work and life experiences.”

Silversmith Valentin Yotkov creating one of his pieces

The web site is a fantastic spotlight on these artisans. It  includes videos of Valentin Yotkov, a master silversmith who hails from Bulgaria and uses the same tools and techniques employed hundreds of years ago; master clockmaker David Munro, who draws from the tradition of French precision horology of the 18th and 19th centuries; and Les Metailliers Champenois, a metalwork studio in Paterson, NJ responsible for the recreation of the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

Patrick Fenton of Swayspace letterpress print shop poses the question: “Are we losing something through our advances in technology?” And Ornamental metalwork artisan Jean Wiart, who apprenticed with his father, states in his video:

“I consider something beautiful that is well-made, well-engineered, well-fabricated. We are in a world of visual(s), and it is my responsibility to make sure that was is looking good is good in itself as well…My workers, like myself, are extremely aware that they are part of a chain – of a chain of unforgotten traditions that trace back for centuries — of  refined techniques and tricks of the trade that has been transmitted orally for hundreds of years.”

Gucci Spotlights its Artisans

Several weeks ago I noticed a Wall Street Journal ad featuring the craftsmen behind the Gucci label — and I thought ‘What a great idea — and a clever marketing approach, to boot.’

This storied Florentine label has long been associated with status handbags and shoes, and sexy globetrotting clothes. So it’s refreshing to see an emphasis on its heritage with a program the company calls its “Artisan Corner.”

Gucci's Artisan Corner

Throughout this year, Gucci’s artisans will travel to select Gucci stores, where they will be stationed at custom-built workstations with their sewing machines, leather stand and metal tools. Customers get to observe them assembling some of the house’s most iconic handbags.

An accompanying video will highlight the fact that these artisans’ skills are handed down through a family’s generations. Founder Guccio Gucci would be proud!

So far, they’ve been featured at Gucci stores in Tokyo, Osaka, Rome, Paris, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago and New York. Visit the Facebook page for more photos.

Writer Gay Talese on the Tailoring Craft

I wanted to share an article I came across not too long ago written by Italian-American writer Gay Talese for Vanity Fair magazine’s web site a couple of years ago. I met Mr. Talese several years ago when I first started working on MEN OF THE CLOTH and was researching my characters and the world they inhabit. I had read Unto the Sons, his immigrant saga of how his family came to America. In the opening pages of the book, I loved how Talese described his Calabrian father and his tailoring trade as “the reputable but precarious life of an artist with a needle and thread.” It’s a phrase I’ve often borrowed.

I also knew that Gay Talese favored Brioni suits and was interviewed for the book Brioni: Fifty Years of Style. I recently watched an interesting video interview with him online in which he maintained that one of the lessons he took from his father was to approach his work as a writer in a way that is “not done quickly or casually, because it had to withstand time.” Needless to say, I share that view, for I’ve spent a great deal of time getting to know my characters and their craft, and building a trust and rapport with them.

In the article for the Vanity Fair site, “The Scion, the Stitch, and the Wardrobe,” he reminisces about his father, and his father’s cousin, Antonio Cristiani, a successful tailor in Paris. Talese characterizes these craftsmen as “an endangered species” — and indeed they are. He writes, “I’m mainly interested in is the aesthetics of the tailoring profession, and my small part within it as a patron, a preservationist, and an advocate of the perfect fit— and the idea that measurements can alter the mind.”

And here he expresses a sentiment I’m trying awfully hard to get across in my film: “When I’m wearing one of my custom suits, I’m in harmony with my highest ideals, my worship of great workmanship.”

Glovemaker Keeps Dream Alive in New York

Another story that caught my eye a few days later had a more inspiring tone, if a bit bittersweet. The New York Times Style section ran a feature (Heir to a Glove Town’s Legacy) with  a Gloversville, NY dateline. The town in upstate New York was once the center of the glovemaking universe, home to countless craftsmen.  Now, virtually singlehandedly, glovemaker Daniel Storto is keeping the dream alive.

(Photo by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

(Photo of Daniel Storto by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

The president of the Gloversville Chamber of Commerce pointed out that “When the last of the old-timers retired, their skills went with them.” Then seven years ago, Daniel Storto, a Seventh Avenue designer (born to a family of immigrant Italian tailors) transplanted himself to Gloversville. Vogue editor Hamish Bowles calls him “the haute couturier of gloves.”

Storto worked for many years with the late legendary designer Geoffrey Beene, and with the likes of Dries Van Noten and smaller labels like Duckie Brown. The Times piece said that “He makes beautiful unlined lamb suede gloves that connoisseurs order by the half-dozen, apparently undaunted by prices that start at $450 a pair.” In 2007 his L.O.V.E. gloves were a cover feature story in American Craft magazine.

Here’s the emotional heart of this story: Storto said “I thought I was a glove maker, but I wasn’t a glove maker at all until I met the old-timers. Until I came here, I had no idea what you could do with the craft.” Those old-timers were  so “inspired by his efforts to elevate their craft” that “many of them made him a gift of their tools.”

And my favorite anecdote: “The maul he uses daily to make die cuts on leather once belonged to Joe Pagano, a craftsman from one of the Neapolitan dynasties that trace their history as glove makers to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.”

“I wanted to pay him, but he wouldn’t let me,” Mr. Storto told The Times. “He told me: ‘That’s the history. The tools get passed down from glove maker to glove maker, and you’re it.’ ”

And Storto apparently enjoys the laidback lifestyle in Gloversville. “There really are more important things in life” than making money, he said. Spoken like a true artisan.

