Saville Row suits need UNESCO status, says outfitter boss who dressed Daniel Craig

Sean Dixon, co-founder of Richard James, wants Savile Row to have UNESCO status (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster for Daily Express)

When Elton John and Gianni Versace walked into his Savile Row showroom, suit designer Sean Dixon knew it would be no ordinary day. The British pop legend and the Italian fashion designer both had their respective partners with them, and it wasn’t long before the four men had purchased virtually every shirt, suit and tie in the entire store.

“They called me up later from their car to apologise,” Sean remembers of that day in the mid-1990s, not long after he and Richard James had launched their business in Mayfair, London’s renowned tailoring district. “I said, ‘You don’t need to apologise.’ But we didn’t have that much stock. They more or less bought up the whole shop.”

Sean can’t recall how much money Elton and Versace spent. “But back then, it felt like life-changing numbers,” he says. Nowadays Richard James is a well established name on Savile Row, with two 2,500-square-foot showrooms – one on the famous street, the other just off it. They also have a shop on Park Avenue, in New York.

With 71-year-old Richard James now retired, co-founder Sean, who believes Savile Row as a brand needs more legislative protection, of which more shortly, is at the helm as managing director.

He has just spent £2million relaunching his second premises on adjacent Clifford Street, where his made-to-measure and bespoke suits are fitted and tailored. It’s a beautiful three-storey Georgian townhouse, with a workshop in the basement, off-the-peg clothes on the ground floor and, upstairs, via a polka dot-carpeted staircase, a bespoke fitting area and a bar for customers.

“A cathedral to tailoring,” is how the company describes it. MPs were urged this week to grant Savile Row suits, and other non-produce craft producers, the same legal protections as heritage food and drink brands.

Products such as Scottish wild salmon and Cornish clotted cream are currently registered under the geographical indication scheme, preventing brand “misuse or imitation”. But industry bosses believe extending this protective status across the board will help drive economic growth in the luxury market, now valued at £81billion.

Helen Brocklebank, chief executive of Walpole, the trade body for luxury brands, said: “If the scheme was extended to include non-produce-based craft products – like Savile Row tailoring – this would help protect the skills these industries rely on and, in turn, the communities they support.”

Back at Richard James, the new lines are presented in an array of bright colours. The latest spring/summer 2024 collection, for example, features suits in coral pink cotton, deep orange, chalk white linen and ivory white seersucker.

When he meets the Daily Express, Sean, a dapper 58-year-old, is dressed immaculately, as you’d expect. He’s wearing a Prince of Wales suit from his autumn/winter 2023 collection, with a light blue Oxford shirt, a bright blue knitted tie and brown split-toe derby shoes with dark blue socks.

When his company first launched, at 37A Savile Row, in September 1992, he admits they were very much the young, rebellious “whipper-snappers” in London tailoring. “We weren’t burdened with the history and heritage, and we did things differently,” he adds.

Richard and Sean set up shop with huge ambition, borrowed furniture, and just a £10,000 overdraft from the bank.

“We didn’t even have a curtain for the changing-room, so it was just open,” Sean remembers of the early years. “It was all a bit half-arsed, but we somehow got away with it.

“To be honest, we didn’t really need the changing room for the first year because no one came in.”

They were burgled three times during that initial year of trading. “More things got stolen than got sold,” Sean says.

However, after they moved to number 31 Savile Row, business improved drastically. By now it was the era of Britpop when the eyes of the world were fixed firmly on Cool Britannia – especially our pop music, art and fashion.

Before long, Richard James was designing for Hollywood actors, rock stars and royalty. The label was being worn by Prince William, Robert De Niro, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Liam Gallagher, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and, of course, Elton John.

Daniel Craig donned a cream Richard James suit and looked suitably sharp in the 2004 gangster film Layer Cake.

Daniel Craig in cream Richard James suit

Daniel Craig wears a cream Richard James suit in the film Layer Cake (Image: Shutterstock/Getty)

With its use of colour and an irreverent attitude – by conservative Savile Row standards, at least – the brand became the go-to tailors for creatives and City businessmen.

“The profile of our clients started to change quite a lot,” Sean remembers. “Fewer shoplifters.”

And the celebrities kept coming. One day in the mid-1990s, Sean noticed a big, burly guy standing at the door of his showroom, and a female customer on the shop floor.

“I thought, ‘Oh, hello, who have we got here?’ There was this petite woman. I didn’t realise it was her at first. Then I got it. OK, that’s Madonna.”

The Queen of Pop then asked Sean if he wouldn’t mind modelling a few shirts and suits for her. It turns out she was buying garments for her brother, and he was roughly the same size. Naturally, Sean obliged.

