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Thursday, March 3, 2011

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Following suit: Koichi Sugimoto's current training at Savile Row includes measuring clients, drafting patterns and cutting material for the Richard James tailors. COURTESY OF RICHARD JAMES

Not many Japanese get to work on a genuine sebiro

Special to The Japan Times

Though London's famous Savile Row faces a decline in bespoke suit demand, the inspiration of one of its more innovative tailors still manages to reach Japan.

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For more than 200 years, tailors on Savile Row, a small street in London's Mayfair district, have been dressing csars, kings, Hollywood stars and even the occasional Japanese emperor. Savile Row is an elite, expensive and discreet association of craftsman who create bespoke garments, using only the best fabrics, for wealthy clients who pay upwards of £3,000 ($4,860) for a simple suit.

In recent times, however, the very existence of the Row, as it is otherwise known, has been under threat. American chains such as Abercrombie & Fitch have moved into the street with the hope, albeit quite absurd, that it some of Savile Row's mystique and credibility would rub off on its commercial brand identity. If other fashion brands follow suit, rents would increase, and the tailors, who already live a perilous existence, could find themselves out of the street.

Savile Row also faces a lack of interest from the younger generation, mainly in terms of clients but also in staff. The average age of tailors on the Row is 55 with many much older. The few trainees who are studying there receive one-to-one instruction, with each tailor traditionally having its own trainee system. It's an intimate yet demanding atmosphere, with some apprentices taking five years to absorb just the elementary basics of the trade.

Following in the footsteps of designers such as the late, great Alexander McQueen, who trained with Anderson & Sheppard, is 25 year-old Tokyo native Koichi Sugimoto. He is serving a one year apprenticeship with Richard James, a relative newcomer to Savile Row. Located at No.29, Richard James opened in 1992 and caused a stir by bringing contemporary tailoring and modern silhouettes to what many consider as a stuffy and old-fashioned men's club. It also has a licensing deal in Japan with Itochu.

Sugimoto, who is nearing the end of his initial training, first saw a Richard James suit in an English magazine and fell in love with the dichotomous blend of heritage and modernity. After meeting representatives from the brand at a Tokyo trunk show at Shinjuku's Isetan department store, Sugimoto's charm and determination to fulfil his ambition of working in Savile Row paid off. The Richard James team offered him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train as a cutter — the person ultimately responsible for measuring customers, drafting the pattern, cutting the cloth and then giving it to the tailor.

Sugimoto is one of very few Japanese to train at Savile Row, which may seem a little surprising when you consider that one of the Japanese words for "suit" is actually "sebiro," derived from "Savile Row." And according to Sean Dixon, managing director of Richard James, his new Japanese recruit is a natural.

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Tailor made tutoring: Koichi Sugimoto (right) with Brian Pusey, one of his mentors at Richard James in Savile Row, London. COURTESY OF RICHARD JAMES

"He is an excellent student and has won over all the tailors he works with," he said in a recent interview. 'I think they are particularly impressed with how methodical and tidy he is. It is a very difficult environment to learn in, even for a native speaker, but he has adapted very quickly."

After training, Sugimoto's future looks bright. "Eventually we are hoping that when he moves back to Japan he will be our bespoke tailor there," said Dixon, referring to a possible full-time position for Sugimoto at the Richard James store in Roppongi's Midtown complex.

Sugimoto, who was required to study English intensively before training under bespoke experts Ben Clarke and Brian Pusey, explained that he found the aesthetic differences between each of the Savile Row tailors particularly impressive.

"There are many tailoring houses on Savile Row and all houses have their own style," he said. "Some customers prefer a modern aesthetic (like Richard James) and others prefer classical. Every customer expects the quality of Savile Row tailoring and the style of their favorite tailoring house. For bespoke, everything is for the customer and all houses do their best to make their customers happy."

He added that as a bespoke tailors, Richard James is unique in its appeal to a more diverse demographic. "Richard James has a mixture of traditional Savile Row tailoring and a modern visual. I believe that it is one of the most luxurious bespoke houses on Savile Row, but at the same time it is a fashion brand for modern gentlemen."

In an age of cheaply sourced, poorly made fast fashion versus overpriced high fashion, the legacy and history of Savile Row is worth preserving. The guaranteed quality and craftsmanship that has been passed down over centuries has changed little over that time and is the Row's ultimate selling point. Tailors such as Richard James, Oswald Boateng and Norton & Sons' Patrick Grant are keen to maintain traditional English tailoring while creating modern looks and a forward-thinking approach to business.

Sugimoto said he hoped his professional and personal journey of discovery will inspire others to following in his footsteps. "Savile Row is the most famous and historical place for men's fashion. And everyone who works in men's fashion wants to see it and be involved in it. Since I came here I've been realizing a lot of things about fashion every day (not only about bespoke). I think Savile Row is the best place for anyone in Japan who wants to be a tailor or a designer."

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