Carol Alayne

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The credit crunch, suits, and a pricing conundrum

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

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 and Boston Globe

Press, presentations and processes

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Business Sense MagazineIt’s been a busy week so far.  I was thrilled to be featured alongside Sir Martin Sorrell and ‘Dragon’s Den’ Duncan Bannatyne in Business Sense Magazine, the National Westminster Bank’s national periodical.  The rest of my time has been spent focussing on my presentation at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) with Jaeger.  The process of tailoring is something which tends to take place away from public scrutiny, so being given such a prominent platform demands careful thought about why the art of bespoke is so unique.

It seems to me that the distinctive experience my clients seek is comprised of the knowledge and integration of three important and fundamental elements. Physiology, technique and …psychology.

Physiology is all about understanding the shape and proportions of the body, not as an object frozen in time, but as a dynamic entity that Body Shapeschanges and flows as it moves.  Most textbooks illustrate body types in 4 or 5 basic postures, but the devil is in the difference.  I have yet to find a client whose shape fits these proportions precisely.  I often give group seminars and set the participants the task of finding someone in the room that matches their own body shape.  It hasn’t happened so far!

Technique is something which takes time to develop.  It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to reach a competent level of skill in any chosen activity.  This may be so, but I find that I still look to expand my own skills base, and that is after over 20 years in the trade.  The art of tailoring is still grounded in techniques that were developed in the 19th century, although the records show evidence as far back as the 13th century.  Modern materials, the change in life styles and modern body proportions all influence the ways in which these techniques have to be applied so they have to be constantly revisited and refreshed.

Tailoring is a relationship business.  We have to dress the body and the mind.  So, the psychology of the relationship with ones client is paramount.  This is all the more so as the current changes in society affects the role of women and how they wish to be perceived.

I was speaking with a former CEO of a global PR firm the other day who mentioned how he always emphasised the need for his staff to think of the image they portrayed when they visited clients.  “They have to realise that if they are charging a four figure sum per day, the first impression they give their client as they walk in the room is vital, and this is dependent largely upon how they look”.

A potent statement when you consider how this simple matter can undermine the huge investment that has gone into training the company representative.

Following the Silk Road to Holland & Sherry

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

I had something of a surprise last week.  An unexpected visit to my Spitalfields studio  from one of the members of the Japanese Imperial Household.  It also gave me the chance to show the latest treasures in stock.  A selection of superb silk and wool tweeds prepared specially for me by Nicolas Guibauld at Holland & Sherry.

Silk is a natural protein fibre spun by the silkworm as it makes its cocoon…which is perhaps why moths aren’t particularly interested in it!  In cross section, the fibres have a triangular shape with rounded corners which allow light to reflect at different angles, giving the fabric a natural lustre.  Its smoothness and softness of texture belies the fact that it is one of the strongest natural fibres, and it also takes dye extremely well.  I believe also that violinists wrap their instruments in silk cloths in order to equalise in part any changes in humidity.

Holland & Sherry’s Silk Essence range is woven in England with Super 100’s wool.  When silk is included in the weave the natural qualities of the wool are enhanced immeasurably giving the fabric a unique drape and luxurious feel.  What is more, when silk is woven into patterns – dogtooth, herringbone, birdseye or glenchecks – it becomes almost irridescent.

They also stock a range of cashique fabrics; a very special treat indeed.  It’s made from a blend of the highest quality mulberry silk with cashmere and super-fine wool.  Definitely for the connoisseur.

It is not only the properties of the fabric itself however that lend to it its mystique.  It first began to appear in the West almost 2000 years ago and the trade routes that were established for the transport of silk and other commodities from China, the Silk Road, gave rise to a rich reservoir of stories and legends.

Everyone seems to have a ‘silk’ story.  What is yours?

