Carol Alayne

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Archive for October, 2008

From Tate to Tailor: A conversation with Grayson Perry

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

What an unexpected, and intriguing pleasure it was to meet with Grayson Perry the other night at the opening of the exhibition of works by the artist Kishio Suga.  Suga-san is one of the leading artists of the Mono-ha School (The School of Things); a movement that swept the Japanese art worldfrom the end of the 1960s through the 1970s.  The exhibition was held at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in Regents Park and was timed to complement  the Frieze Art Fair.

Grayson is an admirer of  Suga-san’s work and after the initail presentation we had time to chat.  I have long wanted to talk to Grayson, not only about his work as an artist, but more irresistibly, about his passion for cross-dressing and the role he plays in the design and making of his striking garments.  Luckily there was a photographer close by and we were able to capture the moment before he was whisked away.

We talked in particular about the Art of Savile Row and I mentioned its eponymous BBC TV programme when he was featured commissioning a suit from Richard James.   I remember a fascinating bit of perceptions at play between the customer and his tailor which had to be worked through. A kind of ‘Victor/Victoria moment’ came to mind!.

The designer/maker issue came up and how rare it is for there to be a shared understanding of the actual making side. I told him a story about working with a certain feisty French designer who handed me a set of cartoons – over exaggerated, with proportinally distorted figures in ‘anti-gravity’ poses.  To prove a point, our team of makers decided to build one of his Safari jackets to scale and the result was something of a hibrid, somewhere between  Dan Leno and the corps de ballet.

The Corps de Ballet

Dan Leno

Very pleasant indeed to have such an exchange over a glass of wine…By the way…he has sensational legs………..!

Photos: thanks to www.peopleplayuk.org.uk and www.commonwealthballet.org

Tailoring with the Godfather: Harry Helman

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Harry HellmanI have on my desk a composite reminder from my first days in London almost twenty years ago; a photograph, business card and sketch of an evening tail suit. They came from my first meeting with Harry Helman, the gold medal winner some would call the Godfather of Savile Row.

He was responsible for the training of many of the top craftsmen you find in the trade today and this meeting was arranged by one of his protégées, Malcolm Plews (Welsh & Jefferies).

On our first meeting he asked me what project was foremost in my mind….I said how to make a top notch set of evening tails, and he jumped into action with a piece of paper to start to lay out the basic elements of this complex item.

Harry Hellman

Harry Hellman

He had time for anyone who had a passion for the trade and dispensed wisdom, humour and Guinness in equal measure from a chair which carried his name next to the bar in the corner of the Windmill pub. With his brother Burt, Harry ran a business from Bruton Street, Mayfair, with Harry looking after the men’s side of the business and Burt the ladies. When he passed away in 1990 he had been working in the trade for more than 60 years. To Harry, everyone was a ‘good boy’……..even the girls!

photos: Jason Plews

Being authentic: Bespoke speaks for you

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Welcome to Tailoring for Women; a service dedicated to the wardrobe requirements of professional women, supported by a community of craftspeople working in the art of Savile Row.  Register below for our newsletter to keep up to date with comment, guidance and opinions, or include our RSS feed in your preferred reader. You can also connect to me on LinkedIn.

The credit crunch, suits, and a pricing conundrum

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Credit crunch malaiseWith the current financial turmoil that surrounds us it seems appropriate to talk about price of goods, but on this occasion I intend to do it from the ‘makers’ standpoint.  The reason is that I have been more than slightly surprised recently by some of the prices claimed for ‘high quality, custom, hand made’ suits.

Here in the City  you are either accosted en-route across London Bridge during the morning rush hour by ‘banker look-alikes’ handing out vouchers for commodity-priced bespoke items,  or by low price deals for hand-made suits in the evening papers.  I find this intriguing.  Now that the true definition of the term bespoke has become clouded by a recent Advertising Standards Authority ruling, perhaps there is a lingering hope for clarity in the term ‘hand-made’.  It seems like a good premise until you start to look at the price breakdown.

Let’s take for example an offer for a ‘custom hand-made’ suit I saw the other day.  £179 was the asking price.  leaving to one side the acutal ‘fit’ of the garment let’s look at the maths.

First get rid of the VAT; about £15 in round figures.  That leaves us with £164.

For a 2-piece suit length – recently I saw at the cheaper end of the scale adequate worsted wools around the £30 mark.  (I realise that the supermarket chain Asda were creating economies in scale for its £15 mass-produced suit by buying cloth by the mile!  But  according to the Metro ‘it probably made your hair stand on end’)  Take this away and it leaves you with £134.

Every business has to cover its operating costs and make a profit so lets be generous to the customer and leave this at around 60% (£80).

