Interview: David Reeves, "Modern English Tailor"

Recently, I got together with bespoke tailor David Reeves (through the magic of the internet) and grilled him about his experiences in the business. Mr. Reeves is one of the edgier tailors in the trade, less conservative than others yet just as committed to making quality suits, jackets, trousers, and overcoats.
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Nouveau Vintage: How did you get into the world of bespoke tailoring and how has it affected your life?

David Reeves: I was a pretty skinny teenager and a difficult shape to fit in terms of clothes in general. I went to a bargain basement tailor in Leeds and started wearing tailored clothes which actually suited me very well. This gave me the initial interest as a consumer.

I then started working part time at Gieves and Hawkes at University. I was on a full time course (5 days a week) but I was contracted at Gieves for three days. In fact I probably worked at least 4 days a week for a good two years.

Another thing that sparked my interest and still does was the kind of music I like. Brian Ferry, David Bowie, Tony Wilson and Paul Weller wear suits very well and I admire the look.

I was lucky later on in my career to meet some of these people and actually be involved in making clothes for them which was very exciting... I kept it inside though.

This business has affected my life in so many ways for the past 12 years. The biggest influence is probably how it brought me to the States and in turn how I met my wife.

NV: One thing I'm curious about: Is bespoke tailoring any different from how it was when you first started in terms of clientele, perception about its traditions, and business in general? Many people have decried how Savile Row is slowly turning into just another commercial area. No one would have thought the antithesis of fine bespoke -- Abercrombie & Fitch -- would have their business on the Row just a decade ago!

DR: Well, when I first started "Britpop" tailoring was still going quite strong and I think this had been a big shock to traditional tailoring and it had caused changes. Gieves was trying to shift focus into a more "trendy" brand. I remember they started stocking red V-neck sweaters and it practically caused a mutiny with older staff. When the technical parkas and grass stained printed T-shirts came in they must have really flipped.

For clarity, I should let you know that I worked at Gieves and Hawkes in Leeds but later worked at Richard James on Savile Row.

I am amazed myself at the changes and additions to the Row. I was very sad to see Anderson and Sheppard move. I don't get annoyed about the encroachment of big brands or stores that don't do tailoring personally though. What is a shame are the places on the row (often the new ones) that charge Savile Row prices or very high prices for low end made-to-measure. Of course I won't name names but they are there. For the educated client I think this makes people wary about new firms which isn't good for anybody especially in the long term; the very future of the business in general. Having said all that, there are some great new places like Richard Anderson and Spencer Hart that are keeping the traditions alive but doing things in their own way.

NV: Speaking of Britpop tailoring, you occupy a unique niche along with Andrew Ramroop of Maurice Sedwell and some of the more experimental houses. The suits you make for customers and yourself are sort of "mod" styled, although you've said before that you will make more traditional garments. Anderson and Sheppard are totally different in that they'll never deviate from their house cut -- supposedly unchanged since the '30s! Are you ever looked down on by bespoke afficianados or people who work in the trade for the styles you make? Do you feel that your business can sustain itself over many years?

DR: Well I would say that within the community I have really split opinions in terms of what I do. Former friends and colleagues are either supportive or dismissive of what I do. I think this is a very English thing though. We are so steeped in traditions that unless you have been doing something for 100 years you're seen as some kind of flash in the pan. In America you're much more into people setting up business for themselves so I think it's easier here in many respects. I do have tremendous support though from some old collegues that are now very heavy hitters in the business and this is invaluable in all sorts of ways. Like I said before, I have been doing this for quite a while but if something tricky comes up I can call up the fourth generation tailor or I can use connections to get hold of a good discount on cloths. They even give me general business advice. This all goes both ways as well.

In terms of house style there certainly is one. Even on a 300 lb. man it still looks like a David Reeves suit. I really don't deviate too much. I do like to accomodate clients requests wherever possible. As a very, very small business I can't turn work away because someone wants a centre vent (which I really dislike). For those that have seen my suits posted by people on forums or on mannequins one also has to remember that these are a small fraction of work produced. I think my age and price point does attract a younger clientele though that is on the slimmer side. Another thing is that the bigger guys are rather more hesitant to post pictures.

I believe the business is sustainable, but in its present form after this first year it's approaching a critical mass. I basically operate on my own and it's getting to the point where time is a premium. I have an intern now and he is helping me with a lot of the fetching and carrying. It was always my intention though that this would happen and then I would move into producing collections for RTW wholesale and then if that was successful a store or two. Wholesale is starting to move forward with samples being worked on so we will see how it goes.

If you're talking about the style having a sell by date I don't think this is so. The suits are reminiscent of another time but they aren't slavish rehashes or costumes. I think another reason why they look kind of retro as well is the materials and the sheer tailored look. I use really expensive Dormeuil and Loro Piana cloths that you just don't see off the rack these days. Another thing that I would like to think is that the sheer attention to fit is so great that the suits kind of look out of place in a good way. The difference in house style is about using good sense when making suits for people. You don't make the same suit for the Admiral and the 16-year-old trendy Saudi kid even if they are both the same build. I do like to think that even quite different looking suits that I make still look like they are from the same family. I wouldn't do something really out of my ball park like an American-style sack suit. When I make a suit I like it to look like a bespoke suit and I like to see the money on the client's back, as it were. I think it's either a waste, failure or truly decadent to spend so much on a suit that looks off the rack.

NV: Thanks for the insight. I was going to ask about the age range of your customers, but you seem to have already answered that!

Something I've been wondering about with regard to house cut: Do you have customers who ask for television or movie garments? How does that make you feel? Say, for instance, I came to you requesting a Mad Men type suit -- narrow lapels and higher waisted trousers.

DR: Some people will say something like "I like Jeremy Piven's suits in Entourage" or things like that. It's good really to get information and a point of reference for clients so you make them something they really like. This is key because I want repeat business if possible and to build up relationships. I could probably look at someone from across a room and from that make them a perfectly fine suit but it may not be what the client has in mind. Usually I will ask a client what labels they like. If they say they wear Prada and they are fairly happy with the look you can infer things from that, you ask questions like what the suit is for, and finally you just use your judgement and common sense when you make up the garment.

There's an old expression that a tailor doesn't need to fit just the body, but also the mind and this is very true.

Of course, I make on average a suit a week so I have much more time to get these things right. I will go out and have a look at a trouser that a client says he likes or I will rent Entourage or Mad Men so I "get it".

Working in both the fashion and bespoke world has really been good for me in terms of insight. I can talk about Huntsman as easily as Commes des Garcons or Vivian Westwood. This really helps me to understand clients' requests. If you're talking to a tailor about wanting Tom Ford style lapels and he doesn't even know who Tom Ford is, you're going to have a bad result. We have also started doing artists' impressions or drawings of finished pieces, coupled with the try-on stage, the client has a very good idea where the project is going.

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Here are some shiny, new examples of David's work which he kindly sent my way. (A Nouveau Vintage exclusive-first-look? Yes!) Here you can see the great care and detail put into every garment and a good variety of styles.

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