118 years of Trust T i m e O f f THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, August 23, 1998
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The Savile Row jaunt

FIELD Marshal K. M.Cariappa was the first Indian Chief of the Indian army and sahib to the bone that he was. His notions of the code of conduct for his officers were derived from the mythology of the building of the British Empire as spin-doctored by its drum-beaters such as Sir Henry Newbolt and Rudyard Kipling: as a body of men of honour dedicated to the highest ideals of knight-errantry who also kept up a life-style befitting knights of old or, at any rate, of the prosperous English squirearchy of the Victorian era.

In line with these notions, it became a practice with Cariappa that, whenever one of his officers was due to go on a posting or on a course of trailing to England, to equip him to live there in the style of Britain's 'Establishment', he furnished him with letters of introduction to his London tobacconist, wine merchant and tailor.

This was in the fifties. Salaries of our military officers had been trimmed to bare-subsistence levels. The very thought of one of these poorly-paid men requiring the services of a fancy wine merchant or a tobacconist was fatuous. Indeed it was unlikely that, in post World War II, there was still a class of people who patronised tobacconists or wine suppliers when wines could be bought in the corner grocery store and cigarettes obtained by putting coins into vending machines. You didn't need letters of introduction to buy either.

But with tailors, it was different. Well-to-do people in India had still not taken to ready-to-wear garments. All towns had their tailor shops and most prosperous families had durzees sitting in the verandahs sewing clothes. Why even shirts and pyjamas, had to be 'made to measure'.

Then again, just as much as Paris had, over the years, emerged as the hub of women's fashions, London had always been recognised as the fashion centre for men's clothes. All of us longed for Bond Street ties and socks and scarves and English-made shoes. And when it came to blazers and sports jackets and suits, it was altogether axiomatic that the only place to go to was London's Savile Row.

That was where Cariappa's letter of introduction must have come in handy. Alas, I myself was never sent by the Army to England — so there was no occasion for the Chief to introduce me to his Savile Row tailor. It was my London publisher, Hamish Hamilton, himself, regarded as a member of the 'Establishment' who passed me on to his tailor, M. Gafson.

Savile Row is a lane more than a street, narrow and curving, and unusually quiet because it must be in a segment of London cut off from the main arteries of traffic. You may see an imposing black Rolls parked with two of its wheels on the curb before some obscure door — perhaps John Major or the Duke of Devonshire — is trying out his new pinstripe. But by and large there is very little wheeled traffic. Indeed you may walk through the entire Row without realising that fashion-conscious men from all over the world converge on this place to get their suits and jackets made-to-measure — because there are no flashy advertisement signs, not even display windows exhibiting the clothes that Britain's establishment wears.

Here some of the shops date back to the reign of King George IV, and it is a safe bet that none is post World War II. But these long pedigrees are not flaunted. Names of virtually all the shops are painted in small gold letters on the glass panes of their street doors, and they're typically English names such as J. Smith, S. Jones & Sons' or C.Johnson, but you have to get fairly close to these doors to be able to read these names. And then you also notice the Royal Crest of Britain emblazoned on an adjoining panel, denoting the fact that J. Smith, or C. Johnson are holders of letters of appointment, to some King or Prince of Britain. As it happens, most Savile Row tailors display these crests, if not of British or European Royalty, at least of a Sultan or an Arab Sheikh.

You enter. As a rule you're the only customer. A gentlemen wearing black clothes approaches and to him you explain what you're thinking ordering. He listens with obvious concentration and then, summoning an assistant, proceeds to unfold before you, roll after roll of materials to choose from. He pulls and tugs and makes the cloth flap noisily. After you have made your choice, there is a moment of silence while quick calculations are made and then a price is mentioned: "Sixty guineas."

Sixty what?

Guineas, each guinea being worth 21 shillings.

Believe it or not, when I first visited Savile Row, in the mid-sixties, its tailors still quoted prices in Victorian coinage. I have no doubt that many of them still have to do mental calculations to transform guineas into metric-system pounds, as some of us oldsters in India still convert kilometers into miles.

Sixty guineas was 63. In those days, at the pound valued at around Rs 14, it still worked out to Rs 1000. A lot of money for those times.

But money well-spent. That tweed jacket is still with me, 20 years later, as indeed are the other suits and jackets that M. Gafson made for me.

In the seventies and eighties, ready-to-wear came of age and in the nineties became the rage. Men have learnt to buy clothes by labels: Armani, Ralph Loren, Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci and dozens of others. Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bill Gates just live in casual clothes, and even Dodi Al Fayed had stocked up his cupboards in all his apartments with dozens and dozens of 'designer' suits.

To be sure, off-the -peg suits and jackets look a perfect fit on the models as we see them in advertisements. But then how can Tommy Hilfiger or Georgio Armani make jackets and trousers that are a perfect fit for men of all sizes and shapes?

And it is not as though these big-name brands come cheaper than their Savile Row counterparts. A jacket by Brioni costs a cool Rs 1.20 lakh. For that sort of money, even Prince Charles's 'By Appointment' tailor will make for you two jackets of the best materials going and which you will wear for 20 years. Even the buttons are especially selected just for your jacket or suit, as is the material for the lining.

Prince Charles, as he has taken to appearing more and more on TV, is a perfect example of the best British tailoring. I doubt if any readymade jacket will fit without a wrinkle against his shoulders which have steep curves. And you can always tell the two apart, if only because the buttons that they put on Savile Row suits are meant to button something up — they're not dummies. The designers, no matter from what country, are quite content to sew on dummy buttons on the sleeves of jackets. That, in Savile Row, is sacrilege. Even their sleeve buttons are meant to be shoved through proper button hole — , which, as they proudly tell you, are made by hand.

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