Q&A: Anderson & Sheppard owner Anda Rowland on men’s tailoring and Savile Row

Updated on January 10 2017

For the sartorially savvy, Anderson & Sheppard needs no introduction; for the uninitiated, it’s one one of the oldest and most respected men’s tailoring houses on London’s famous Savile Row. Its reputation stems from having been around since 1906, but also for its renowned “English Drape” cut: a soft-shouldered jacket featuring a high armhole and large sleeve, sewn in by hand, which allows for a greater range of movement without compromising a sleek fit.

Originally a Scandinavian house, Anderson & Sheppard was taken over by the late Roland “Tiny” Rowland in the 70s and has dressed some of the most distinguished men in recent history, from politicians to creatives to film stars with clients the likes of Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Duke Ellington, Tom Ford, as well as Prince Charles.

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Today, the house is managed by Anda Rowland, who took over in 2005 after her father passed away. During the house’s recent first visit to Hong Kong (and its first in Asia) for an exclusive trunk show at newly opened Attire House, Lifestyle Asia had a chance to speak with Rowland about the collaboration with Attire House, its prized English Drape, and the challenges facing a century-old tailoring house in trying to stay contemporary.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, why is the English Drape so special?
It’s a very comfortable jacket. It’s not as unstructured as the Italian tailors, but compared to the military tailors of Britain — Savile Row started with a military history, which is much more stiff and rigid — our cut is a much softer feel, and it’s very good for movement, which is why one of the most famous customers of the company was Fred Astaire. He wore the suits for films, white tie, black tie, and one of his white tie suits is at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He needed the shoulder to stay flat while he moved, which you only get with a soft shoulder and a very high armhole. There’s more cloth in the back to allow for movement, and you have to sew the big sleeve into the small armhole by hand — as the cloth has to gather but not be noticeable. For ready-to-wear, that’s very difficult to do. It relies on a certain amount of manipulation by hand to get those shapes to work together. Sewing in things by hand is expensive, but with us, it’s so much part of what we do that we can’t take a shortcut.

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Having grown up in this family business, did you always have an awareness and appreciation for men’s style?
My father had his suits from Anderson & Sheppard, and he always looked after his clothes very well. I remember he had a wonderful man (valet) who looked after him and his wardrobe, always repairing, constantly pressing, taking back alterations, and the same with his shoes — he used to go to Lobb in London. He had many many things, but they tended to be the same — lots of dark blue suits, lots of dark blue ties with a white motif, lots of off-white cream shirts.

Do you see the same care being taken with clothing in young men today?
You hear about the hipsters and so on who want craft beer and locally sourced food, and you also see the trend happening in clothing as well. Younger consumers today are very conscious of the impact that their purchases have on a responsible and sustainable level, and people would rather pay more to have something they can use in the long term, and something they can feel good about. For example, a dark blue three-piece suit, it’s one thing you invest in that you can wear that in so many ways. Particularly the fact that we put very big seams, you can have suits that come out and in through the years.

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What do you say is the biggest change for Anderson & Sheppard since you came on board in 2005?
In 2005 when I joined, we had no young people who wanted to come in. All of the businesses were struggling. Now, all of the big companies are training a lot; we get about four CVs a week from young people who want to say “I’m interested in this life, I don’t want to be in a call centre or at a bank behind a screen, I want to do something with my hands and with a community of other people.” It’s very human.

How do you make bespoke tailoring relevant to today’s generation?
History is extremely important, and our history couldn’t be more fantastic, but we have to temper that with something that’s immediately relevant. We have to find a way to appeal to the young group without using those typical fashion tools, like models. We don’t use models, as it’s not very Anderson & Sheppard and the customer is very much part of our DNA. Instagram and social media has been very helpful. There’s a lot we can improve on in the technological front, but social media helps you, quite cheaply, to have a presence. Even to an older customer — in Europe, they estimate that 60% of the growth in luxury goods will come from the over-60s in the next 10 years — the older customer also has a lot more choices. So across the board, you have to keep on being relevant: looking at shapes, looking at cloth, looking at communicating.