Variations on a Seam

Friday, June 19th, 2009

I attended a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall the other night.  It’s considered to be one of the world’s foremost venues for high quality performances of chamber music and this night was no different.  The Academy of Ancient Music’s director, Richard Eggar, was giving a harpsichord recital; “the ultimate instrument that goes ‘ping'” we were told.  This year heralds the anniversaries of Purcell, Handel and Haydn, and the programme was devoted to these three composers.  One of the pieces that Richard performed got me thinking.  It was the Chaconne and 62 variations by Handel (for those in the know, HWV 228!).  How many different variations are there on a jacket? … So I started counting.

Barrister * Blazer * Boating * Bolero * Brigandine * Cagoule * Carmagnole * Cassock * Chef’s * Chesterfield * Clerical * Cloak * Coatee * Collarless * Crombie * Dinner * Donkey * Doublet * Dress * Duffle * Duster * Eisenhower * Eton * Flak * Fly front * Frock * Greatcoat * Guards * Hacking * Highland * House * Hunt * Inverness * Jerkin * Justacorp * Lab * Lounge * Macintosh * Mess * Monkey * Morning * Nehru * Newmarket * Norfolk * Opera * Overcoat * Pea coat * Pilot * Polo * Prince Albert * Pyjama * Raglan * Redingote * Reefer * Riding * Safari * Shooting * Smoking * Spencer * Sport * Straitjacket * Suffolk * Top * Trench * Tunic * Ulster * Zouave

I stopped counting after 62.

There are a number of reasons for having so many different styles, and not all to do with fashion.  The Norfolk jacket for example, was designed with a high collar to keep the weather out, and with deep accessible pockets in which to keep shooting cartridges.  Shorter jackets such as the hacking jacket were intended for horse riding, and traditionally had pockets cut at an angle with thick external flaps to prevent anything from dropping out.

Can any of you add to the list?

Uniform dilemmas

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

UniformsIf you look for a definition of ‘uniform’ you will find that it stresses similarity and consistency.  Indeed one of the purposes of a ‘uniform’ is to lend a feeling of cohesion to groups that want or need to be identified as a unit; the police, football teams and their supporters, symphony orchestras are all examples of this.  One of the major challenges with uniforms however, is that the people who wear them are not uniform.  I recently worked with a designer on a project that brought these differences into stark relief and the impact this can have if a project is not sensitively managed.

There seem to be three matters involved that have to be in alignment; the requirements and expectations of the wearers and their employers, the need to create economies in scale, and the design that will determine the final result.  Of these, it is the handling of the level of the wearer’s expectation that seems to play a vital role.

The needs of an employer are normally driven by their brand’s positioning and how this should be perceived.  This implies something that carries the branded colours and possibly other elements of the brand’s identity such as the logo.  For the wearer it is more to do with fit and personal comfort.  This is where things start to get complicated, because to completely satisfy individual needs the bespoke element has to come into play.  Usually with the mass production of a line of garments the tolerances have to be much greater to allow for the differences in body shape, the result is a corresponding economy in scale for their production.  As soon as the bespoke element starts to creep in the situation becomes much more complex with the cost model quite different from that originally proposed.  It is the age old formula of ‘cost v time v quality’ at play.

Add to this design elements which may not have fully considered the needs of the work force and  difficulties can emerge.  For example taking into account whether or not one’s staff spend most of their days sitting or standing can have considerable impact on the way in which the design should be worked through; close fitting flat-fronted trousers can look extremely chic for people whose work entails a lot of standing, but for those who spent most of their work life seated they can be a nightmare.

So I would suggest that designers, in support of the clients who commission them, should consider a little more the sensibilities of those who will be wearing the finished article, these people will after all become the biggest advocates of the branding exercise if their needs are accommodated.

Photo: thanks to US Military from

Cheques and Balances, Boom and Bust

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Boom and BustWe have written about the credit crunch in other posts, however this particular project we undertook recently with Malcolm Plews of the tailoring house Welsh and Jefferies was an opportunity for clothes to ‘bite back’. And it involved a fashion student; Katie Robinson.

From time to time we try to make space to work with up and coming students in the clothing industry. Their ideas can be really refreshing and it gives us the opportunity to keeping in touch with current trends.

Katie’s particular specialisation is textile design and this collection, ‘Boom and Bust’, is inspired by the traumas of the City over the last few months.

