Carol Alayne

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I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

I was delighted to be told that my letter to the Economist in response to their excellent article Suitably Dressed ( 18 December  2010)  had been accepted.

The article refers to the (possible) 150th anniversary of the lounge suit.  Interestingly, it is referred to in militaristic terms as the ‘battledress’ of the world’s businessmen.

Uniform dress fulfils a number of different purposes depending upon one’s profession, and for some this is more regulated than for others; from peaked caps and epaulettes to a mutually agreed dress code (I believe that the Swiss bank UBS has issued a 44 page guidebook to its 65,000 employees, male and female, on staff dress code at work – including the amount of cleavage allowed on public show!).  While we may consider our clothes a vehicle for personal expression, what we need to wear professionally may have to be much more sobre and perhaps reflect the changing times.

It was interesting to note how the recent financial meltdown caused a reappraisal of dressing standards, and how the dress-down Friday was supplanted back to the well-cut suit and tie.

Perhaps you recall the hemline theory of economics that was tipped as a measure of stock market fluctuations?

Men in some ways have it easier.  Their suit has been developed over some time and has become an accepted standard.   Not so for women, and this was the point of my letter.  For both sexes however, when a uniform needs to be a specific colour or style, ‘fit’ is of paramount importance and unquestionably an ‘edge-giver’.

The appellation ‘bespoke’ is often attached to a variety of objects and services.  There are indeed many clothing outlets that lay claim to this mantra.  Their authenticity however is somewhat questionable and it shows immediately in the fit of a garment.  The real purpose of bespoke is to respond to the individual requirements of each person’s figure, to disguise the idiosyncrasies (don’t worry, we all have them!) and to address fit, proportion and balance.  There are opportunities too, for a personal choice of accents or details which add an additional charm.

Women’s Tailoring: Genesis and Evolution

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

TfW@V&AAfter all the time spent planning, the day arrived  to give my presentation at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Regular readers of the TfW blog will know that this was something originally put forward as a proposal almost eight months ago, so it was a super feeling to be standing in front of a packed and appreciative audience.  Fortunately I had the presence of mind to have it filmed.

My task was to open the seminar, which was beautifully hosted by the V&A’s Head of Adult Education, Jo Banham.  Following this was an intriguing presentation by Jaeger.  This year is their 125th anniversary and it was wonderful to see some of the pieces and pictures from their archive.  I have a couple of vintage Jaeger pieces myself dating from the time Jean Muir was their designer and I treasure them.

Following this, Alan Cannon Jones, Senior Lecturer at the London College of Fashion talked about some of the new trends in tailored fashion, and some of the techniques that are used to support them.

The video attached to this post gives an edited version of my own contribution.  There were also a number of Q&A points throughout the seminar and I plan to include some of the issues that were raised in future posts.

The topics I covered ranged from a whistle-stop tour of the history of women’s tailoring to an exploration of the practical skills that support it.  This included the consideration of the physiological aspects, hand-crafting techniques, and the complex psychology that underlies the relationship with one’s client.   I concluded with some thoughts around the future of women’s tailoring with reference to a statement I had compiled from the opinions of my clients.

“Women should have same the opportunities for investing in their wardrobes in the same way that they invest in their careers”

I hope that you don’t have too many problems with the download.

2 degrees East

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Yukiyo SugiyamaI said good-bye to one of my assistants this week.  Having graduated with her second degree, an MA in arts administration from Goldsmiths College, she has to fill her suitcase and return to Japan.

Yukiyo (Sugiyama) spent almost 3 years of study and work experience here in the UK during which time she immersed herself in ballet, opera, theatre, museums and galleries.  She still somehow found time to help me in my studio, and in particular with planning my own Japanese trips.  She returns to Tokyo to run the new concert hall at the Ueno Gakuen (a music university in Tokyo) which came to prominence recently when one of its students,  Nobuyuki Tsujii, won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

To add to her souvenirs I thought that a light weight business suit would make a welcome change from her customary jeans and t-shirt.  This charcoal grey fresco suit will be ideal for those sticky summer Tokyo days with humidity levels you could cut with a knife (‘fresco’ is a type of open weave used particularly for tropical suitings).  This particular fabric is cool to wear and also has a crease resistant quality that can withstand the most rigorous packing regimes!

