One-Hundred Days On: Brexit, Savile Row & Predicting the Future

One-hundred years: Brian Lewis & Malcolm Plews

The act of predicting can be problematic; the results are often, well, unpredictable. However, industries and organisations use this somewhat unreliable human construct to take a punt or an educated guess on that nebulous phenomenon, the future. Tools at hand include crystal balls, tea leaves, feelings – a hunch even; while other more scientific disciplines employ outwardly more authentic means such as computers able to process enormous amounts of data to predict not just one outcome, but millions. 

The act of predicting is very much a part of our daily lives. We try and predict the weather; a sports result; the outcome of a personal or professional situation or even a referendum when they come up. So whether you had a feeling your horse was going to win The Grand National, your team win the World Cup or expecting a promotion, inherent to all of this future pontificating is the potential to be wrong. 

Suited sartorial predictions

Same with the EU Referendum; a lot of learned folk and economic forecasters initially predicted a comfortable win for the Remain camp, but this did not obviously turn out to be the case. Regardless of your background, gender, education, being wrong is a state endured by all (but admitted by few). The Economist in 1984 brought together four former finance ministers, four chairmen from major multinational companies, four Oxford students and finally, four London dustmen. The aim was to get their predictions on the economy over the next ten years. A decade later The Economist checked their results and the dustmen and the company bosses came joint top. The finance ministers bottom.  

The above then illustrates very clearly the perils of predicting which was summed up rather nicely by Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, who said ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future’. 

For those of us who dared to engage in a spot of prognostication over the EU Referendum may have been surprised by the result, but who could have predicted what came next. Even the creators of Yes Minister would struggle to match the heady and chaotic reality that followed with the level of resignations, withdrawals, in-fighting, coups, threats of independence and leadership contests. In fact, so much happened on that first Friday morning on the 24th June that Financial Times journalist Matthew Goodwin tweeted "It's a rather strange day [when] the Prime Minister resigning is only our third most important story".

David Cameron pre-Brexit

Given the above, you may think it foolish then to engage in a spot of forecasting ourselves (on the future of bespoke tailoring and Savile Row) but this exactly what we set out to do. We hope however that by first highlighting the above issues around predicting the future, it serves as a caveat, of sorts, an excuse even should our sartorial prognosis be wide of the mark. 

Starting with the belief that wisdom comes with age, we approached two long-standing figures in the bespoke tailoring trade: Mr Brian Lewis, director of Meyer and Mortimer, and independent tailor, Malcolm Plews who uses our showroom at 6 Sackville Street to meet his customers. Between them, they have over 100 years of bespoke tailoring knowledge (very much evenly split give or take a year or two) and have worked in and around Savile Row all their professional lives.  As a result of this, they have seen the bespoke tailoring industry and Savile Row go through many changes over the years.  

Brian Lewis & Malcolm Plews

Effect on Business

We started by asking Brian’s thoughts on the EU referendum itself, and he said he was surprised by the result: 'The first few years will be difficult and more complicated had we stayed in' he started by saying. When asked how the outcome might affect the bespoke tailoring business and those businesses on and around Savile Row, both were cautiously optimistic with Malcolm saying 'I don't think it will affect our particular craft because they're very few other countries who have got our reputation for making bespoke suits'. 

There are of course other well-respected centres for men’s style in Paris and Milan, but London's contribution to bespoke tailoring is immense. As early as the 18th Century tailors were producing high quality bespoke military garments that included variations on the collar, sleeve and front openings. The skills developed there then turned to producing civilian clothing. Alongside this, there were two very significant contributions to men's style provided earlier by King Charles II (the waistcoat) and later by ex-military officer turned dandy Beau Brummell (who favoured perfectly fitted garments over flamboyant fashion). Furthermore, factor in the industrial revolution (and the rise of the businessman); the standardisation of measurement and Savile Row is born and with it, London's greatest sartorial gift to the world, the three-piece suit. 

Beau Brummell giving directions to his tailor

Where Savile Row tailoring has arguably made the greatest impression overseas is in North America where Savile Row has dressed congressmen, business people, lawyers and of course, a long list of Hollywood actors. Whether we stay in the EU or not both Brian and Malcolm, feel it will have little or no effect on that American trade. Brian highlights that initially, it may be positive with, he says, 'The weak pound making us very attractive to our North American customers'. Malcolm agrees while adding it is also about the level of income. With true bespoke tailoring being a luxury product, Malcolm explains 'People with money who want to buy a Mercedes, they'll buy one; if they want to buy a Savile Row suit, they'll buy one. For that reason, whether we're in the EU or out of it, it won't affect us that much'. 

