I learned of the death of Edward Sexton, the iconoclastic auteur of suiting, at age 80 through a WhatsApp message. The delivery method felt all wrong. The death of Queen Elizabeth II prompted national mourning—didn’t Sexton merit at least a bit of that sentiment?
Without Sexton, one could argue that there might be no Alexander McQueen, no Alessandro Michele–era Gucci, no adult-era Harry Styles. His inversion of the Savile Row norms in the late 60s put a hundred noses out of joint, but he drew a hundred thousand others to that august street in Mayfair, ready to spend thousands of pounds for a perfect fit.
He completely reimagined what tailoring could be, suggesting that suits weren’t only status symbols but also suggestive of sex. “A suit is about so much more than dressing a person. It’s about romance,” he once said. This notion was lent a hefty dose of symbolism with the opening of his tailoring house, Nutters of Savile Row, on Valentine’s Day, 1969.
Like most tailors, he got an early start in the trade. His father was a tailor, and Sexton was learning to make suits by the age of 13. His apprenticeship ended at Kilgour, French & Stanbury; Welsh & Jeffries, the tailor to Eton College, gave Sexton his first full-time job. There, he cut military outfits, an establishment style that would come to inform his aesthetic. He was especially taken with the “hacking jacket,” a riding jacket with an enhanced waist and flared skirt. Until then, the style was most employed by Huntsman, and yet it would come to define Sexton’s look.
The crucial moment would come when he joined Donaldson, Williams & Ward, where a platonic coup de foudre between him and salesman Tommy Nutter would lead to their pairing up and opening Nutter’s eponymous shop, at 35a Savile Row, the first new company on the Row in more than 100 years.
Nutter had a wonderful eye for design, but it was Sexton who understood how it could evolve with the times. The generous proportions and glamour of the interwar years could be contextualized for a contemporary client. Sexton’s cutting skills blended physics and art, quickly cementing his reputation. And, says Terry Haste, regarded by many as one of the best tailors in the world, “It never left him. He was exceptionally good.”
Truly audacious creations came off his cutting table: double-, even triple-patterned tweed suits, pagoda shoulders, flares, and scimitar-shaped lapels that would extend the full width of the chest. (Every other house insisted on three and three-quarter inches.) This style reflected, and sometimes inspired, prevailing trends of the Swinging 60s and even-more-bonkers 70s. But thanks to the bespoke process, it was elevated.
The pas de deux between Nutter and Sexton was straightforward. Nutter’s love of nightlife and growing social status brought a group of well-known actors and musicians to Savile Row who wouldn’t have dreamed of going there before. Elton John, for example—Sexton created the panel-back and sequined suits he wore onstage during the 70s and 80s. Sexton also masterminded the suit that Mick Jagger wore to his wedding with Bianca Jagger. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison even strode across a street in his ensembles on the cover of Abbey Road.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Sexton was willing to dress women. His curvaceous silhouette and nipped-in waist were flattering to them. Before long, Joan Collins, Linda McCartney, Bianca Jagger, Twiggy, Yoko Ono, Annie Lennox, and Cilla Black were commissioning pieces.
As Sexton’s popularity soared, the other houses on the street faced two options: they could either pay no notice, or they could adapt and drift away from heavy, dark, unflattering suits that were de rigueur at the time. The first approach was not entirely ill-advised, because the creative dynamism that initially linked Nutter and Sexton became its undoing. The tension caused by Nutter’s nocturnal habits, among other things, eventually led to their split, in 1976. But in less than a decade, Savile Row, that 200-year-old sentinel of Britain’s class structure and patrician elitism, was forever changed.
Sexton’s work was far from done. He set up shop in Beauchamp Place, near Harrods, and for the next 30 years, he did business under his own name. There, he continued to develop and establish his house style. He dressed most of the cast of Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story and made a ready-to-wear collection for Saks Fifth Avenue. Stella McCartney, who had apprenticed with Sexton during her student days at Central Saint Martins, even tapped him to help create her first collection for Chloé.
His popularity continued even as he approached his 80s. While he was especially beloved by musicians, the Hollywood set—Chris Pine, Aziz Ansari, and Andrew Garfield, most recently—found a lot to love, too. In 2017, Harry Styles commissioned Sexton to create an entire wardrobe for him to help launch his solo career. That year he wore little else—the pink suit on the Today show, the yellow ensemble for The X Factor, and the cream double-breasted style, worn to Pixie Geldof’s wedding.
In what became the swan song for this particular epoch of men’s style, things came full circle when Sexton moved his shop to 35 Savile Row late last year. It will remain open, managed by an expertly trained team who consider themselves to be custodians of Sexton’s legacy, a legacy of glamour and flamboyance, for which we shall always find room. He will be missed, and not easily replaced.
Tom Chamberlin is the editor of The Rake