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Kathryn Sargent by EJ Mccabe

Cutting it: the female tailors shaking up Savile Row

The world of bespoke suit and shirt-making has traditionally been a man’s world, says Chloe Street. But change is afoot, and these brilliant women are tearing up the rulebook at the seams

Say the words ‘bespoke suit fitting’ and the image conjured will likely be one of two men: the male client, trying on his made-to-measure tailoring, and the other a male tailor, pins and tape measure in hand.

But times are a-changing, and not only are more and more women embracing the delights of bespoke suiting, but there are increasing numbers of talented women joining the industry, many of whom are specifically focused on catering for them.

“Women have been present in the back rooms of the tailoring profession as finishers and assistant tailors for centuries,” says Kathryn Sargent, who runs an eponymous tailoring house on Brook Street near Savile Row. It’s “tradition, class systems and protocol” she says that have kept them from the front of house.

Daisy Knatchbull, founder of female-only tailoring specialists The Deck, thinks part of the problem has been a lack of obvious routes and role models for women wanting to enter the industry, “as well as unfortunate prejudices, sometimes not always conscious.”

However, not only are the barriers to entry being dismantled by a few pioneering women leading the way, but the increasing appetite from female clients means there’s increasing appetite for female tailors, as many women would rather be measured and fitted by another woman. “I think bespoke tailoring has become more accessible, more open to people, the myths have been debunked and people feel like exploring, expressing and investing in themselves,” says Sargent.

Not only does a bespoke suit have obvious appeal in terms of fit, but as we all become more eco-conscious, they’re growing in popularity as a sustainable, timeless investment that can be passed down for generations. “We’re seeing consumer tastes move away from the ‘more is more’ 90’s lifestyle to more considered, thought-through purchases,” says Phoebe Gormley, of Gormley & Gamble tailors. And Knatchbull agrees that people are “consolidating their wardrobes and looking to invest in longevity, versatility and durability. We have seen a huge increase in sales post-lockdown as the more conscious consumer is choosing to purchase high quality investment pieces such as a suit from The Deck.”

Feeling tempted? These are the female tailoring maestros to know…

Daisy Knatchbull, of The Deck

The Deck

Launched: 2019

The story: Knatchbull worked on Savile Row in her twenties, where she was “lucky enough to experience the empowering nature of a tailored suit young - something many women have never had the chance to experience in their life,” she says. Then, in 2016, she became the first woman to wear top hat and tails at Royal Ascot. The positive reactions she received inspired her to set up her business, with a mission to bring the magic of bespoke tailoring to more women. She is the first women-only tailor to have a shop address actually on the street Savile Row.

The service: She caters for a purely female client base, from ages 18 to 80, which is fairly unique on Savile Row. “We wanted to give women the chance to be focused on exclusively within tailoring and challenge the conception that being fitted for a suit is an intimidating process by offering an empathetic women-for-women service; understanding their needs and emotional relationship with clothing,” she explains. “There are very few places making for women compared to men, and almost none for women only.”

The Deck offer four signature suit styles – the ‘suits of The Deck’ – which between them aim to offer something for every woman, regardless of shape or size. Each design is made to a client’s measurements as well as their cloth, lining and button preferences. They also offer waistcoats, skirts and dresses too with more categories in the pipeline.

“The process begins with us learning everything we can about the client - what she does, where she goes, what she likes - and together we ensure we are creating something that will last a lifetime in her wardrobe,” says Knatchbull. “Each suit tells a unique story, written by each of the women that wear one.”

Why she loves it: “For me the best part of my job is the moment a client tries on their finished suit, particularly a woman who has struggled their whole life to find trousers or a jacket that has ever fitted them because of their size, height or shape,” says Knatchbull. “I’ve had many women burst into tears, and women who cannot stop staring at themselves. It’s the most rewarding feeling. So I guess proud of making women feel more confident, strong and empowered in themselves. That’s what gets me out of bed each day!”

Kathryn Sargent, of Kathryn Sargent

Kathryn Sargent

Launched: 2012

The story: Sargent started at Gieves & Hawkes in the mid 90s and rose to the position of head cutter (the most senior role), becoming the first woman in the history of Savile Row to do so. “I always dreamed of my own atelier so that was the next logical move,” says Sargent, who became the first, and only, female Master Tailor in the Savile Row area when she opened her year-long seasonal store on Brook Street in 2016.

The service: Sargent, who’s been in the business 25 years, has trained in all aspects of tailoring and pattern cutting from the ground up in a traditional bespoke tailoring house, which gives her an unparalleled know-how. “I think my feminine qualities and being a very chatty person from Leeds has helped relax clients,” she says. “By getting to know them I can really make something that suits their lifestyle and body shape, making them them.”