Ganbatte. Good luck, Yukiyo.  We will miss you very much.

Spitfire tailors

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Spitfire pilotSomeone recently said to me, ” I’m sure you can see now that men’s and women’s tailoring will never sit side by side.”   Granted, this was not one of the most  forward-thinking of the Savile Row fraternity. (I am not sure that Armani would agree with him either!)  It seems ironic that these days, when the talk is of ‘breaking glass ceilings’, there should be such a lack of joined-up thinking.  I have to confess that this thought was in part stimulated by a book I was given by a friend recently; The Spitfire Women of World War II (Giles Whittell)

The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary may not have taken part in the Battle of Britain but, without their flying skills and courage in Spitfire womendelivering the aircraft to the RAF bases for their male counterparts, the battle would never have got off the ground; they flew Lancasters and Wellingtons too.  There are believed to be about 15 of the women pilots left, all in their eighties and nineties.

To fulfil their posts, they needed to be in uniform and as you might imagine, all the tailors were men.

The book relates a charming account from one of the women pilots about a trip to a local tailor in order to be measured up, and the consternation caused amongst the erstwhile cutters when a group of them first walked into the shop.  “Whoever heard of such a thing!”.

Apparently the basic measures were accomplished without incident, but when it came to the bust Spitfire Womenmeasurement the approach of the tailor seemed somewhat unusual.  “He would take a few quick steps, throw the tape measure round the back, catch it in mid-air and, turning his head away as if he couldn’t bear to look, wait until the two ends met before giving a fleeting glance to the number of inches it recorded.”  The process was completed by the cutter whispering “the awful secret” in the “hairy ear” of his amanuensis.  What a performance!

The end result was that their long awaited uniforms arrived with trouser seats four inches lower than they should have been.

Thank goodness times have changed…or have they!?

Photo: thanks to HarperPerennial, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail

Briefing for Bespoke: The Inside Story

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Inner workings“Show me where you work; show me how you do it”.

I am thrilled by the way my clients want to collaborate in the design of their garments.  Their curiosity seems to be twofold: a desire to learn more about the practical details; cloth, techniques, tools.  Secondly, an intrigue with the more artistic side of things such as proportion, colour balance, placement of detail etc.

I have been thinking about some of the parallels with architecture.

A building is made from both rigid and flexible elements.  The final structure has to be strong enough to maintain its form, but possess a degree of flexibility as the climate, inside and out, affects the physics of the materials from which it is made.  So, the constituent components all influence each other.

Garments crafted in the art of bespoke are created in a similar way – with a unique layering of materials and methods of combining them.  The art lies in achieving a finished product that is soft on the body but at the same time accentuates the natural attributes of the materials used.

Some materials making up the inner architecture of a bespoke suit are:

  • chest canvas – short, coarse fibres in the weave provide foundation and allow flexibility
  • laptair – long, rigid fibres supporting the weft of a fabric help preserve its width.
  • domette – soft, supple cloth secured over the coarser fibres of the laptair preventing their intrusion past the inner linings.
  • silesia – a strong, densely woven fabric that adds a stable foundation in the fixing of other materials
  • pocketings – robust enough to hold an array of objects yet retain its shape, and be comfortable on the skin

These materials are layered and secured with a matrix of different types of stitches, each backing the other up.