Where Brexit may have an impact on the bespoke tailoring industry, and Savile Row is not from within but from a sizeable portion of its customer base: the banking sector. The City of London is considered to be one of the world’s most important financial hubs with many of the world’s banks based here. It’s difficult to predict how Brexit might affect the bank's decision to stay (or go). If the result of the negotiations on the UK's terms to leave the EU are not favourable to the banks, they could relocate elsewhere taking their staff with them.  A lot of people who work in the banking sector are valuable Savile Row customers, as well as the people based overseas who come to London on banking business. If they were to go, this would certainly have an impact on Savile Row.  

City of London. Will the banks stay or will they go?

Free Movement of People

Central to the EU Referendum was the issue of immigration and the free movement of people. Alongside free movement of goods, services and capital, it was one of the founding principles of the European Union; it allows EU citizens the right to travel, work and live anywhere within the EU.  

Savile Row has a long history of welcoming people from around the globe to come and work in London. In fact, it is arguable  - that without them - Savile Row wouldn’t exist as we know it today. The Great Wars saw to a shortage of tailors and makers in the bespoke tailoring industry which meant they were simply not the people, with the requisite skill level, to make the suits. However, with overseas nationals escaping to the UK, they brought their skills with them thus keeping Savile Row in production. This legacy continues to the present day with sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of those escapees still in the industry.  

Brian & Malcolm: discussing & predicting

Malcolm Plews is a product of such immigration. He says ‘My ancestry is French, Hugonotes to be precise. They relocated to England in the 18th century and elsewhere in Northern Europe, due to the religious wars taking place in France’. Malcolm goes on to say "Savile Row is famous for its diversity with workers coming from Eastern Europe, Italy, Cyrus and Greece. Whenever there's been a conflict anywhere in the world, the refugees come here, and the UK benefits from that, as does Savile Row'. Malcolm concludes 'I am a product of that [free movement of people]'. Both Malcolm and Brian feel confident that Savile Row will continue to benefit from the freedom of movement of people somehow, with the current foreign workforce being able to stay and agreement - in future - to allow skilled tailors to come and live and work in the UK.

The Future

This quiet confidence in the future, outside of the EU, is not unique to Brian and Malcolm. Savile Row is a small, close-knit industry with tailors, cutters and business owners, from different houses, having known each other for years. It means they talk to each other, either in passing or over a drink or two at The Burlington Arms (behind Savile Row police station) or The Masons Arms on Maddox Street. The feeling around Savile Row is that bespoke tailoring in London will be able to weather it, as it has done in other seemingly difficult situations over the years. 

Savile Row © Copyright N Chadwick 

This view extends to our cousins in the luxury fashion industry with the designer, Paul Smith telling the Financial Times ‘We’ve been in business a long time and have witnessed many different crises,’ he said. ‘Being an independent company we’re flexible enough to weather the storm.’ This is echoed by Federico Marchetti, chief executive of Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, who themselves - in their 15 years of business - have endured dotcom bubble bursts and a recession or two. He says 'What I have learnt is never to panic and to adapt quickly' adding 'The reaction is more important than the issue.' 

Although there is measured optimism, both Brian, Malcolm, Paul, Federico and others, acknowledge there will be difficulties ahead for businesses as they adapt to the new landscape; a landscape which has yet to be negotiated and shaped. It means, the uncertainty that existed before the EU Referendum will continue with Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, saying in July 2016 ‘Uncertainty over the pace, breadth and scale of these changes could weigh on our economic prospects for some time.’ But even the Governor of the Bank of England allows for one or two rays of optimism to shine through by adding that ‘The UK can handle change. It has one of the most flexible economies in the world and benefits from a deep reservoir of human capital, world-class infrastructure and the rule of law. Its people are admired the world over for their strength under adversity. The question is not whether the UK will adjust but rather how quickly and how well’. 

The Governor: Mark Carney

So where does this leave us? Well, returning to the issue around prediction- some may say, not very far. However, the act of predicting illustrates that the human race is not very well suited to uncertainty. Forecasting, for all its pitfalls, remains useful to us. It illuminates the dark and gives the impression that we have some modicum of control over the future. Perhaps then the act of predicting is in and off itself comforting, and it does not matter if we anticipate a good result or prophesize the end of the world; we think we know and that is good enough. 

We hope, though, that in these turbulent times, we have brought some comfort to the concerned by arguing that Savile Row and the businesses around this world famous street like ourselves will weather Brexit, and anything else for that matters and continue making beautiful bespoke garments for centuries to come. 

M&M