The print designs were created on a range of different fabrics and used a number of iconic motifs such as the gold chip on a credit card, and embossed coinage.

After the fabric came the construction; I worked on the women’s business suit, Malcolm the men’s, and the one and only Delroy Mitchell produced the shirts.  I wonder if it is the first time a graduation show has had such a back stage representation from Savile Row?

Here is the collection, beautifully captured by the photographer Vicoria Brocklebank.

If all goes well, the collection will be selected for an independent London show at the East Winter Garden in Canary Warf on the 12th of June.

Good luck Katie!

Austerity measures

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

HaberdasheryLast week saw more coverage about ‘Austerity Britain’.  In particular,  how people were looking to revitalise long forgotten skills.  BBC TV’s Newsnight had people talking about reinvigorating the clothes in their wardrobes,  the Independent issued a supplement in their New Good Life series (Making and Mending – Sewing, knitting and darning), and the Financial Times ran a page about the rise in the sales of sewing machines and haberdashery.

I visited a number of my favourite suppliers here in London and they all confirmed how there had been an upsurge in interest,  although as Martyn Frith of the Button Queen commented,  “this was their third recession over 50 years, so it was not entirely unexpected”.

  • The Button Queen: Established for over 50 years with a collection of some 2 million buttons, including rare antiques.  They will source special requirements.
  • MacCulloch & Wallis: Great selection of millinery items in addition to an extensive selection of fabrics and trimmings,  all within a listed building in Mayfair.
  • Kenton Trimmers:  Family business that caters specifically for the bespoke tailor.
  • V V  Rouleaux: Out of the ordinary, theatrical trimmings and decorations.

A little while ago we ran a post about the fashion industry and how it had spawned a rash of cheap clothing much of which ended up in our land fill sites after only a couple of outings.  It is a welcome move forward that people are now looking to remodel and recycle.  Unfortunately,  because of the structuring of mass-produced garments this is not always as straightforward as it seems.  With some new designs, compromises are made in the make, and in the use of cloth and trimmings – and seams have a tendency to autodestruct at the slightest hint of a repair kit!

Nonetheless, I am all for ‘making do and mending’.  In fact it has given me great pleasure recently to work with one of my clients, a medical consultant, who wanted to have a hand in sharpening up her tailored wardrobe, and adapting it more to her own changing tastes and body shape. Ultimately she would like to learn more about basic tailoring, extending her creative skills set as well as the life of her garments, and at the same time adding some personal touches to her wardrobe.

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.

An Edge for Edgy Times

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The suit that bought a bondA client rang me the other day. “I was made redundant a couple of months back and with a number of job interviews to face I think I need an edge,” she said.

The timing of this was particularly appropriate because it coincided with a piece of research carried out by a colleague of mine, Kate Rawlinson. She used to be a sub-editor for the fashion magazines and decided to give it all up to train as a bespoke tailor. The outcome of her research was an interesting mix of opinions which showed that almost 60% of women would consider having a suit made, but that this was overridden by concerns about whether or not they would like the result, and also value for money.

The most important criteria when buying a suit was thought to be the fit (82.5%) followed by the quality of fabric (52.6%). Next came quality of construction (51.5%) and then value for money (49.5%).

With just over 80% of women saying that they wear a suit to work there is undoubtedly a demand but the quality and in particular fit of what is on offer was considered as leaving much to be desired; check my post on ‘Shoddy Fashion‘.

What does all this mean? For me it indicates that there needs to be better education process in place reassuring women that going the bespoke route gives you something that covers all the bases with regard to fit, fabric, and quality of construction. There needs perhaps to be more guidance on what to expect during the process, and we have tried to cover some of this in Briefing for Bespoke. If any of you have any thoughts about ways in which we can make this more helpful please get in contact.

One of the big problems appears to be that it is difficult for women to find bespoke tailors who can cater for their needs not just as clients, but as women too. “…the service just seems like a bolt-on, not really geared up for women” said one respondent.

