Thinker and Tailor
“You can’t get much more English than English Cut,” says Tom Mahon proudly, as we head downstairs to the fitting room of his new Chiltern Street tailors. He has already made me a cup of tea, politely taken my coat, and apologised unnecessarily for “not looking much like a tailor”.
“I was in a pub all morning,” he tells me, and I wonder whether it’s impudent to ask why. Perhaps it’s all part of the ‘English’ persona. Maybe the ‘cut’ is that of ‘half cut’. Mercifully, before my assumptions get carried away, Tom supplies more details. “We had to be there that early because we were doing a photo shoot for an article I’ve written about the pubs on Savile Row that those in the trade visit.” I see.
He elaborates further. In 2001, after many years on Savile Row as head cutter of the esteemed Anderson and Sheppard, Tom struck out on his own as an independent bespoke tailor. At the time, a friend advised setting up a blog: something of which—if he’s entirely honest—Tom didn’t quite see the point. Still, he set about it with characteristic gusto, writing about his industry with rare passion. “I enjoyed my trade, and I wrote about it,” he says simply. “Often people are intimidated by the frosted glass of Savile Row tailors. They might feel it’s ‘not for them’, they might think they needed to have gone to public school. My blog showed we were just normal guys: artisans who do what we do, work with each other, and have done for years. I lifted the lid,” he continues—and those who read his blog, and could afford a bespoke suit, were struck by his honesty and came to see what he was about.
Which brings us back to the boozer, as Tom calls it, and one of the most successful articles Tom ever posted about Savile Row watering holes. “I wrote about how different tradesmen went to different pubs—the cutters to one, the coat-makers to another and so on—and about how, if you looked at little details of their dress and person, you could tell which was which.” Now he’s revisiting it for a magazine piece, as part of a new campaign strategy, and updating it with images. “We spoke to Saatchi and Saatchi, and they said the article we’re printing should be about cocktails,” Tom laughs. “I replied, well the founder of the magazine never drinks cocktails and my customers know that. So that’s why we were in the boozer at 6am. But you probably want to know why we’re here.”
I nod keenly, though I could listen to Tom rambling on quite happily. The tailor to Prince Charles for many years (“he’s a great chap, but I did get fed up of the phone calls at 10 at night, saying the prince needed me at Highgrove by seven”) he has had and still has “some incredible clients” whom he would “dearly love” to tell me about. “But I can’t,” Tom smiles teasingly and his lips remain buttoned. “I am involved in everything,” he continues. “And because I am a trained cutter, I cut freehand. I use a piece of chalk and a tape measure, and I do it all on basic measurements, instinct and eye.”
This means two things: the first being that Tom is extraordinarily talented. Very few patterns are cut freehand these days, with the majority of tailors favouring drafting squares and block patterns. Yet when Tom tried to learn this method in college, he found it just did not make sense to him: “The measurements were right, but the pattern didn’t look right. I would labour through it, checking everything, but there was a flaw right in front of me.”
In cutting precisely to measurements, gradients and so on, Tom explains, he had failed to address the real, flesh and blood person he was cutting for. “When I went to old Hallbery [the Anderson and Sheppard tailor to whom Tom was apprenticed after college] he said, what’s that? I said, a drafting square Mr Hallbery. He said, name a right angle on a human being. I said, there isn’t one Mr Hallbery. He said, well then, you put that square in that drawer over there, and never get it out again; I’ll show you how to draft a pattern. I’ve done everything bespoke ever since.”
As a result, Tom’s suits are truly individual. When he drafts a pattern, he does it by looking at the person, “how he stands, who he is,” he explains. “I try to do something with them. If the man is skinny, I make him broader of chest. If a man is short, I lengthen his torso.” He cites one example of a top Formula One engineer, “a really tiny guy who came to me saying he’d had some things made for him, but they didn’t seem quite right. I looked at him and said, you’re spot on there, my friend. And that’s because you are going to a tailor who can’t draft a pattern; they’re taking your measurements, then getting a pattern and cutting the arms and the bottom off. But because that pattern is designed for a man six inches taller than you, the position of the pockets and armholes is all wrong for your height.” Tom raises his hands in exasperation.