  • basting cotton – soft thread for loose stitching such as padding and basting which can be easily removed
  • poly-cotton blend – used for machining and some hand sewing
  • silk – because of its lustre and strength it is used for the final topstitching and buttonholes
  • polyester – strongest, the thickest grades are used for backstitching

“The sewing machine is used for almost all seams and darts, but 75% of all stitches in a bespoke made suit are still done by hand, to ensure the most accurate shaping of the fabric.  Today’s tailors continue to practice their art almost exactly as it was practiced a century ago.  Not because slower is necessarily better, but because these methods produce body and form, detail and durability which newer faster methods of tailoring are simply unable to equal.”
(Classic Tailoring Techniques.  Roberto Cabrera/Patricia Flaherty Meyers.)

With modern, mass produced clothing, many of these details are eliminated.  One example is the way in which many layers are secured by one line of machine stitching.  If this line breaks, then it all breaks.

We spend our lives wrapped up in our clothes – we might as well know something about them!

Figuring it out: Hacking jackets, Mars bars and shotguns

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Hacking JacketA respondent to a recent post asked the question;  is buying a bespoke garment considered  a good return on  investment considering the initial spend?  Putting aside for the moment matters such as fit, design and satisfaction of requirements, I thought it provided an interesting challenge.  So I decided to investigate something from my own experience; my favourite ‘hacking jacket‘.

I made this garment twenty years ago, just after I came to London.  The fabric is a 100% worsted wool special edition tartan that I picked up at Holland & Sherry in Mayfair.  I wanted a key piece for my wardrobe that would be flexible enough to wear with tailored trousers, or jeans and trainers; for more formal or informal gatherings.  I use it throughout the autumn, winter and spring, and probably a minimum of once each week.  Erring on the low side this has given it around 600 outings in its lifetime (20 years) and it still has a long way to go!    The reasons for the length of its lifespan lie with the fact that the nature of its construction means it can be altered, the quality of the fabric makes it durable but still elegant, and it can resist the trauma of visits to high street dry cleaners without falling apart.

The original cost would have been in the region of £750.00 which  means that so far it has cost £37.50 per annum, and of course this is diminishing.  How does this rate with what you would expect to pay in the high street?

Prices, as you might imagine, have changed since the late 80’s.  So I contrasted this with two of my passions; Mars bars and shotguns.  Pretty extreme!

In 1989 the price of a Mars bar was 26 pence, and a standard 12 bore Holland & HollandRoyal ” Model shotgun £21,100.  When I went to the local newsagent today, a Mars bar cost me 65 pence.  I didn’t have sufficient loose change in my pocket to pick up a shotgun; they now retail at £55,250.

So putting all this together I would suggest that the current price of a hacking jacket, from around £1500, is pretty much in line with the current pricing structures, and a good return on investment.

Not only that… but you get what you want!

P.S.  I just had an evening with one of my closest colleagues on the ‘Row’.  John Reed (see ‘Folding a Jacket‘) reminded me about the fact that we are all different, and the beauty of bespoke is that it respects and responds to our differences.

Tailoring and the Glass Ceiling

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Glass CeilingLast Sunday, I caught an interview with Cherie Blair on the BBC’s Politics Show.  It ended a programme segment hosted by three guest women presenters, each from quite different backgrounds; a fire-fighter, a mother trying to get back into the workforce, and a company director.  An interesting debate.  And three observations in particular struck a chord which has some relevance to my own professional arena.

The other day  it was suggested by a male colleague that it was just too difficult for “gentlemen’s’ and ladies’ tailoring to co-exist”.  ( I use the word ‘ladies’ advisedly!).  Despite the number of professional women currently  hammering at the executive ‘glass ceiling‘ (some of them are my clients),  it seems strange that this sort of attitude still prevails.  Cherie commented on how society works best when women and men work together with “complementary skills on an equal basis”.   I know I learned a huge amount from my colleagues on Savile Row; in fact TfW is a service that grew from within a male tradition.  Yet despite my own background in haute couture, I feel that the opportunity for reciprocal learning was never quite part of the sharing process.

