If there is a place in Britain that embodies exclusivity and inaccessibility then London’s Savile Row might just be it.
The 213-year old street is internationally recognised as the Mecca of tailoring, a place where some of the world’s most affluent people flock to get their clothes made.
Earlier this year, however, the Row gained a new resident and, in the process, was dragged a fraction closer to the modern age.
Kathryn Sargent has been part of the Savile Row family for over 20 years, but it was only in April that the 41-year-old rose to the rank of master tailor.
While doing so, she also made history by becoming the first woman to have her own namesake store on the prestigious street.
All photos: Felipe Araujo
After spending 15 years at the prestigious and historic men’s tailor, Gieves and Hawkes (which is on Savile Row), and becoming the first female head cutter there, she decided it was time to venture out on her own.
“I knew instinctively that it was the right time and opportunity to set up a seasonal store on Savile Row,” she tells me.
“The fact it is steeped in history and I learnt my craft in Savile Row and have spent most of my professional life there, makes the experience all the more enjoyable.”
For the most part, this famous street in the heart of central London still runs like a gentlemen-only private members’ club. Only a select few are allowed in.
However, the fact it took more than two centuries for a woman to have her own store here is not something Sargent resents. “I’m a part of this street, I’m part of the history, I trained here and I’m very proud of that,” she says firmly.
Growing up in Leeds in the 1980s, Sargent knew from an early age she wanted to work in fashion, but it was not until she headed south to study at the Institute of Art and Design in Epson, that she discovered her passion for tailoring.
“The precision of the whole process of putting a suit together is what really attracted me to this world,” she says.
Upon graduation in 1996, the Yorkshire woman landed her first job at tailors and shirtmakers Denman and Goddard. Shortly after, she left for 1 Savile Row, the home of Gieves and Hawkes, a move that would propel her to the upper echelons of the trade.
In a business where discretion is key, Sargent is reluctant to share any anecdotes relating to her clients, but she describes one situation in particular a few years ago that served as a painful reminder of the prejudices still held by some.
“I remember I had this lady,” Sargent recounts, sitting on a large sofa in the middle of her store. “She had come to order a suit, and my boss spoke to her and then brought me in to measure her and she said ‘why have you got a tape measure?’ and I said ‘Well, I’m gonna take your measures and go through the style…’ and she said ‘no, I want a man. You are a woman – women should be beauty therapists, not a tailor.’”
But for Sargent, her long journey to becoming a master tailor and ultimately a store owner had very little to do with gender. On the contrary. She is quick to credit her success to the support she has received over the years “from males and females” on Savile Row.
So what’s the secret?
“It takes time to learn this job. You can’t just come, do a couple of years and open a shop,” she replies. “You need to do the training, you need to earn the stripes, you need to spend time on the board, you need to spend time working with clients over and over again to get things perfect.”
Sargent is coy about her clientele – before she accepted this interview, her assistant was adamant that no questions should be asked about David Beckham, who has been reported to be one of her esteemed customers.
Yet her business doesn’t cater to men only – another reason why it’s thriving. Sharply attired in an impeccable brown suit, Sargent also makes garments for women. And unlike some of her peers, her style is not set in stone.
“I do not have a signature or house style,” she says. “This means that the client leads the process and they have the freedom for me to create beautiful garments for them, based on their specific requirements. My garments are distinctive in the fact they are bespoke in the truest sense of the word.”
Savile Row has a reputation for being averse to change. In 2006, Giorgio Armani publicly denounced it as a “a comedy, a melodrama lost in the past”.
The renowned Italian designer lamented: “They don’t research or develop something, or innovate. There is no room in their head to expand into something new.”
In the 1990s, when Ozwald Boateng became the first black tailor to move to Savile Row and had the audacity to keep his store open over the weekends, many of the street’s oldest residents were allegedly less than impressed.
I went door to door one afternoon to ask about Sargent’s trailblazing ways, and even though some bemoaned the fact that, these days, tradition and craftsmanship are being lost for the sake of profit, the consensus around the girl-from-Leeds-done-good is that she deserves everything that has come her way.
“She can be used as an example for a lot of women who are out there in bespoke apprenticeships to go out and create their own,” says Jonathan Pivot, operations manager at William Hunt.
Over at the Ozwald Boteng store, Customer Relations Manager Nadine Papadopoulo is also full of praise.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Papadopoulo says. “There’s a first for everything and the way the world is changing and modernising I don’t believe there is any position that is exclusive for male or female.”
But tailoring is still predominantly a white man’s world. When I mention that, for a lot of people, the street where she learned her trade is still viewed as something straight out of a black and white film, Sargent couldn’t disagree more.
“With young guys, the day of their father taking them to the tailor – it’s very different now,” she says. “They are personalising things themselves – they are looking at things on the internet, they are looking at bloggers, they are making more of an informed decision based on what’s out there.”
Her bespoke two-piece suits start at £4,200, while made to measure suits start at £1,500.
In spite of the steep prices and strong tradition, Sargent believes the Row is today more accessible than ever before.
“You’re not just working with British aristocracy – it’s not like that anymore.”