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Issue 57 - The Fabric of Society

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011

 

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The Fabric of Society

Jonny McCormick meets the tailor with a passion for Scotland

London’s Savile Row is home to the finest gentlemen’s tailoring in the world, a street where cloth can be ‘bespoken’ for the purposes of cutting a suit entirely to the specifications of the customer. Although there have been boom times and bust, Savile Row is enjoying a little 21st century renaissance. At number 16, you’ll find the Scottish owner of Norton & Sons and this year marks 190 years since the house was founded. Leading British designer Patrick Grant bought the business after answering a newspaper sale notice
in 2005 and set about breathing new life into
the brand.
“We have a very simple proposition for Norton and Sons, it is just bespoke; we make shirts, we make suits, we make jackets, trousers and overcoats and that’s what we do. We try and do it in the most uncompromising way that we can. What I wanted to do was just take it back to doing what it should have been doing all along. That is, making well-cut, well-constructed bespoke clothes in the best fabrics that we can find. That happens to be British fabrics for woollens, and Scottish fabrics for tweeds.” Those seeking sartorial elegance will find delight in such individually cut garments with a choice from some eight or nine thousand cloths. “We produce between two and three hundred suits each year, all made by hand in the shop.” A Norton and Sons suit has a classic silhouette and their loyal customers return year after year. Former Norton’s men include Alfred Hitchcock, David Niven, Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby and the company ledgers record the names of more colourful clientele including Egyptologist Lord Carnarvon and Baron Manfred von Richthofen (aka The Red Baron).
“We have a great team of tailors under our head cutter,” confides Grant. That man is Stephen Allen who has been on Savile Row for 25 years. He started at Wells of Mayfair, spending long periods at both Huntsman and Anderson and Sheppard. “He knows how to cut a soft suit and how to cut a structured suit. A good cutter needs to be many things; he needs to be a technician and he needs to understand tailoring intimately so that every garment that goes out the door is as well made as it can be. We favour the simple - no fuss, no frills; we don’t do fancy coloured buttonholes or funny linings. The point of a bespoke tailor is that we will cut it the way that you want it, so we are not prescriptive. Everyone will have a different view on how much shape they want in the waist, how full they want the sleeves, how wide they want the shoulders. Each suit is entirely personal. We will execute that entirely for you as nicely as we can and we will help make sure that that suit still looks properly proportioned but we’re not going to tell you how to wear your suit.”
Recently, Grant launched E. Tautz which complements the bespoke business, “E. Tautz was a full sporting outfitters which started in 1867. We resurrected Tautz as a ready-to-wear line, partly in response to the demand coming from customers who were unable to make it to London for the multiple fittings you need for bespoke. It’s a more casual line; sportswear in the American sense of the word.” With E. Tautz, Grant has had the opportunity to develop his own fabrics and use the small mills in the Scottish Borders and other British manufacturers that he has always championed. “We use William Lockie in Hawick for knitwear and some of our ties come from Anthony Haines in Selkirk. Minty and Aeneas MacKay make a beautiful product at Ardalanish Weaving Mill on Mull. You find Loro Piana doing the same kind of thing now with the undied natural tweed using the black or very dark brown fleece. We’re using really fantastic family-owned specialist manufacturers and bringing a unified taste to it, putting it together in a way that we hope the world finds interesting and it seems like they are.” Surrounded by his next collection, Grant remarks, “The colours that inspired the AW11 collection come from a trip to Mull that I took last autumn,” reminiscent of his childhood holidays on the island. “I grew up in Edinburgh but I love rural Scotland. They’re all the colours you see in the burnt seaweed, the lichen on the rocks and the colours that the Atlantic oaks turn at that time of year. There were colours inspired by the burgundy paint flaking off these two dilapidated old trawlers I noticed on the beach near Fishnish.”
His growing reputation was acknowledged recently with the Menswear Designer 2010 title. “If you look at the really good young talent in the British Fashion scene right now, a disproportionate number are Scottish. I’m thinking along the lines of Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Holly Fulton and Louise Gray. People underestimate how hard it is to be successful in fashion and I think the one thing that binds all these designers together is the phenomenal work ethic that runs through all of them. It takes application and hard work as well as skill and talent.
“I don’t think there has ever been a wave of Scottish designers like we have at the moment.”
Grant’s zeal for the provenance of his fabrics and his love of hand-crafted products is appreciated by his customers. He spoke up to defend the threats to rural jobs from big business in the Harris Tweed industry. “It’s a shame that someone forward-thinking back in the day didn’t trademark tweed and say that it all has to be made in Scotland because it really should have been. At Norton’s, we have four bunches with 30 Harris tweeds per bunch to choose from. We carry a small stock of tweeds from Donald John MacKay of Luskentyre Harris Tweed. We use Breanish Tweed, another hand weaver in the top of Lewis in Ness, and John MacLean at Garynahine which are both one man weaving operations. They’re all fantastic guys to work with and they are amazingly, I mean, appropriately passionate about what they do.”
“Harris tweed is the most iconic textile brand in the world” continues Grant, keen to see the famous Orb Mark cloth thrive in a challenging marketplace. “They need to treat it like any other good textile brand by designing collections every season, engaging with the big brands and making clothes to their designs, selling and promoting it globally.” Grant describes a film made about Marion ‘Morag’ Campbell, an icon of the Harris Tweed industry who produced every aspect of her tweeds by hand from raising the sheep to spinning and dyeing the wool. She even used a hand-thrown shuttle, a rare traditional weaving technique these days. “That is what real luxury is about, not about excessive fineness and ridiculous price tags because you’ve got somebody who has crafted every ounce of that cloth by hand. People want things that are special in the right kind of way. What I find really offensive is when you take something and stick a load of diamonds on it. That’s not special in the slightest and I couldn’t be less interested in that if I tried. Its amazing products like Morag Campbell’s tweed that gets to the essence of luxury.”