She also commented on how volume counted, that is, the more women that reach senior executive positions, the more accepting and quicker the change; a statistic of around 20%-30% was suggested for producing critical mass.  As one of the only women specialising in authentic bespoke tailoring for women I think we have some way to go on this one!

Maybe it is just that the trade is not ready for an influx of women.  Judging from the recent BBC series about Savile Row, it seems as if the upholders of this male tradition are still pretty well ensconced in their gentleman’s emporiums.

Maybe I should declare myself an endangered species.  And while we are at it, perhaps someone should mention that kissing the back of a lady’s hand by way of greeting is a bit ‘old hat’!

Style and Politics

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Angela Merkel, 2009 EU SummitLast weekend saw the 2009 EU Economic Summit held in Berlin.  Angela Merkel, one of the world’s leading political figures, was host to the conference.  What struck me about the imagery in the press was the way she captured the focus with her lavender-pink jacket framed by the line up of identical dark suits.

Women do have the opportunity to make more of a statement in the public arena by the way they dress.  Much more so than men.  For me, this example also highlights the importance of ensuring all the elements of the ‘statement’ are in balance.

The shade of her jacket was ideal bringing a sense of freshness, femininity, maybe even optimism for a new political landscape in the use of the spring colour palette. It certainly pulled the eye into the centre of the picture.  However, it strikes me that a few changes in the style and detailing would make the look more successful.

The high square shoulder line gives the appearance of tension and rigidity in the jacket, and the close fitting armscye could be cut with a bit more freedom.   The sleeves should look the same length, and so one could be shortened or the other lengthened.  Another change that might help to soften the look would be to put a slight curve on the lower front opening edge at the hemline.  This would expose a bit more of the dark trouser, and keeping the eye central would visually slim the hipline.

Her male counterparts can rely on the simplicity and safety of their ‘uniform’, and their problems are consequently far less complex. The darker suit colours mask all manner of strains in the fit, which is designed and built with a different structure in mind – not so closely tailored to reveal the figure underneath. The simple option of choosing the right tie is perhaps the ultimate distraction.

We live in a goldfish bowl for the media where the slightest flaws in posture, health, demeanour or dress are pounced on by the press who sometimes seem to look for any pretext to set a ‘news hare’ running.  In fairness they are not the only ones to judge a book by its cover.  The psychologists tell us it is an all too human trait.

Image is vital, particularly on the world stage.  That is why so much attention was lavished on the candidates and their entourage during the recent US elections.  I am sure we all remember the fuss over Sarah Palin’s wardrobe budget. Yet some women seem to manage things without so much razzmatazz.

Here in the UK, the politician Ann Widdecombe carried out a remarkable transformation.  A women of robust opinions, her appearance and demeanour a short while ago became very much the butt of rather uncharitable political satire.  The makeover she has undergone now presents her as the same serious politician, but one with a softer, feminine and more relaxed and humorous side.

Anne Widdecombe before

Anne Widdecombe after
One’s appearance can be more than the sum of its parts, but only if they all work together.

Photo: thanks to Daily Telegraph

Briefing for Bespoke: Here come the brides!

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Lucie Campbell Engagement RingI opened the Financial Times this weekend to a splash of advertisements for engagement and wedding rings, although for me none as elegant as this stunning example from Lucie Campbell in Bond Street.

Despite the Arctic conditions here in London, minds are turning to warmer thoughts and spring nuptials. I have  completed two weddings so far this year, with a third underway and still more around the corner.  As we were laying out each garment it occurred to me that there are some common issues that might be worth bearing in mind as you start the planning process.

