insight - Ray Stowers
Written by Kate McAuley
Occupation - Bespoke Tailor
Although it goes against the grain of popular thought, not all Savile Row tailors are cut from the same cloth. Take a walk along London’s most famous sartorial street and you’ll find old-school ateliers nestled next to their more mainstream counterparts, including Gieves & Hawkes, and Continental imports, such as French design house Lanvin.
‘The Row’ (as it is affectionately called among those in the know) offers a multitude of different options, from off-the-rack suits to fully bespoke ensembles made to fit all your personal nooks and crannies. Of the latter, Ray Stowers is perhaps the most flamboyant and creative.
As a tailor with more than 30 years’ experience on Savile Row, Stowers opened his eponymous Stowers Bespoke emporium in 2007 because he saw a gap in the market. “What we do is simple,” he says. “We meet with our clients, we design clothes, and we make them.” While on paper that sounds fairly standard, it’s the execution of this mantra that sets him apart.
According to Stowers, most of the bespoke tailors on The Row have a certain method of working that they stick to at all costs. “They say ‘this is the way we do it, this is the fabric we use, this is how much it’s going to cost, and this is how long it’s going to take’,” he says. This is all very well if you’re a fan of what the tailor is producing; but not so great if you’re looking for something a little more personal, off-kilter, or daring. And it’s providing a service such as this where Stowers has found his niche.
“You need to look at individual style and personality. I’ve got to get to know my clients, to understand what they want and need,” he says, holding up a strip of crocodile skin that’s been dyed a bright shade of green. “We’re using this on the collar and the pockets of a jacket for one of our best clients,” he goes on to explain. The cut of the garment itself is fairly conventional, but it’s brought to life with these small, yet bold details.
It’s projects like this that get Stowers’ creative juices flowing – and it was the idea of making something unique from scratch that got him interested in tailoring in the first place. “Initially, I went to college and studied technical drawing and thought I wanted to be an architect. I’m not good at being told what to do and I didn’t want to study forever. So, I decided to go out and get a job instead. I wanted to do something technical, but because I’m a thinker and a doer – I’m always making things – tailoring seemed quite interesting. I like people. I like working with people.”
And it’s this ability to think outside the box and form fruitful, lasting relationships that has set Stowers apart from his contemporaries. According to the 1950s yearbook for the clothing industry (as penned by the British committee of the international Federation of Master Tailors) the word ‘bespoke’ means ‘the marking of outerwear garments cut individually on his own premises to the special requirements and measurements of the wearer’. And, it’s this definition that lies at the very heart of Stowers’ take on the tailoring business.
“What’s the point in me saying to you that I can make you something thoroughly bespoke and unique, but then you go out to Hermès or somewhere else to buy the rest of your clothes?” he asks rhetorically. “It doesn’t make sense.” Stowers endeavours to make his clients a full set of clothes whenever possible. And we’re talking the whole kit and kaboodle – suits, shirts, skirts, trousers, swimming trunks. The lot.
“It’s only a case of me going to market and finding the right fabric. Everything else gets cut the same. It’s the same to me with ladies. We’re trying to make proper, individual ladies’ pieces rather than tailoring a man’s pattern into something a woman could wear. It’s all about using a bit of imagination. We fit and mould our suits to the body, and we make sure that all our suits can be remodelled or updated.”
It can be a tricky business, however, when you’re doing your best to channel a person’s personality into what they’re going to wear, but Stowers has a simple method for making sure he gives his clients what they want – building a strong personal relationship. “It’s important that I understand them,” he says. “I find out what they like, perhaps starting off with something simple such as the kind of shape they like best. The more they trust me, the more we can tell them what works and what doesn’t, coupled with what they like. It’s a case of us advising them and not making something that makes them look silly or fat or wrong in some way. Once you know the boundaries of what they like they won't get their clothes anywhere else.”
Trust seems to be the operative word when you’re dealing with a service and a product that is neither cheap nor generic, and Stowers understands this right down to the very fabric (pun intended) of his business. “For some clients, it’s easy to sell them really expensive fabrics, because they can afford to buy them. But I want them to have something that’s going to last or not wrinkle. I want it to look good. Just because someone can spend £20k on a suit, it’s going to really annoy them if they wear it once and it looks bad because it’s not practical.”
That said, Stowers is currently working on quite the showstopper – a female customer has asked that he make her a suit from material sourced from Scabal (a company legendary for its luxurious fabrics) that features a 22-carat gold pin stripe. “Why would you do that?” we ask. “Because the client wants it and we can do it,” Stowers replies.
It seems nothing is impossible, sartorially speaking, when it comes to Stowers Bespoke. “I want my clothes and accessories to be practical and functional. Each element is thought out. Not only is it going to work for you, It’s going to mean a totally one-off piece.”
Some helpful hints for finding the perfect Savile Row suit. Talk to several different tailors and build a rapport. Some tailors have a ‘house style’ that might be perfect, while others allow you to be involved with the creative process. Make sure your tailor employs knowledgeable staff who will advise you on the cloth, cut, style, and design.
Get the right cloth – think about quality as well as practicality. Also ask where it’s sourced from. The UK mills still produce the best fabric. Your measurements must be taken by a qualified cutter. They will also be able to guide your choice of cut and style requirements. The cutter who takes your measurements should be the one to cut your pattern.
Once the suit is cut, you should be called in for a number of fittings. This should happen at least three times – the ‘plain baist’, the ‘forward’, and the finished garment. Your suit should take a minimum of 50 hours to construct, and should include a ‘floating hand canvassed chest’ and ‘front construction’, hand-sewn linings, edges, and buttonholes. Buttons should be horn, not plastic, and the trimmings and linings should be of the highest quality. Your tailor should keep a complete set of records of all your measurements, purchases, cloth, and individual details for life. The overall service you receive should be top-notch. You should feel involved with the process and in safe hands as the suit is constructed.
Ultimately, what sets a genuine Savile Row bespoke suit apart is the price – a suit of this calibre made from an average-priced cloth should cost at least £3,000 (US$4,700).
Savile Row, located in London’s upmarket Mayfair district, has been famous for quality men’s tailoring since the late 1800s. During this time, London’s gentry became increasingly interested in men’s fashion. The most famous was the trendsetter Beau Brummell: a gentleman who was rarely seen out of tailored suits garnished with an elaborately knotted cravat. Brummell was so influential in the world of fashion that a statue was erected in his honour on nearby Jermyn Street – also known for its fine tailoring – in 2002.
Although the popularity of bespoke clothing waned during the 20th century, the fact that mass-produced luxury goods are becoming more mainstream has prompted a new interest in unique, high-end attire, and celebrities and high-income earners are flocking back to The Row for this service.
Since its inception, Savile Row has had a marked impact on popular culture – it’s been mentioned in numerous songs, including the musical Annie, and films, such as the British cult classic Withnail & I. Perhaps its earliest mention, however, is in novelist Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Phileas Fogg, Verne’s lead character, lived at 7 Savile Row. Today, this building houses Kilgour, another well-known tailor.