It’s the day of the Brexit referendum. Dark clouds hang low over London. Stockmarkets are plunging. The pound is in freefall. My own brow is furrowed, however, because I’m going to Huntsman – probably the priciest and some would say the classiest tailor on Savile Row – and there’s a button that’s missing on my jacket.
As I walk in through the doors of number 11, picking up the sound of a 1920s jazz ditty tootling through the walls, I detect a certain odour. It’s the smell of Bertie Wooster. Rex Harrison. Winston Churchill and David Niven. Character, refinement, class and above all, tradition. My own jacket wilts under the weight of this prestige. The missing button stares out like an offending jailbird.
Popping out of his office to meet me is Philippe Brenninkmeijer, a 30-something Dutchman and the current chief executive of Huntsman. I’m taken to a space at the back which has tweed-lined walls and drink-lined cabinets and resembles a sort of gentleman’s den.
Hanging on a wall are David Bowie’s suit patterns. Further along I see a rail of Gregory Peck’s jackets – he commissioned a total of 160 suits from them. To top it all off, the table I’m sitting at reverses to a pool table complete with Huntsman-check baize. Indeed, this area has been designed specifically for customers to rest easefully and decide on their suits in tranquil privacy. It’s charmingly old school and soothing enough to settle any nerves.
Get the huntsman look
Huntsman was founded in 1849 as a breeches maker. The store prides itself on its individual house style, built up over many years. The Huntsman suit jacket has a longer skirt, slightly pinched at the waist, and more dominant shoulder with a single button to fasten, giving it an hourglass effect – an optical illusion designed to shed a few pounds off the wearer.
This has proven a draw for many of the great and good. The likes of Laurence Olivier, Ronald Reagan, Lucian Freud, and, er, Elizabeth Taylor, as well as the aforementioned Peck and Bowie all number as clients of this prestigious tailor.
Yet amid all the tradition, the 167-year old company with the most expensive suits on ‘The Row’ has taken recent steps into the modern era. The man behind the revamping of the store is Belgian-born hedge fund manager Pierre Lagrange, one of the initials in the $33bn GLG hedge fund, who bought the place in 2013 along with his then partner, Roubi L’Roubi.
Though he is not involved in the day-to-day operations, Lagrange has been steering Huntsman’s high-level business. In 2015, he appointed head cutter Campbell Carey as creative director and the pair helped to reintroduce a Huntsman ready-to-wear collection. The company also introduced online buying under his stewardship as well as expanding its position overseas, carrying out its first trunk shows in Asia a year ago and opening a US store in March.
“It’s not true that change hasn’t occurred,” says Brenninkmeijer. “Huntsman opened a store in New York recently – the first Savile Row tailor to do so. We have a pied-à-terre there. For our US customers, it is a home away from home.”
But Lagrange has not always been viewed fondly by the Savile Row set. Eyebrows were raised on his arrival, an outsider and finance man getting into the most traditional of British traditions. L’Roubi’s experimental tinkering was disliked, too – Huntsman and chinchilla do not go, they said. Indeed the general manager and head cutter left soon after.
But three years down the line things have settled down. L’Roubi has left. The staff appear happy and sartorial perfection remains uncompromised. Speaking of sartorial perfection, I suddenly notice Brenninkmeijer looking at me strangely. His gaze is fixed on my jacket. It’s the missing button which I’ve been trying to hide. Not batting an eyelid he asks if I’d like it replaced. I nod and hand over my jacket and it’s passed to one of the guys behind the cutting table who is asked to replace all of the buttons. “It’s all part of the service,” says Brenninkmeijer kindly.
For the future, there are discussions of opening the place to wholesale. Products will be sold through other luxury retailers, but quality control will be maintained.
“We want to be very careful to ensure we can deliver the same quality that is embodied in house,” says Brenninkmeijer. “We’re not boxed in with our thoughts. It is a logical step for Huntsman to take.”
A family affair
I’m curious to see behind the scenes, so Brenninkmeijer takes me on a tour of the cutting room downstairs where I get to witness the experts doing what they do best. It’s a professional workshop but also looks quite intimate – like a big family.
It is also very busy. Generally, it takes more than 80 man hours to produce a bespoke suit. I touch some of the fabrics, one of which feels like butter in my hands. This is the Infinity 3 luxury cloth, probably the best wool in the world, from New Zealand Saxo Merino farming and Dormeuil’s woollen mill in Huddersfield. The company only has 17 suit lengths of the fabric which is described on the website as the ‘Petrus’ of fabrics. But it’s not even Huntsman’s finest – that was the Opus cloth from Australia. A suit cut from that would set you back £20,000.
Brenninkmeijer takes me back to the shop upstairs and offers me a ready-to-wear jacket to try. I feel like Rudolph Valentino – who was also a Huntsman client – as I stand in the changing room looking at myself. I ask Philippe the price and he tells me it’s £2,000. He enquires if I might like to buy it. I choke as I hand it back to him.
It’s not all serious, however. He shows me some of the “fun” stuff they have done, including a two-piece dinner suit for a dachshund. “Bespoke is a serious trade but we also have fun,” says Brenninkmeijer.
And my own jacket’s now been repaired. The buttons, I learn, are two-eyed, made from horn, a Huntsman speciality. My old ones were plastic. I like the new ones better. As a parting note I ask Brenninkmeijer if Brexit might shift things for the store.
“We are 167,” he answers. “We’ve lived through two world wars and one cold war.”
Roll on the next 167 years. And hopefully I’ll be back one day – suitably attired.
For more information, visit huntsmansavilerow.com