Blue Badge Guide Antony Robbins, aka Mr Londoner, takes us on a tour of the menswear tailors in Soho, London.
“I blame my sister. In 1971, to get me out of my Mum’s hair, she took me to the cinema to see the WW2 all-action movie Where Eagles Dare. If you haven’t seen the film, there are cable cars; ice axes and lots of snow. Clint Eastwood guns down 83 Nazis (I counted) –
while Richard Burton primes the best one-liners.
Why am I telling you all this? Because it sparked my love of menswear. I noted every detail of the uniforms and nagged my poor mother to take me to the army surplus shop in Kingston-Upon-Thames with the express purpose of acquiring a British WW2 paratroop helmet and an artic-snow smock as sported so fetchingly by Messrs Burton and Eastwood. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, head to the Tower of London. Climb the White Tower and inspect the German version of the same kit. This example belonged to unfortunate Nazi spy Josef Jakobs – the last person executed in the Tower, in 1941.
Straying off the beaten path
I love visiting all the major sites with my guests but sometimes I break away from the traditional offerings to explore the wonders of London’s ‘makers’. In these days of throwaway fashion, I focus on craft and ‘truth to material’ and I’ve partnered with bespoke tailors, English shoemakers and London jewellers to enable my guests to hear from them first-hand. These are friendships I’ve developed over a lifetime’s pursuit of craft and quality, even when I could ill-afford it.
My tours generally begin in Soho. The area that once housed hundreds of tailors now hosts just a handful. They include Mark Powell – himself the very model of the 21st-century dandy – and the decidedly Mod-ish Chris Kerr. Kerr took up where his 1960s tailor Dad ‘Mr Eddie’ left off.
We hear from Martin Brighty, owner of bespoke tailors Peckham Rye (Peckham Rye = tie in Cockney rhyming slang). His tiny shop is in the cobbled Newburgh Street, which runs parallel to Carnaby Street. Newburgh Street is home to several heritage US makers, including Redwing Shoes and huntin’ and shootin’ brand Filson.
The ties that bind
As well as its hand-made suits, Peckham Rye sells silk scarves and ties – all English made of course. Martin is a modest man. He doesn’t shout about his celebrity customers or the fact that Peckham Rye supplied the ties for films including Churchillian epic Darkest Hour
and the story of the world’s favourite double-act Stan and Ollie. He describes Peckham Rye’s historical roots in the East India Company but brings the story bang up-to-date, addressing the challenges of the modern high street. It’s all about the experience and providing old-fashioned service, he says. But it’s tough out there. We’ve lost some great brands in recent years, including British tailoring icon Austin Reed.
Martin talks engagingly to my groups. He explains the meaning of the word bespoke – when a customer has ordered a suit from a limited batch of fine cloth, that cloth has been ‘bespoken’ for. A bespoke suit, in case you were wondering, is 80 percent hand-made and
20 percent machine-made. Made-to-measure is just the opposite – 80 percent machine-made and 20 percent hand-finished.
Suited – and booted
Joseph Cheaney and Sons make quality shoes in Northamptonshire. The brand has four London shops. Its Covent Garden store in Henrietta Street occupies a former 18th-century coffee house. We often pop in to hear about the ancient craft of shoemaking – sometimes over a dram of whisky.
No menswear tour is complete without a visit to Savile Row. On our last trip, we popped in to see Ozwald Boateng, a brilliant London tailor with Ghanian roots, famed for his use of bold fabrics and bright colours. It was here ‘on the Row’ that the three-piece suite was
invented. It emerged from equestrian wear, itself derived from the utility of the military uniform, which brings me right back round to …. ‘Where Eagles Dare’.”
Antony Robbins is a Blue Badge Guide working in London. He is also a communications consultant, broadcaster and former Museum of London director.