Ever since the end of World War II, Savile Row’s future has been under threat. As with many antediluvian institutions, the specter of modernization and changing tastes has loomed large—but the street has been proudly slow to embrace innovation, be it in style or business. Yet while the Row has always endured, the feeling these days is something different. More than half of the shops are empty, padlocked chains across doors prohibiting any ceremonial curtain call for deep-rooted houses, with little to no prospect of replacements.

In previous struggles, financial intervention or a new generation gave the Row a new lease on life. In 1969, when it seemed the traditional suit was dead, Tommy Nutter opened Nutters of Savile Row. Funded by singer Cilla Black and Beatles manager Peter Brown, it brought freshness—as well as the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Elton John, and others—into the traditions of the street. Then, in the 90s, a generation of “Cool Britannia” tailors arrived, men like Richard James and Timothy Everest, who were all about modern cuts and non-stuffiness.

Changing Tastes

In the last few years, however, it’s been international financiers altering the street. In 2013, the GLG Partners co-founder Pierre Lagrange bought Huntsman. It was a move that led to high-profile departures from the Row’s most expensive tailor, but Huntsman emerged as a more innovative house, one that could balance “disruption with respect,” as Lagrange told the Financial Times.

English tailor Tommy Nutter, 1979.

Newcomers such as Lagrange and shoemaker Gaziano & Girling, along with the second-generation owner of Anderson & Sheppard, Anda Rowland, have kept the pulse of Savile Row thumping along, thanks to their desire to innovate while keeping things recognizable. “The big moments of Savile Row are when something odd has happened,” Rowland says.

So what could be more odd than these days, when the collapse of international travel, and the inability to leave one’s house, means no men are coming to Savile Row to get fitted for a made-to-measure garment? And even if they could, where would they wear it?

Some houses have embraced the moment. At Huntsman, the head cutter, Dario Carnera (son of the Cleverley last-maker John Carnera), has started to work with “Mr. Hammick,” a robot, which means he can do fittings with customers wherever they are in the world.

More than half of the shops are empty, padlocked chains across doors prohibiting any ceremonial curtain call for deep-rooted houses.

Banish any thought of A.I. scanning and rendering your figure like Tony Stark. Mr. Hammick is a selfie stick on wheels that allows Dario to watch out for not only the measurements of the client—which a living, breathing assistant will have to do in person—but also details such as dropped shoulders, swaybacks, and, alas for many of us, any increase in weight since our last fitting. He will then take into account when marking out the cloth for cutting.

Savile Row, in London, on November 5, 2020, the first day of the new coronavirus lockdown.

Other houses are dragging their heels. This is, after all, a business that stresses “handmade.” It’s like trying to convert London cabbies to satnav. But one thing that is certain is the commercial trauma brought on by the virus will force innovation across the board, and if Huntsman is able to keep orders ticking over, it’s inevitable that there will be more toe-dipping to come, just hopefully not too late.

A year ago, a newcomer to the street texted me to ask, “What is your opinion on 3D body scanning for tailoring?” She knew it was, by the Row’s standards, a fraught question. There are brands who do this, but if you’re wanting to base yourself on Savile Row, you won’t earn your stripes this way. Tailors are a prideful bunch; the moment there is any hint their eye isn’t perfectly tuned to render 2D cloth into a 3D garment without the need for digital assistance, their value drops in the customer’s eye.

And Then There’s China

Even before the virus hit, the Row was in an identity crisis. One of the biggest moments of late—which has brought its own oddities—has been the injection of Chinese capital, specifically from Hong Kong’s Fung dynasty, which paid $55 million to put three of Savile Row’s biggest names—Kilgour, Hardy Amies, and Gieves & Hawkes—under both their private-wealth fund, Fung Capital, and their company, Trinity Group. Deep Anglophiles, the Fungs’ investment and commitment to expanding these British heritage brands across the globe was a most exciting prospect. It also brought Jason Basmajian, the former artistic director of Brioni, to the street, where he re-invigorated Gieves & Hawkes by giving it a ready-to-wear business that ruffled purists.

However, the problem with Chinese money is that one will always be in business with the politburo in Beijing. So, in 2013, when President Xi announced a clampdown on expressions of bourgeois taste, Savile Row was hammered. Overnight, the largest luxury consumer market on the planet flatlined. (Chinese luxury spending accounted for as much as 50 percent of the Row’s sales, according to some estimates.)

As Ray Clacher, the former managing director of Gieves & Hawkes and executive vice president of Trinity, says, “All the great business we had in Beijing and the north of China dried up overnight.” Plans to take Savile Row’s other lines to the Chinese market and set up satellite shops were halted. “When China caught a cold, Trinity got the flu,” Clacher says. Tailoring houses scrambled to find new business, not exactly easy in a world where fewer Western men are wearing tailored suits.

In 1969, when it seemed the traditional suit was dead, Tommy Nutter opened Nutters of Savile Row.

Now Kilgour as well as Hardy Amies are but two of the many empty shops on the street, currently gutted and awaiting tenants. Which raises what is perhaps the more pressing issue: even if new tailors and cutters wanted to come onto Savile Row, being able to afford prime real estate has always been a challenge for heritage brands within the Mayfair–St. James square mile. Rent controls do not exist in the U.K., and that is the bête noire for all artisan brands.

A customer being measured the traditional way at Cad & the Dandy on Savile Row.

In 2006, Westminster Council attempted to determine the cultural and financial viability of Savile Row; of the report’s seven conclusions, the only practical suggestion was that rents were too high and that the council would make an effort to work with the Pollen Estate—the street’s landowners—to reduce the rates. While the pandemic has resulted in reduced or deferred rents, no workable accord has been forged and some brands will likely not stick around.

Ironically, Savile Row does not have a scarcity of talent eager to take up the empty spaces. For now, this younger generation of tailors ply their trade from premises in Soho, Knightsbridge, Berkeley Square—basically, anywhere other than Savile Row. Because the Row is still HQ for British bespoke (and also where many of the tailors trained), they would move to it in a flash if they could. In other words, the demand is there and the supply is there, which you might think would be a reason to accommodate them. Instead, shops lie empty.

While it is easy to attack corporate landlords, tailoring houses are getting in their own way. Aleks Cvetkovic, a consultant and journalist heavily embedded in the Savile Row eco-system, doesn’t feel it is one-sided, either. “Can you really expect any commercially minded landlord to bring in even more businesses when their prevailing tenants are, by all accounts, struggling?” he said. “Savile Row needs to take digital communication and luxury branding seriously, and it has to do it now. Sadly, I don’t think it will. I strongly suspect the Row will become a much less influential and exciting place in six months’ time.”

Looking for the Ministry of Silly Walks? Two umbrella-toting gents walk down Savile Row, 1987.

Air Mail contributor Nick Foulkes, who has been reporting on Savile Row since 1987, remains optimistic. “The thing to remember,” he says, “is back when I started writing on such matters, even then people were saying it was a dying trade. It may yet outlive us all.”

When Winston Churchill was in his later years, there was a file at the highest level of the state apparatus that planned for his funeral. It was called Operation Hope Not. Savile Row can be saved, though it will need courage, capital, and the desire to compromise on all sides. At its current trajectory, we may be looking at pulling out Operation Hope Not II.

Tom Chamberlin is a London-based writer and the editor of The Rake