French Artisans Struggle to Stay Afloat

A couple of stories in the news recently highlighted the state of craftsmanship on both sides of the Atlantic. One piece, in the Wall Street Journal, was titled “Couture Artisans Seek French Aid.”The lead paragraph stated that “France’s specialized embroiderers, seamstresses, tailors and hatmakers — once the backbone of a thriving fashion business–are today among the hardest hit victims of the global slowdown in luxury-goods sales.”

It’s sad to say, but the famous “petites mains” of the French luxury goods sector are struggling mightily and  the French government may have to step in to provide economic aid to these craftsmen. This sector is so intimately ties with France’s image and longstanding reputation as a fashion mecca, that it’s troubling to contemplate what would happen without the existence of these artisans. The number of “highly skilled” artisans employed in the country has reportedly dropped 80 %.

France is now considering tax breaks and new labeling rules that would highlight “the origin or artisanal nature” of a product (which  I think is a great idea). And then there’s Chanel, which has wisely been buying a number of these artisans in an attempt to preserve its ability to create those most elaborate couture gowns.  It’s interesting that Chanel actually requires that its own products be sourced in France.

HBO’s “Schmatta” Film is a Must-See

The opening scenes of “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” are set to George Gershwin’s incomparable “Rhapsody in Blue,” as the screen fills with a visual symphony of spinning spools of thread and images of a once-glorious garment industry that was the biggest single employer in New York City.

dress forms_web

Airing on HBO tonight (with repeat broadcasts through November) this HBO documentary directed by Marc Levin is filled with a nostalgia for a bygone era of American clothing manufacturing, sidewalks crowded with workers pushing racks of clothes down Seventh Avenue, showrooms bustling with department store buyers and garmentos driving a hard bargain….kind of how I remember it all when I was a men’s wear market editor.

The black and white archival footage of sweat shops, Ellis Island and the Lower East side neighborhood of countless immigrants is unforgettable. And listening to Stan Herman (past president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America) recount how all the tailors would literally stream out of 530 and 550 Seventh Avenue is hard to imagine when they’ve now been reduced to the barest trickle.

Against the backdrop of unprecedented losses in U. S. manufacturing jobs, Bruce Raynor, the former General President of the labor union UNITE HERE, reminds us in “Schmatta” that “the garment unions provided for an entree into the middle class. So many lawyers and doctors and politicians and Supreme Court justices — they’re one generation out of the garment factories in New York.”

Ladies Union_web

And as we find ourselves in the middle of the Congressional debates on health care reform, Raynor tells us that “the garment industries were really precursors to many of the programs in the New Deal. Social Security, pensions were adopted by the New Deal on a societal basis. It was the lifting of those workers from poverty to the middle class that revolutionized America.” Indeed.

Even though I worked for years at Fairchild, the media company covering the fashion industry, watching this film is the first time I’ve seen a history of the U.S. garment industry that synthesizes so many major turning points: the the strides achieved by the labor union movement; the beginning of the government’s move toward deregulation and the breaking of unions in the Reagan era; the uproar over the conditions in sweat shops abroad; the signing of NAFTA during the Clinton years (and the devastating effect on domestic clothing manufacturing); the rise of celebrity designers; and the financial meltdown of recent memory.

Waterford Crystal Artisans Lose Their Livelihood

I noted that yesterday a major exhibition celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Wedgwood (founded in 1759) opened at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C. (it runs through Feb. 27, 2010). As you may or may not know, Wedgwood (of the famous china) is part of Waterford Wedgwood plc, the brand’s parent company.

Waterford maintains that it is “the leading brand of premium crystal.” Its web site has a page that features the artisans who create Waterford products (its engraver and master cutters who have worked there for decades). One of those artisans is master cutter Tom Power who began his career there in 1969. His bio says that “One of his great works includes the Waterford Crystal Ball, lowered at the Times Square New Year’s celebration in New York.” Waterford was founded in 1783 in the port town of Waterford, Ireland.

What the site won’t tell you is that on January 5, 2009, parts of the company, including the main Irish and UK operations, were placed in receivership after the heavily-indebted firm failed to find a buyer. The Waterford crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland ceased operating and 480 people lost their jobs. But guess what? Those workers continued going to their “jobs” and literally occupied the factory for months, hoping for a solution.

The New York Times reported that “The crystal company has posted huge losses in the past few years, and much of its manufacturing is already done in factories in cheaper countries abroad. The workers fear that all their experience and all their expertise, not to mention the long history of crystal-making in Waterford, are in danger of disappearing.”

“If it’s mass-produced, the craftsmanship we have here could be lost forever, so we’re fighting for that as well,” one worker told the Times. Sean Egan was an engraver “who had been an apprentice at the factory for a decade, from age 15 to 25, before he was allowed to wield his tools unsupervised. He is 50 now. ‘It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it,’ he said. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”

“When Mr. Egan heard that he had lost his job and came to find the doors locked, he was filled with an outrage similar, he said, to that felt by people thrown out of their homes during the Irish famine. ‘That is no way to treat people, to stop them from coming into their own factory,’ he said.”

KPS Capital Partners, a private equity company based in New York, purchased Waterford Wedgwood in March, but the Kilbarry factory was not part of the sale. The irony is that the factory is one of southeast Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing about 350,000 visitors a year.

About a week ago, the remaining 170 Waterford workers were given their notice, the Irish Times reported. A spokesman for trade union Unite, which represents the staff, said it was a “sad day for the area and for Ireland.” Indeed.

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