How do you feel about leading a business that’s over 100 years old? Is it still as daunting as when you first took on the job?
I think more daunting! When I first started, I wasn’t thinking too much because we had to move from one shop to a new premises, so we had an immediate action. I was less invested in the people because I didn’t know them so well. But now, after 12 years, I know everybody well, we’ve recruited a lot more younger people, and we need to make sure that those guys have a customer who’s going to grow with them. For instance say Alicia, she’s 15, we need to make she we have customers who are going to see her through until she’s 70. We have guys who are in their late sixties training guys who are 18. And it’s that mix of the old and new that makes things interesting. We need to make sure we’re always talking about what we’re doing now.

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Savile Row has such a distinguished history, is it quite hard to get into the business these days?
It used to be really easy to find an apprenticeship, 12 years ago when we didn’t have anybody — but now it’s a lot harder. If you want to find apprentices, if you’re a Savile Row firm, everybody has requests. There are schools now that offer paid courses, but for 10 weeks to learn how to tailor, compared to a five-year apprenticeship, it doesn’t really teach you anything. There are some smaller tailors setting up, so there is a bit of an expansion. But there’s only so many places you can offer.

We recently set up with Henry Poole’s a website called The Bespoke Apprentice, which gives profiles of about 24 young people, how they got there, how they got the job, what to expect, what are the difficult parts, to help people who apply to understand that it is quite tough but worthwhile, and also to let them know how to get into the industry. When you read through the 24 profiles, you can see one person worked for free every evening, the other one helped out in the front shop and gradually got into the back, and perseverance usually gets you a place — like any job.

This year, the first woman tailoring house, Kathryn Sargent, opened up on Savile Row, followed by women’s-only tailor Phoebe Gormley. What are your thoughts?
I’ve known Kathryn for a long time, and she has been a huge inspiration to many women in the industry. She’s really been through the process, she has the respect of all the best cutters in the business. What’s happened to Savile Row is that in the past 10 years, there’s been a lot of women tailors. About 40% of the makers now on Savile Row are women. So you don’t necessarily see them in the cutting room, or in the shop, but there are more and more women in the industry. It’s more representative of what’s going on in the rest of the world. You can’t keep talent down.

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How would you describe your own fashion style?
I am pretty classic. I think working in men’s fashion just makes you jealous that for less money, you can commission things that you can keep forever, that you can choose, and that make you look really good. Certainly compared to womenswear, it’s more versatile, less expensive and longer-wearing. You’re not necessarily — although some designers try — being dictated to be too much. The emphasis for most men is on looking as good as possible. 

Is there a difference between dressing royalty and celebrities and dressing regular customers?
I asked the tailors last night who was the most stylish customer at the moment, and they mentioned a customer who used to work for the Tube, the London underground, whose children have grown up. He saves money, he says he doesn’t travel, doesn’t buy watches or fine wines, but what he really likes is beautiful clothes. This is who they mentioned, they didn’t mention Prince Charles — and Prince Charles has an amazing sense of style. But they take the exact same amount of pleasure in dressing this man, who’s not a celebrity, but he really likes what he does and enjoys wearing it. We’re not fashion designers. As tailors, you have your own style, but a lot depends on the customer and how he likes to wear it, and adjusting the fit for him.

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What’s the worst faux pas in men’s fashion?
One thing I notice a lot is the movement in the shoulder pad, especially in films for instance you see the action hero, and he’s jumping, and you see a bulky shoulder pad with an indentation where the shoulder pad ends, and pulling across the front — and you’re like, “Oh my god.” I think there’s a perception (and women have this too) that tight is fit. Tight is not fit, the same way super loose is not fit. There are many men wearing very tight suits not realising that it’s not flattering.

What’s the one thing that makes a man instantly stylish?
The best-dressed men are not those who are dressing up. They dress nicely, and then they go and do something. You see a lot of stories about these peacocking men, but it looks like fancy dress — it’s too much. That is not our look. Our customer normally is busy, he’s doing interesting, diverse things, he puts on his clothes, as Hardy Amies said, and he gets on with it.

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You can now browse all things Anderson & Sheppard at Attire House’s two-storey showroom on 29-30/F, 8 Wyndham Street, Central, +852 2619 9007.