So, here are ten thoughts, in no particular order,  that will help to reduce your stress levels and preserve the bank balance as the day draws near:

  1. It is not necessary to purchase large quantities of expensive fabric.  Simply designed dresses can be transformed with hints of more exquisite fabrics such as beaded silks, embroidery, or devoré.
  2. Choose cloth as early in the proceedings as possible, and also plan the fitting schedule well in advance.  Time flies, and if fabric stocks are limited your selected cloth could be snapped up.  Fortunately,  suppliers will often reserve lengths of fabric against a deposit whilst you decide on the design, and the pattern is cut.
  3. Remember to include your intended jewellery in the discussion.  Bodices can be shaped to show a necklace off to better effect, brooches can be secured to protect the dress fabric, and a headress can be fashioned around an existing tiara.
  4. Plan the undergarments with your designer.  They will be integral to the final design, so remember to bring them to your fittings.  I am pleased to be able to send my clients to Rigby & Peller.
  5. Don’t leave your choice of shoes to the last minute.  You will need them at the final fittings for a perfect hemline.  Also, it can take weeks if they need to be dyed.  Make sure to wear them a few times before the day arrives, you may be grateful when it comes to the last waltz!
  6. I have attended many a wedding where there have been accidents as a hem was caught on a heel or a garment gets unexpectedly snagged.  Make sure you have a small sewing kit to hand, including safety pins.
  7. Don’t leave the men out of the planning.  Often ideas for co-ordinating their garments or accessories come too late in the day to be able to take effective action.  Waistcoats, bow ties, pocket squares, cravats, braces and buttonholes; all can lend a unifying feel to the bridal party.
  8. Clients sometimes ask me to remodel or recondition vintage pieces, or perhaps refurbish a wedding dress worn by their mother.  This is achievable and often gives an added poignancy to an event, but be prepared for specialist alteration work which can be extensive.  Depending upon how the garment has been cared for this can prove a costly exercise particularly if special fabrics, beads, fastenings or trimmings need to be sourced and applied.
  9. Think ahead and consider how any garments might be merged into your regular wardrobe after the wedding.  Shawls and jackets can be used as staple garments after the event, shoes can be re-coloured, and dresses can be re-cut or re-dyed.
  10. Finally, don’t forget the last minute extras – garter, head dress, gloves, shawl or jacket, or a second outfit for the reception.

Good Luck!

Photo: thanks to Lucie Campbell, New Bond Street, London

“Shoddy Fashion!”

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

ThumbMy first tailoring lessons with my mother, who was herself an accomplished ‘stitcher’,  included trips to the local department store to look at the fashions of the day and in particular the way they were put together.  By way of education my Mom used to encourage me to ‘test’ the garments on the hangers, so I would tweak the zips and buttons, and tug at the hems and seams to test their strength (Do this with caution!).

I soon came to realise that properly hand-crafted garments had a durability and finish that was seldom to be found amongst the flimsier fashion items, and could be equally as chic as some of the finest designs.  It also gave me an insight into the fact that fashion has both an inside and an outside story, and it was seldom the case that the quality of the inside finish would match that of the outside.  I even remember reciting the mantra ‘make a garment as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside’.

In the Independent and Mirror newspapers earlier this week reports showed that complaints to the Goverment’s consumer helpline, Consumer Direct, about ‘shoddy fashion’  had surged by 22% from last year; the fastest in any of its top top 10 complaints categories.  Complaints ranged from sequined dresses littering the floor to zips and buttons on bridal dresses falling apart on the wedding day.

The marked fall in prices (as much as 25%) has no doubt had something to do with this. The big problem with reducing prices is that once you have reached the break-even point there is nowhere else to go.  There has to be an accomodation in the production costs somewhere and it would seem to lie in the making process,  and once quality has been sacrificed it is difficult to recapture.  I wonder if anyone out there has carried out a comparative pricing of the sum total of monies spent on high street fashion against the layout for a bespoke item throughout its lifetime?  It would make for interesting study.

ThumbMeanwhile, fashion continues to excite and inspire on many fronts, however, the built in obsolescence inherent in many high street purchases has created a throw-away culture which, particularly during these pressing financial times, has to be considered profligate as we watch our land fill sites overflow.

Photo: thanks to juliar at


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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