Starting out at age 17 as an apprentice at Huntsman, one of the oldest and arguably the most distinguished of Savile Row tailors, Richard Anderson spent 19 years hand-cutting exquisite suits for some of the world’s most prestigious clients — from Stewart Granger to Katharine Hepburn — before opening up his own eponymous establishment in 2001 with co-director and fellow Huntsman alumnus Brian Lishak.

Combining 100 years of Savile Row tradition with innovative creativity, the duo quickly earned a reputation worldwide, dressing men from every nationality, rank and personality imaginable. Today, Richard Anderson is celebrated as one of The Row’s most highly regarded tailors.

We caught up with him recently in Hong Kong to discuss his insights and experience in traditional British tailoring, the difference between made-to-measure and bespoke, the best fabric for the Hong Kong climate and more.

Everyone has heard of Savile Row, but perhaps not everyone knows how it became so prestigious for tailoring. Can you explain the history?

I think originally the doctors were at Savile Row. The doctors are now housed on Harley Street in London, but originally they moved into Savile Row. A lot of the houses there were sort of residential, really, and the doctors would have their surgeries at the front of the house. Anyway, the doctors then moved onto Harley Street, and the tailors moved in.

I think the first tailoring house, or the purported one, was Henry Poole. He moved in 1846 and, because they moved in, the whole cluster of tailors sort of gathered around them. It was all centred around what we call “The Golden (Tailoring) Mile”, which is from Conduit Street to Sackville Street, and that was really from that period up until now. Obviously there are not as many tailors now as there were 150 years ago, but it just grew from there.

The area there was very good as well: You have these great shops, and the basements and the surrounding rooms of these houses were very good for workshops. It really fitted that built, so they can have a showroom and a workshop all condensed in a very small space. So that’s really how it’s evolved. We bought a company called Strickland & Sons that was formed in 1780, and moved it from its shop in Savile Row to our shop in Savile Row; so all around that time, the tailors moved in following the doctors.

So that's where all the best tailors are? Is it also because those who live in the neighbourhood all come from high society, and they can afford the best?

Yes, absolutely. I mean, there are tailors of course dotted around the country, but that’s where the best tailors work from. It’s in Mayfair, which is where a lot of the rich people live and the visitors will stay in the best hotels and restaurants all within that area. A lot of our customers plan their visits to London really around us to have fittings for their clothes.

If we’re going back to those times as well, clothes weren’t really mass-produced then. It’s a completely different thing to the ready-to-wear market. It just wasn’t around, so the tailors at Savile Row and the other streets I’ve mentioned in the Golden Mile were full of tailors. There were hundred of tailors working there, from the very exclusive tailors like Henry Poole and Huntsman, to the smaller, independent tailors.

Is that still true today?

True tailors now, I would say there are probably 8 or 10 left. There are a lot of people in Savile Row now who make custom suits, but not really hand-made suits, so there’s a bit of a difference now, actually. There are certainly not as many real tailors now as there were when I started in 1982.

Richard Anderson
Richard Anderson at 13 Savile Row
I understand that traditional British suiting has its origins in military attire. How has it evolved and influenced the way men dress over the decades?

Some of them, yes. The lounge suit was actually developed from the frock coat, which was worn in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was a long coat, normally in black, that you would wear and it would come down just above the knee. The frock coat was a very formal coat, and the lounge coat was developed from that in the 1910s. That’s really how it developed, and I just think it is still relevant today as it was then. I mean, men can put a blue suit on, with shirt and tie, and you don’t have to think too much about it. You can have all your pockets in there; you can carry your wallet, you can carry your iPhone, it’s extremely good for business. Honestly, I think those rules still apply a hundred years on.

More and more luxury brands are offering made-to-measure pop-up services, but many people seem to confuse it with bespoke suits. Can you explain the difference?

Bespoke means the cloth is bespoken and for you. You’ve chosen the cloth, you’ve looked at the cloth, and its bespoken for you, so that’s the first thing. For a true bespoke, I would take a series of 19 to 22 measures and the customer will have an individual pattern cut for him. It is predominantly handwork that goes into the suit. The only sort of times we use a sewing machine would be on the straight seams, which are the pockets and the centre bag. It’s difficult to equate to man hours but that’s between sort of 80 to 90 man hours that go into making a suit. If you’re having a bespoke suit, it depends on the gentleman’s schedule, but it would take about eight to ten weeks to make it, and that’s with him having three to four fittings, so it’s a very labour-intensive process.

