London beckoned and I took the opportunity of paying a visit to Henry Poole. In a trade where reputation is worth its weight in gold, Henry Poole may be the best off player you are likely to meet.
The atelier was founded in 1806 and is considered the oldest tailoring business on Savile Row. The count of ‘By Royal Appointment’s have passed the 50 mark. The list of famous (and infamous!) clients numbers amongst others Napoleon III, Winston Churchill and King Christian IX, or as Henry Poole himself wrote it: HRH The King of Denmark, 1893.
This daunting heritage does not burden Simon Cundey who is in charge on a day-to-day basis and third generation in the company. At least not during our meeting. He receives me, exuding a relaxed and smiling demeanour, asking me to take a seat in an old leather chair. Silence rules for a few minutes. Only the tick-tock of an old clock can be heard. Then Simon Cundey returns.
“We regard everything as a balance. Balance is key,” he quickly initiates.
“For instance, we’ll cut the jacket a little longer or shorter according to the correlation between the client’s torso and length of legs and we always include extra material in the seams so that we can recreate the balance if the client changes shape,” Simon Cundey continues, indicating with a smile the outline of a big tummy and pushing his hips forwards to illustrate the typical change of shape that they have to deal with.
He seizes a pattern with a blue outline by the shoulder seam. The cutter has made the blue line so that he knows that one of the client’s shoulders has to be cut differently from the others. Simon Cundey makes it clear that it is small details such as these that are the order of the day at Henry Poole and a part of the fine art of balance.
We discuss cloth at length. They are a lot lighter now. The introduction of air condition and central heating has changed the requirements. Simon Cundey draws my attention to a grey chalk stripe flannel jacket, which is draped over a dummy.
“That is a remake of the jacket Churchill is wearing in the famous photo where he is posing with a machine gun. Cloth in those days had a weight of 18 ounces per yard. This one weighs in at 10 to 11 ounces,” Simon Cundey tells me.
We descend into the basement via a small staircase and enter the sacred studios where the suits are made. With a staff of 40 tailors, amongst those 4 head cutters, Henry Poole is the largest on Savile Row. All of the tailors work on-site; Henry Poole does not outsource any of the work anywhere else to be finished off.
Unlike most of the other ateliers on Savile Row Henry Poole has resisted the temptation to use his high standing to sell Ready To Wear. At least on Savile Row. However, Henry Poole does have 3 shops in Japan and China, where they peddle Ready To Wear and accessories with a modified Henry Poole label, one where the ‘By Royal Appointment’ is absent.
But no Ready To Wear suits on Savile Row. They are strictly Old School here, or as Simon Cundey himself put it while reclining in the leather chairs upstairs:
“Pure bespoke is what we specialise in here.”
Simon Cundey follows me around the atelier and talks me through what is going on at each table. It is almost dizzying to follow the paths of the many busy hands, in many cases based on years of expertise.
In reality it is merely the long seams that is dealt with by machine, Simon Cundey said. The rest is executed in needle and thread by hand and in places by a heavy steam press. From the lining of the trousers to the seams of the jacket, most of the square centimetres are shaped by hand one way or another.
One of Henry Poole’s more senior tailors shows me just how he shapes the shoulders, which he amongst other things sews with a round seam to get them in the shape of the owner’s exact specifications for the set of his shoulders. Again one of those details that separates the very best atelier from the next best and obviously from the Ready To Wear.
Back in the room upstairs I examine the “By Royal Appointment’ certificates, yellowing and framed on the wall. Of course you can’t live off past merits. It is your current abilities that count. But these many frames speak loudly in their own overpowering way that Henry Poole has a particular prerequisite in executing eminent tailoring.
I also leaf through a pamphlet Henry Poole has made. Here, I am reminded that Henry Poole also can claim the soubriquet Father of the Smoking Jacket. Quite simply, they had an order before anyone else in 1860, detailing the requirements for a “black Smoking Jacket in velvet” for the then English Crown Prince.
Yes, even ateliers can be born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Such good luck can you squander or turn into an obligation. My observation is that Simon Cundey has chosen to lead Henry Poole down the latter path.
The cost of all this? Starting at close to £2,900 for a two-piece suit.
Photo: The Journal of Style