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Jan 8, 2014
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Female tailor cuts a dash on Savile Row

Jan 8, 2014

LONDON, England - In a basement workshop on Savile Row, it is hard to miss Emily Squires among the dozen middle-aged male tailors bent over closely packed benches, sewing and pressing bespoke suits and coats for the international elite.

Emily Squires | Source: Henry Poole & Co.

Wearing a fashionable grey jumpsuit and Dr Marten boots, the 29-year-old coat maker at Henry Poole and Co is the poster girl of a new generation breathing fresh energy into the traditional craft.

Two of her coats were displayed at men's fashion week in London this week as part of a showcase of garments from Savile Row, the London street which has long been a by-word for menswear but now faces an uncertain future.

Last year Squires won the Golden Shears, the Oscars of Britain's tailoring world, for a blue-velvet frock coat and checked jodhpurs.

She is still basking in the success, although most of her commissions are far more conservative - orders for a £2,000 (2,400 euros, $3,300) suit jacket and a smoking jacket are among those piled up on a shelf above her bench.

"Every job you get is different. You never know what you're going to get when you get the parcel out," she tells AFP.

Squires pulls down a bundle of pieces of cloth cut to the customer's exact specifications in the shop upstairs, and a ticket describing what he wants.

"It's a two-button, he's having an out-breast pocket, flaps on his pockets, side slips and not vents," she reads.

"This is quite a light cloth, a 10oz or 11oz. It's a navy hopsack flannel - this will come up really nicely with all the pressing and steaming, you can get a really nice shape."

Squires is one of a handful of new recruits working at Henry Poole, which was established in 1806, and among a growing number of women training on Savile Row.

Of the estimated 30 coatmaking diplomas handed out by the trade association Savile Row Bespoke over the last four years, at least 20 have gone to women.

It's an encouraging sign of an industry renewing itself - even if at Henry Poole, some of the veterans are working on equipment that looks at least as old as they are.

But the contrast between the trade and the crazy creativity of fashion week is stark.

The fourth edition of London Collections: Men attracted big names such as Burberry and Tom Ford and international buyers and press from 37 countries.

The collections were typically eclectic, ranging from sharp suits to polo necks and t-shirts, brightly coloured sportswear and even men's platform heels.

Organisers claim the event builds on London's "unrivalled" men's fashion heritage.

But while the mass menswear market is booming in Britain - market analysts Mintel suggest growth of 12 percent in the past five years - the future of the top end is less clear.

"The higher end of the market has been sustained by foreign demand, particularly from China and the Far East," said Richard Perks, director of retail research at Mintel.

"It's a huge export earner, it's great for marketing Britain. But it is a very rarified market."

Asian investors move in

There was a time when a customer would need a recommendation even to get in the door of a Savile Row tailor, but many firms have branched out into ready-to-wear and have collaborated with high-street brands.

Gieves & Hawkes and Hardy Amies both showed ready to wear collections this week, although Henry Poole continues to only make bespoke garments.

"We're still quite a traditional tailor and that's what people want from us," Squires says.

The process of making a garment from scratch, which can take up to three months, is "a special thing - it's an experience. I think they still want that", she says.

She adds optimistically: "The fashion thing - we just have to sit alongside it. There's space for both."

Paul Frearson, a tailor with 50 years of experience who trained Squires, worries about the future, however, particularly as Savile Row tailors battle rising rents.

"I've always been really optimistic, but I'm beginning to wonder whether or not we can sustain what we're doing," he said.

Frearson noted the recent takeovers of Gieves & Hawkes, Hardy Amies and Kilgour by Hong Kong private investment company Fung Capital.

"These traditional companies are now under the same umbrella - but we want individuality," he told AFP.

He hopes the future lies in people like Squires and another ex-apprentice, Rory Duffy, who has now set up on his own in New York.

"What we want is people like Emily to start up business, to continue the bespoke," he said.

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