This means that you have remaining approximately £54 pounds to split between the cutter and the tailor, that is assuming they are separate entities.  Bearing in mind that a hand-made suit takes on average 40 hours, excluding fittings, this means that the two craftspeople have to split between them £1.35 per hour.

If the garments are made within the EU, this is much less than the minimum wage.  If made elsewhere in the world, which also implies less for the makers because of transport costs, how does it fit with the current Suiting up for the credit crunchconcerns about ‘fair trade’.  There was a case highlighted in the press recently about the plight of Philippino tailors in Romania.

So this raises the question, does ‘hand-made’ actually mean hand-made,  or is it in fact closer to the Asda mass production scenario.  Somehow the maths don’t seem to add up.

Any thoughts?

Photos:  Thanks to www.wallstreetsectorselector.com and Boston Globe

Invisible Menders: Paramedics for suits

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

First AidSome time ago I paid a fortune for some brightly coloured Holland and Sherry tartan cloth and made myself a hacking jacket. I loved it to bits and all was fine until I was attacked by a barbed wire fence when out on one of my client’s shoots. One of those awful triangular tears was the result, in full view half-way up the sleeve.

The cloth was discontinued and the only way to put this right was to try to cover it with a patch or call in the ‘emergency services’.

Invisible mending is a highly-skilled, time-consuming service that patches, re-weaves and disguises what would seem to be irreparable damage to cloth. This can include cigarette burns, tears, moth holes, cuts, and perhaps the most catastrophic of all accidents, the slip of a scissor-hand on a finished garment. Every job has to be treated individually, and even seemingly impossible tasks can have miraculous results. The precise method, perfected over generations, involves taking threads from concealed parts of a garment, a ‘hem’ or ‘cuff’ say, and reweaving them over tears. One of the benefits of a bespoke garment is that they have generous inlays from where the replacement threads can be retrieved. Incidentally, there is a similar procedure for leather which involves a clever gluing technique to return the skin to its former glory.

There are two places I know of where one can get this service. One is based in the Midlands but is a closely guarded secret of the trade. The other caters more for non-trade customers and is based in Thayer Street, Marylebone, London. The British Invisible Mending Service is a family concern and has been established in Marylebone for over 70 years and although I have not had occasion to use their services it is well worth taking a tour of their website which has all manner of useful information about the process of taking your garment into ‘intensive care’.

A repair can take a number of days and comes at a premium because of the special skills required, but to this day I marvel that I can’t find the tear in my coat.

Photo: Thanks to Tendring District Council

“Production is done best when it is in the hands of the Experts” (Monocle)

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Craft makes a comeback: MonocleThis recent edition of Monocle (note the tailor on the cover!) contained news that might raise the spirits of craftspeople all over.  Its feature “Craft makes a comeback \Welcome Home” highlights a recent trend for manufacturers to bring their production units back to their home roots and values.  We have seen this happening with other outsourced services too such as call centres.  The reasons cited in this case were twofold; the difficulty in  monitoring and maintaining quality, and soaring logistical costs.

Good news perhaps for all the highly trained craftspeople ‘back home’, and in particular for those in Savile Row which has been hit over the years by a popular misconception that price was the sole determining factor in purchasing a suit.  Depite this homeward bound trend however, there seems still to be have been a recent burst of activity from internet-based suit makers with their own version of bespoke garments manufactured on the other side of the world … it would seem that now even the term bespoke has to be redefined according to the Advertising Standards Authority .

From my daily meanderings through the Square Mile I must admit to having some reservations about the final outcome of these cyber suits.  ‘Distance learning’ is one thing, ‘distance fitting’ quite another.

In this inspiring  article in Monocle, I was particularly taken by the comments made by Martin Frechen, MD of Steiff Teddy Bears (yes…teddy bears!), whose manufacturing base transfers from China back to Germany in 2009.  Clearly passionate about his product he says,

“It has to say take me in your arms, hug me, I’m  here for you, I’m your best friend.  It’s that lifelikeness and friendliness that gives the animals soul, that sets it apart from everybody else on the market.  This can only be achieved with talented and skilful craftsmen.”   This may sound a bit hokey, but I think it is much the same experience a client wants from a hand crafted suit.”

Unfortunately, for copyright reasons I can’t show a copy of the complete article, but it might be worth getting a copy whilst stocks last.

Image:  Thanks to Monocle.  www.monocle.com

Bespoke wedding dresses: all the world’s a stage!