Now, on the made-to-measure side, what that is is really ready-to-wear. It will be machine-made, and they will put a ready-to-wear model on you, and they would do alterations. They will make the sleeves a bit longer, or take in the sides — very basic alterations — and then the factory would incorporate those alterations into a one-off piece. So it’s really a machine-made garment, based on a ready-to-wear shape. It’s not purely for you.

So when brands say they send it to Italy, it's more like they're sending it to an Italian factory where people use machines to make your made-to-measure suit?

Yes, that’s it, but they will incorporate some new alterations in there as well, and from a customer’s point of view, he has the advantage. He can choose from many fabrics that bespoke companies would do, so he has the flexibility in the fabric. He could choose a different lining, and he could choose his pocket detail, that sort of thing. It gives him some individuality on that, but the main difference is the handwork that goes into the bespoke — it’s individually made for you.

And of course, handwork always lasts longer than machine work.

Exactly. We regularly have suits that come back to us that I’ve made 25 to 30 years ago, and they still look fabulous. Obviously there is a cost implication in bespoke, but it equals a good value because of the longevity of the suits. They keep their shape and maintain their look for decades if one looks after them, and you won’t get that with ready-to-wear or a custom.

What about the shape of the suit? For bespoke, since you make them from scratch based on your body structure, you can probably create a design that flatters the body.

Yes, that’s what we’re here for. The part of my job as being a cutter is to improve the body. Make anyone look a little bit taller and slimmer than they are, disguise any sort of issues they have — not deficiencies but, you know — so you take all that into consideration. So, when you take your series of measures, the measures don’t tell you everything. They won’t tell you how you stand, you have to adjust to that. Many people come to us for bespoke, because the ready-to-wear suits often don’t look good on them. They haven’t got the figure for the ready-to-wear so, people like me, we are there to improve them.

Richard Anderson
“For a true bespoke, I would take a series of 19 to 22 measures and the customer will have an individual pattern cut for him.”
Do you think the boom in men's ready-to-wear has threatened the existence of bespoke suits?

I think it’s a two-way thing. I think the ready-to-wear are really good these days and they’ve been improving over the decades, so what we’ve got to do is be better than them, and at every level. The way we achieve that is by making sure that the quality of the cut looks great, the making as well, and the service that we give our client is the absolute best. But again, if we go back to the longevity of our product, the hours and the way we make our clothes, no one can dispel that. The bespoke suits will maintain their look and functions for decades.

You are known for bridging the traditions of Savile Row with modern twists. What are your tips in making bespoke tailoring relevant to today’s generation?

I think you do it in a certain way. Obviously, your styling has to be of the moment, and you have to use more contemporary fabrics. There’s a denim suit jacket there, for example, and I know in my old life and at my old company — which is a very traditional company — they would never have done anything like that.

We are actually very lucky in the respect that our demographic of customers is not just registered to the aristocracy or the CEO businessmen in their 60s. We have customers from their 20s all the way through. We’ve got people who are poker players, and we’ve got footballers and movie stars; but again, we’ve got businessmen as well. So I think our relevance is partly due to the looks of our suits — I don’t think they look old or frumpy or anything like that — and with our use of modern fabrics, this puts us slightly ahead of some of the other guys.

We’ve also got a young team of tailors, all in their 20s, so I think we’re seen — probably over the last 10 to 15 years — as a very progressive industry, and also something with a little bit of glamour for the young people to come into. As you can see, it’s not just blues and greys and pinstripes and all that sort of thing. The social media that we run as well is very good for the younger generation, and I think we get some good press as well. All those aspects of not being seen as the traditional sort of old-fashioned tailor with little half-rim glasses sitting on the board, sewing away, makes us much more relevant.

Richard Anderson
“Our relevance [to today’s generation] is partly due to the looks of our suits and our use of modern fabrics.”
Savile Row is, of course, the very best in the tailoring business, but I'm still pleasantly surprised to hear you have a team of young people who wish to be a part of this industry.

Yes, it’s absolutely incredible. I probably go over 10 to 20 applications a week for work experience or apprenticeships. So at the moment, in the shop, we’ve got four people who are in their 20s: two on the making side, and two girls who have done their apprenticeship. They are 28 years old and are producing fabulous work. Krishan on the sales side is only 25 years old, and then my assistant, who’s 21, has been with me for three years. I think I can also speak for the other tailoring houses as well: They’ve all got a very strong apprenticeship programme.

The tailoring industry used to be a very male-dominated world, though, and this seems to have changed.