As for value, did you realise that an authentic bespoke suit could last you for 10 years, if not longer. Factor that out and put it against your mobile phone bill!

In the Independent on Sunday Hot List last week the comment was made that ‘men should be making an appointment with their tailor and ordering something chic and long-lasting’. I would suggest that the same goes for women too, and not only when they need an edge.

In closing, one final crie de coeur from the survey…”I love my out-of-work clothes and wish I could feel the same about my suits”

Photo: thanks to The Costumer’s Manifesto

Briefing for Bespoke: Fabric

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

ThumbWhen we take the decision to add a new tailored piece to our wardrobe, I wonder how many  people  consider the properties of the textile selected.  It seems to be more the case that we are driven by colour, pattern and style and neglect the nature of the chosen material and how it might perform.  This, along with the next set of posts, will be devoted to the properties, care and maintenance of  some of the main fabrics, and an exploration into  the fibres and weaves that determine their characteristics. We have been helped in this by Nicholas Guilbaud at Holland and Sherry, specialists in the high quality traditional fabrics used in bespoke tailoring.

First some basics.

Other than its initial impact, there are four main factors to consider when selecting a length of material.  The fibre, the nature of the fabric and its weave, the finish, and the mixture.

The fibre is the smallest perceivable element of a textile that is visible to the naked eye, and there are four main fibre shapes each with a unique cross-section.

  • Flat-oval as found in types of cotton.
  • Oval to round with overlapping scales such as medulla wool where its honeycomb-like core has minute air spaces
  • Triangular with rounded edges as in silks or nylon
  • Circular and uniform in diameter – fibres such as nylon, dacron or rayon.

ThumbThe chemical composition of a fibre is determined by by either its natural or man-made origins. Natural fibres are either animal (wool, alpaca, camel, cashmere, mohair, vicuna, angora, silk), or vegetable (cotton, flax, linen, famie).  The image to the left shows wild silk fibres in magnification. Man-made fibres can be either cellulose based (viscose, rayon, cupramonium rayon, acetate) or non-cellulose ( Nylon, polyester, acrylic, olefin, spandex).  Fibres are spun into continuous threads called yarns which, according to the amount of twist, will influence its feel, absorbency, elasticity, lustre and strength.  Although there are are other factors that come into play, at base level the fibre from which a garment is made determines the way in which it should be cared for, hence the washing instructions on the label in mass produced clothes.

The next step up is to turn the yarns into fabric. There are two ways of doing this; weaving or knitting.  Most tailoring uses woven fabrics.  The weaving process relies on two simple elements, the warp and the weft; two sets of yarns running perpendicular to each other.  It It is the way in which these are combined, along with the tension within the yarn, that create all of the materials you see in a cloth merchants, from jaquards to tweeds.  When yarns are dyed individually, it is the weaving of them that give us tartans, stripes or plaids.  ‘Shot’ fabrics include a yarn that gives them an irridescence.

Here are examples of  three simple weaves: plain cotton, twill and satin.

Cotton plain weave

Cotton twill weaveCotton satin weave

There  are a number of different finishes used in the final preparation of the raw fabric.  The most obvious is the application of dye, although  as mentioned earlier the yarn can be dyed as a separate part of the process.  Colour is probably the most influential factor for a customer, and garment  manufacturers try to leave the process of dyeing as close to the final shipment of the fabric as possible.  Except for specially commissioned fabric runs, the pipeline between the fibre manufacture to the consumer can be as long as two years which can make it a highly speculative operation when placed alongside the dictats of the fashion industry.

So far we have looked at single content fabrics; silks, cottons, wools etc.  The final influencing factor however is the combination of fibres that might be used in a fabric, known also as mixture.  So for example, lining fabrics I have been working with recently  are a combination of viscose (95%) and lycra (5%).  This combines the robust, anti-static qualities of viscose with the stretch of lycra.

This should give you a basic outline of the basic elements of fabric design.  In the next post we will look at what you should expect from a fabric, how it performs.

Photo: thanks to Holland and Sherry, Olympusmicro and David Greenhalgh


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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