He does love his old stitching ground. He still visits Savile Row, drinks there regularly and has huge respect for some of its stalwarts. Indeed, if there’s one thing that saddens him—and his general joie de vivre suggests there aren’t many—it is the slow, insidious undermining of the institution that taught him everything he knows. “It’s great, the Row, I wish it every success, but it’s not what it used to be. All sorts of tailors set up there the same way quack doctors used to set up on Harley Street: for the kudos it confers upon them.” What was a mecca, “a place you went to with your father for your first suit, and it was a real occasion”, has become a place where, if you’re lucky, you can get a bespoke suit from a world-class pattern cutter—or you can end up in the hands of a charlatan who doesn’t have “the foggiest idea” how to draft a pattern.
Besides, he continues, “the world in which Savile Row was established was not the global world we’re living in now. We don’t need to be there. I’m not that old, but I’ve been around and reckon this place”—he gestures outside to the boutiques lining Chiltern Street—“is like Savile Row was 40 years ago.” No wonder he has already made friends here. He’s met Pauline Burrows, his womenswear counterpart, helped Felix from Hardy’s Wine Bar with his sports car, and, on the opening night of English Cut, walked up and down the street inviting its jewellers, leather tailors and cordwainers for a glass of something.
“I enjoy my job, but I don’t take it too seriously,” he smiles. “There are more serious things in the world.” Things like his family and their future, bound up as they are with a company that, two years ago, consisted of him and his assistant. “It was brilliant, but it was artisanal. Every suit I made started with a tape measure and a piece of chalk. Time went by, I got married, I had three children—bang, bang, bang—and I suddenly realised, I’m getting on, and I am the company. That’s quite unnerving.” Tom wanted to secure his future which, for a bespoke tailor, means venturing into the world of factory made, made-to-measure ranges. But he didn’t want to compromise the reputation he’d built since leaving Anderson and Sheppard and setting up on his own.
One of Tom’s most brilliant clients, chief design officer for Apple Jonathan Ive, alluded to this in an interview. “‘We have these big ideas at Apple, but we want to make them small and personal—just like my tailor, Tom,’ he told the interviewer,” Tom recounts proudly. He tells me, he insists, not to boast about his manifest talent, but to illustrate the sort of reputation he has built. “Jony came to us because he didn’t wear suits normally, but he liked our brand. He liked how we presented ourselves.” If he was going to do made-to-measure, he would have to find his own way of doing it—a way that reflected their status as an English brand, with real, English heritage, “not the name of a dead designer bought by a hedge fund company”.
Sadly, manufacturing on the scale Tom needed for this venture no longer existed in Britain. There’s a strong cottage industry here (which English Cut uses as much as possible) but for this, they needed to go further afield. “Nearly everyone uses Chinese manufacturing, but I didn’t want to do what everyone else does so I thought, the Japanese are pretty good. I’ll ask them,” Tom explains. It helped, of course, that he makes suits for the Japanese owner of one of the world’s most successful retail brands. “I told him what we were up to, and together we found this manufacturer in Japan who is really bloody good,” he grins. Though English Cut continues to use English fabrics as much as possible in both bespoke and made-to-measure, he takes his Linton tweed cap off to Japan’s exceptional manufacturing standards.
“They do a beautiful job, using English cloth,” he says simply. “I was nervous about it, but it’s really successful.” People who have been following the blog for years but could not afford bespoke prices were delighted at the prospect of being able to have their own two-piece of the action at last. “It was like hero worship,” he says disbelievingly, of the soft launch of the made-to-measure line a few years ago.
“I design the pattern the manufacturers use. If I think something needs tweaking, I step in. Am I a fashionista? No. But I am technically competent,” he points out. His ambition for his made-to-measure line is for it to “pull the whole sector up by the boot straps”. You can still get bespoke service from English Cut—Tom’s not putting his shears (the shears of old Hallbery and, before that, Per Anderson himself) down any time in the foreseeable future. “I have the sword of Excalibur,” he grins, but it’s this new breed of made-to -measure on which his free eye is trained.
“We went through a state of ignorance in the eighties and nineties, where cash was king and if the posters were big enough the brand was good enough,” he muses. “Now I think people are becoming more sophisticated.” Slowly, surely, customers are starting to ask what’s behind the clothes we are buying, in the same way they do food. “We don’t eat crap just because a poster tells us it’s good for us. We ask what’s in it,” Tom continues. As if to illustrate this, he cites a recent chat with a fashion journalist at a media launch. “I don’t like champagne. I don’t like parties. I don’t fit the typical fashion designer mould, I told him, but the good news is, I actually have something that’s worth writing about.” Almost 2,000 words later, I agree.
58 Chiltern Street, W1U 7QZ
020 7486 5558