Madonna came shopping again, this time in 1996, just after the release of her musical-historical film Evita. “That was a completely different ball game because there were about 40 paparazzi outside,” Sean recalls. “Several security guards on the door were stopping people coming in.”

Running north to south through Mayfair, and just 300 yards long, Savile Row has been home to high-end tailoring since the 1840s when Henry Poole set up shop there, famously creating the world’s first dinner jacket, when the future King Edward VII commissioned a short, dark smoking jacket without tails.

But back as far as the 1630s, tailors traded in the area. One century later, when the Burlington Estate acquired the land, the area gained its current name to honour the Earl of Burlington’s wife, Lady Dorothy Savile.

Since then, it has come to symbolise bespoke tailoring, inspiring some of the most beautifully crafted suits ever worn by man.

The world’s rich, powerful and famous, from King Charles III, Lord Nelson and Sir Winston Churchill, to Laurence Olivier, Daniel Craig and Michael Jackson, have all had their inside legs measured on this street.

Although the number of tailors in the area has declined over the years, there are still some prestigious names. As well as Richard James, these include Henry Poole, Gieves & Hawkes, Alexander McQueen, Dege and Skinner, H Huntsman & Sons and Ozwald Boateng. Like many businesses in central London, Savile Row was hit hard by Covid.

Express writer Dominic Bliss

Express writer Dominic Bliss tries on a Richard James suit jacket (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster for Daily Express)

With everyone working from home, suits suddenly became redundant. Even now, office workers dress more casually than ever before, and few people are commuting five days a week.

The cost-of-living crisis hasn’t helped. Indeed, at Richard James, the cheapest off-the-peg suits start at around £1,100, while for bespoke £6,000 is not unusual.

Yet Sean is convinced tailored suits will enjoy a renaissance.

“People got fed up with wearing tracksuits all day while on Zoom calls,” he says of the lockdown years.

“What we’re getting is men being very much more adventurous; not feeling peer pressure; not saying, ‘Oh, I can’t wear an orange suit, so I’ll stick to navy or grey.’ They want to stand out a bit and look special.”

He hopes to attract customers who actively choose to wear a suit, rather than office workers who are expected by their managers to wear one. “I think people do like an excuse to dress up,” he adds. “The desire for tailoring is absolutely back.”

Many of Savile Row’s top names, including Richard James, belong to an association protecting and promoting its type of tailoring, called Savile Row Bespoke.

The association sets strict standards for what defines a bespoke suit.

“Every suit is unique, made to the customer’s exact measurements,” it explains. “Typically, around 30 measurements will be taken across the customer’s body.

“The suit will then be handmade, with the cloth shrunken, stretched, pressed, stitched and structured into a perfectly form-fitting three-dimensional garment.”

Apprentice tailors can train for up to six years, while each suit requires around 50 man-hours to create, with three fittings and “some three months from commission to finished garment”. In addition, the suits must be constructed within a 100-yard radius of Savile Row itself.

Richard James exterior

The exterior of Richard James in Savile Row (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster for Daily Express)

Tailors from this part of London are known and respected all over the planet. Foreign tourists regularly visit, and Sean was bitterly disappointed when Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided not to restore VAT-free shopping for tourists from abroad. “I think it’s a disaster,” he complains, pointing out how Britain is now the only major European nation which doesn’t refund VAT to tourists.

“It has really hamstrung businesses like ours, and retailing in general,” he says. “Brexit has been tough for businesses like us, adding a whole layer of bureaucracy. This was an opportunity to level the playing field. It’s really short-sighted.

“Tourists will go and do their shopping in Paris or Milan instead.”

Sean would like to see Savile Row Bespoke campaigning for his famous street to be added to Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

“Our street has traditions going back 200 years,” he stresses. “The way of making a suit hasn’t changed in that time. Learning that skill and craft still takes a lot of time. If you want to be a cutter or a tailor, there’s no cutting corners.”

He says Unesco status would be a recognition that Savile Row tailoring offers “something unique to our country”.

Sean concedes there’s a problem with the street’s image in that it’s perceived to be just for posh people. “Yes, it is expensive to have a bespoke suit made but the people who make it and work on it aren’t posh,” he explains. “They’re craftsmen and they spend many years to get to that point. I think that needs to be respected.”

He stresses how Savile Row is a vital component of the capital’s cultural heritage. “Areas like this really should have protected status,” he says. “We hope this exciting new store will help keep Savile Row strong for at least another 30 years and perhaps inspire young designers to take on the British baton for menswear. We started all those years ago with a £10,000 overdraft. That would very difficult now.”

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