It was, yes, very much so. We’ve got, as I said, two girls on the coat-making side, and that wouldn’t have happened when I started in 1982. The reason was, they used to say, that they were too weak to pick up the irons. The irons were very heavy, they were 30 pounds or something, so they used to keep the women just making the button holes. They were very skilled and would do the fine work. It’s been a big change now. I also know some of the other houses such as Henry Poole and Huntsman have all got girl apprentices doing very well.

What's your house style? How do we recognise a Richard Anderson suit?

It’s really based on the riding coat style, so we favour the one button suit; if you have a second button hole, one never does it up. I like to keep the line from the lapel all the way down as open, crisp and uncluttered as we can. We keep the armholes really quite high, and that’s for two reasons going back to the riding coat, which is ease of movement for when you need to hold the saddle with your arms forward, and also it gives you a nice long line through the side seam, which should make anyone look taller and slimmer than they are. I’ll keep the pockets a little bit higher, and the vent a little bit higher as well; the waist run, again, it comes a little bit higher. So it’s all to get that shape up, and it’s a very classical way of cutting.

For the shoulders, we don’t have any rope to the sleeve heads so it’s a natural shoulder, but it has got pads in there. We keep the chest quite fitted as well, and so there’s not lots of cloth here. The whole look is designed to make anyone look, as I say, a little taller and slimmer and better than they are. Within this framework of cutting, of course, you can do anything you want.

A basted (first) fitting is considered one of the most important parts of the bespoke suit-making process. Can you tell us what happens during that appointment?

For the first fitting, I’d have cut them a paper pattern — every customer will have their own individual paper pattern — and this (the baste, temporarily stitched together using the gentleman’s chosen fabric) is a very true, accurate representation of that paper pattern. I’ll put this on the customer, we’ll have a look at it, obviously there will be changes made, and I’ll cut a new pattern based on decisions made. Then the existing baste will get completely ripped out, and we will start all over again based on the new paper pattern. It’s a lengthy process and a baste will take one tailor about five hours to put it all together, and then we tear it apart again, but once I’m happy with the new pattern, we can go ahead and take it forward to the next stage and get the suit made.

“A baste will take one tailor about five hours to put it all together, and then we tear it apart again.”
You travel every year to personally take international orders. How often do you come to Hong Kong?

This is our first time in Hong Kong. We travel to the States three times a year, in January, May and September. We also visit Tokyo twice a year, but we’ve got a cluster of American customers who live here, and they’ve been saying to me for the last two or three years, “You must come out to Hong Kong!” So we’ve done it and we’re going to see them, and they’ve promised to introduce some customers to us. So yes, we’re going to give it a go and see what happens. Some of my buddies from Savile Row do it and they’ve been successful, so I thought we’d put it in our trunk show schedule.

Hong Kong is a fast-paced metropolis with a very different climate than England. What kind of suit would you recommend for our local gents to wear?

Yes, you have to be alive to the climate. I would really recommend the fresco fabric, it is lightweight (280g) and performs extremely well. You can scrunch it up, and it just pings back. It’s important anyway, but in a climate like this, it’s absolutely paramount. It’s all wool and, as I say, a combination of being very light and very hard wearing. A gentleman can wear this all day long, and its performance level is going to be fabulous.

How many different fabrics do you have and where are they sourced?

We have over 3,000 patterns back at the house, and they all come from different cloth houses in England that specialise in different fabrics. We have some Italian fabrics as well, from Loro Piana and we sell a lot of those to the American market.

How much does it cost for an entry level bespoke suit?

We have a 20% VAT, so that would be £5,500 (approx. HK$57,000), which is inclusive of the tax.

You said it takes eight to ten weeks and three to four fittings to produce a bespoke suit, but how does it work if it’s an international order?

By us travelling here, we help speed up the process so they don’t have to come to London. Also, when we travel to America, we take out big trunks. In New York, I probably fit 25 to 30 people in two and a half days. We then go back to London, and we’d get it ready for the first fitting. We’d be ready in about two to three weeks, but we’re very flexible to work into their schedule. If they’re coming over, great; if they’re not coming over, they will have to wait until our next schedule, which will be in spring. Most of our customers do come to London; it’s a bit of give and take, actually. I’d say 90% travel through.

Will you start coming to Hong Kong more often for your trunk shows? Any plans for your next trip here?

Yes, I’ll come back twice a year I think. This time of the year worked really well for us, and also maybe April, before it gets too hot.

Cindie Chan
Style Editor
Fashion blogger turned editor, Cindie has spent over seven years covering all things stylish in the digital world. When she’s not busy poring over the latest covetable releases or attending the most talked-about fashion events in town, you’ll find her enjoying some precious downtime with her newborn son and sweet dog Rosy.