Charlie Allen, quietly judging your suit
As a teenager in London in the 90s, American clothes were ubiquitous. Unless you were a precocious Mod or a committed first-wave punk, most of the clothes you wore were shipped en masse in great bundles of denim, leather, and polyester. Beyond that, in a seemingly stuffy, remote world, was Savile Row and its impeccable suits, the bastion of what it was to be a bloody Englishman—nose turned up, memories of slaughtering colonial fellows bubbling somewhere at the back of the consciousness.
I’d never come face to face with English tailoring until my dad asked me if I’d like a suit made for me (for court appearances). He sent me to Charlie Allen, the son of a tailor whose clothes seemed unusually unscathed by the scrabbling claws of you Americans. I caught up with him to discuss the relationship between English and American tailoring.
VICE: Hi, Charlie. So what separates us from the Yanks?
Charlie Allen: English tailoring all comes from the military. That’s why you’ve got the chest that keeps you upright—a high armhole and the shoulders being square make it so whatever you do it looks like you’re standing at attention. It’s also because of horse riding, whereas the American look is more draped and more relaxed.
It’s called an "American Shoulder," which is basically a sloping shoulder or a more natural shoulder with no pads. American tailors were trying to imitate what the British tailors did with heavy construction, but they couldn’t because they didn’t know what was going on inside, so they literally copied it. It looked like a jacket but it had nothing to do with a jacket—it was completely deconstructed and made like a shirt.
So they ripped us off?
The Americans have nicked a lot of stuff from England. People like Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and James Cagney all came to England, and their influence on American tailoring is amazing. They had their suits made really light and throwaway, with no pads, so they could feel comfortable on stage in front of all the lights.
Who in England inspired those first Americans?
It was just Savile Row in general. Anderson and Sheppard would be the first, and there were a lot of Jewish tailors who just made what you asked them to make. There were loads of tailors around at the time, but there were some who made for the stars and the only way you’d see those suits is if you saw them in a film.
So the influence went from British tailors, to American film stars, to American tailors?
Does it annoy you that American tailors are essentially making all their suits "wrong"?
Yeah, the suit is meant to hide your figure. That’s why there are pads and canvas to form a shape inside. When you look at a Huntsman or a tailored suit made in England it has a chest in it, and it goes in at the waist and then out at the hips. But in America it’s all about the shoulders being really natural because they are all beefcakes and bigger than us, right?
Right. So if you want a proper suit you need to get to Savile Row.
Yeah, it’s all about heritage. We still have the honor, we still make the best suit. Hungary and China are good quality, but it’s our patents that have gone there.
Does that heritage mean world-class tailoring will continue to exist in England for the foreseeable future?
It’s a craft, an art, and it’s dying. There are about 100 proper bespoke tailors in England. Everyone else is buying in, or sending it to factories, getting it made up and then altering it.
Why are we struggling?
British style is understated and it’s marketed in an understated way. We’ve survived on it for a long time, but we have to change, because we can’t keep up. Big companies will spend 20 percent of their income on advertising; we couldn’t do that and never have. If you look at a classic British suit the label will be inside the pocket. British understatement is crazy. Who makes the suit? It’s inside the pocket! To have a label on the outside: that was a no-no, an Italian or American thing.
So Savile Row needs to adapt before it gets pushed out by huge global brands.
The rents have gone up so incredibly high that the tailors can’t afford to be there. It’s our heritage and it’s not being protected. The fashion industry has murdered itself by manufacturing abroad or having eight-year-olds in China making suits for a dollar a day.
And I bet they fall apart in about an hour, while in theory a suit from you would last me the rest of my life. I only say “in theory” because of my increasing fatness.
You can bring it back, it's got inlays where you can let it out eight inches over the years. To compensate for the fatness!
If someone comes into your shop and asks for something awful, what do you do?
Well, it’s up to them. It’s still a handmade suit; you just might look like a dick. Tailoring isn’t fashion. A true classic suit has got rules to fit the person; nothing to do with fashion—fashion is something that has embellished all these rules.
So what is it about, then?
Tailoring is about concealment and disguise. My brother always said it’s disguising various faults on the body. The most common one is to have a drop shoulder on one, so what you do is you actually put in pads or you cut a bit more off one side. Tailoring is there to make the body perfect.
And how do you perfect the, uh, crotch region?
To show off a bit, you can cut it shorter. Or you can put a hosepipe socket in there!
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