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Wedding and theatreAt the moment we are working on a January wedding to be celebrated in St Mary’s, just off London’s Cadogan Square.  I really enjoy these commissions because it brings a true sense of theatre to our work place. The bride, a daughter of one of the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has chosen to ammend the dress worn by her mother at her own wedding. We are now at the consultancy stage with a set of designs for the bride and her 6 attendents. A large part of this is to develop an understanding of the psychology of the client, going deep down into their initial thoughts in order to help their ideas spring to life.

In part this means organizing a collection of images and items from magazines, art galleries, fashion books, the internet, and even family memorabilia. Listening to the client’s input is so very fascinating when finding a direction for the brief – I remember one client who presented me with one of their favourite poems along with a set of colour swatches! We also arrange trips to visit some of my favourite fabric suppliers such as Joel & Son, Broadwick Silks or MacCulloch & Wallis. All of this helps to create a story around what is one of the most important moments in a person’s life.

This project has prompted me to reflect on some of the practical matters and mystique that lies behind the creation of these iconic pieces.

The first thing to emphasise is that each bridal piece is a ‘one-off’; not only in the fundamental design, but in how it is realised. It can’t ever be part of a conventional manufacturing process. It demands a high degree of originality (and invention !) which is is in no small part driven by the fact that it is also a showcase for the bride to demonstrate her own sense of style. And as the stitches add up the garment starts almost to take on a life of its own, and it can become increasingly temperamental and demanding as the process unfolds.

You need a different level of confidence when working with these types of garments and one develops a focus which has to block out other distractions. This is one reason why I plan to use off-peak hours for the more intricate design elements. These are high risk undertakings particularly as one reaches the final stages.  Why is it that that a garment always seem to become vulnerable to a ‘crimson ambush’ from a pricked finger particularly when you are doing the final hand ‘felling’, and always when the fabric is white! Between final finish and delivery the creation may even demand it own private space, and indeed it should, to protect everyone’s precious investment.

We are finding increasingly too that having committed to the investment, clients don’t just want to create a piece that will end up in an attic box.  They now are ask us for something that will merge into their wardrobes in a practical way.  This may mean building in the possibility for re-purposing it into a piece of day or cocktail wear, which in turn adds another layer of complexity to the pre-planning stages.  I can see the trend in bridal wear continuing towards the use of simpler, more tailored dresses or suits which are then supplemented with bespoke jewellery or accessories.  This does steer more towards our particular forte, the business suit, although working on these special occasion garments makes me appreciate just how complex and extensive the arena is for dressing women.  One that requires a correspondingly high level of diverse and creative skills.

Photo: thanks to Ronsho from Flickr.com (With CCL)

“Look for the Silver Lining”. (Kern, De Sylva)

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Jerome KernWhen Jerome Kern and Buddy De Sylva first set out to write their 1920’s classic melody I doubt that they had the lining of their jackets in mind, snappy dressers though they were.  A well cut lining however, made from an appropriate fabric, can really put a new slant on any garment.

Here are a few reasons why we have a lining in a garment in the first place:

  • It makes it easier to slip the garment on and off
  • The lining hides the inner workings of a garment
  • It can protect the skin from a harsher outer fabric
  • It allows a jacket to freely interact with the garment underneath
  • It helps to protect the main garment from the body’s heat and moisture
  • It helps to maintain a garment’s structure and shape
  • It allows a body to move freely
  • It preserves the life of a garment, bearing the brunt of the wear and tear, and can be replaced.
  • If the main fabric is translucent or opaque a lining can change its hue
  • It can add a touch of fun

Maybe you can add to this list?

With tailored jackets in particular, the lining is made slightly bigger than the garment and it is installled with extra pleats and ‘ease’.  This helps with both comfort and the outward appearance of the garment.  Next time you are out and about see if you can spot the person with the lining that is too small or has shrunk.  You will notice from the way the hem at the centre back curls up inside the jacket and how it takes away the crisp fold of the hem.Gil Shaham

More recently with the development of new fabrics, the introduction of lycra into the weave has extended the capabilities of linings enabling them to stretch and give a greater feeling of comfort.

Linings can also be a way of bringing a subtle flair to the business suit, and a flash of crimson against an otherwise sombre pinstripe can give added frissons.  One of my clients, the violinist Gil Shaham always took a secret to the platform whenever he performed.  With a passion for Warner Brothers cartoons, his tail-suit was lined with ‘Loony Tunes’ characters…where Tweety Pie ended up is perhaps best left to the imagination!

Gil, Claudio Abaddo, and the Vienna Philharmonic

Pbotos:  Thanks to www.free-scores.com and The Strad

Biography

Recognised as a pioneer of bespoke tailoring for women, Carol Alayne has over 25 years experience of creating striking garments for arts, sports and media personalities and business wear for professionals and executives.

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