Her clients are 50-50 male to female and number everyone from professionals to brides and grooms to be, NASA scientists, opera singers and famous athletes. She purposely doesn’t have a house style, but instead focuses on pieces that suit the client. “The beauty of bespoke tailoring is that it gives the wearer freedom to develop their own signature look that is completely unique to them,” she explains. “A beautifully tailored jacket frames your face in how the collar, shoulder line, shape of the lapel all relate to each other.  The cut should be in the correct proportions and flattering so the result appears effortless.”

Why she loves it: “I fell in love with Savile Row and Mayfair the first time I walked around, the sense of London history, it is the number one global destination for the craft of true bespoke tailoring,” she says. “Now it’s my world, I have many many friends throughout the area, it’s a little village, a community.” For Sargent, the best part is “to be able to create every day, meet amazing clients and, build the relationships I’ve built with clients, work with my amazing team.  I never know what the next commission will be!”

Phoebe Gormley, of Gormley & Gamble

Phoebe Gormley

Launched: 2014

The story: Phoebe Gormley started making clothes when she was 14, and ended up falling in love with cutting up her father’s old suits. She soon discovered Saville Row where she did several internships before heading to university. “With one hour of lectures per week I became bored enough to start writing a business plan,” she says, “and on seeing the viability of one women’s wear only tailors in a city with thousands of menswear tailors; I decided to take the gamble.” Gormley invested the money that was meant for her final year’s tuition fees (hence the gamble in the name) and opened G&G when she was 20, seven years ago.

“I stood out like a sore thumb as a woman and someone under 25,” she remembers. “The naivety of youth meant I didn’t know quite how much I would stick out until it was too late to turn back! So, I powered on.” Within a year she’d taken on a space just off Savile Row on Maddox Street, becoming the first women’s wear only tailors in the area in its 200-year history.

The service: Gormley caters to an entirely female client base and the majority of what they request can be split into three parts. The first is classic workwear: the second is occasion wear – “I adore making suit and separates for brides and guests,” says Gormley, “whether that’s a cream silk tuxedo to wear to the registry office or a perfect jacket to go over the already-found dress, there is so much passion and excitement in occasion wear, it’s always fun,” – and the final category is beautifully tailored pieces that aren’t suits.

“Womenswear is often confined within the measly scope of sizes XS, S, M, L, XL, whereas men’s has short, regular, long, classic fit, slim fit and extra slim, all of a size 36,” she says. “So we make lots of silk shirts, cashmere blazers, the perfect winter coat, for people who care about clothes that fit properly. I also love working with silk and mixtures of patterns, textures and materials, everything from Loro Piana wool/cashmeres to Liberty print silks, it’s all possible in womenswear,” says Gormley, who dresses everyone from princesses to schoolgirls, CEOs, brides and bright-eyed graduates.

Why she loves it: For Gormley, its all about empowering women. “When a woman says ‘nothing fits me’ she blames her body. When a man says ‘nothing fits me’ he thinks, ‘so I’ll have it made’. Your body isn’t wrong, it’s not too curvy, too straight, too long or too short, your shoulders aren’t too big, your boobs aren’t too big. Off-the-peg sizing is a joke, and you are a goddess,” she says. I adore giving women a place to resolve this total failure of off-the-peg sizing, partnering it with immaculate customer service, and hundreds of years old heritage craftsmanship and British manufacturing, and making heirloom pieces that last a lifetime, not just a season. It’s a total joy to do my job.”

Emma Willis MBE, of Emma Willis

Emma Willis

Launched: 1999

The story: Having worked for other menswear brands, Willis launched her own label in 1989, focusing on bespoke shirts made in England from the finest materials. Initially she sold her bespoke shirts in City offices before putting down roots on Jermyn Street in St James in 1999.

All her shirts are designed, cut, stitched and finished at Bearland House in the centre of Gloucester – “British bespoke shirt making is rare as is having one’s own manufacturing employing and training locally,” says Willis, who also established a charity Style for Soldiers in 2008, which provides smart clothing to injured service personnel.

The service: Willis, who employs an all-female team of cutters, makes beautiful bespoke shirts using the very best Swiss and Italian fabrics in quiet, elegant designs and colours. Her clients are mainly men, and span everyone from film producers to hedge fund managers, farmers and property dealers, but she has many female customers too and a ready-to -wear collection on Net a Porter.

Why she loves it: “Our shop is very social with our customers often meeting and befriending one another,” she says. “I get visitors from all over the world and post pandemic this has been even more enjoyable with the sense of relief to be able to see each other again and meet new people.”

For Willis though, the best part is the people she meets in her shop. “I never know who it may be next and all those amazing contacts have enabled me to do with my charity and other initiatives.”

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