The Tailors of Spitalfields
In 1956, when tailor Alan Shaw was twenty-one, as a young man starting out in the world, he opened up his own workshop in Whitechapel across the road from the Royal London Hospital. There were so many tailors workshops in the East End then that he had to search to find his own space, because everywhere he looked there were other tailors at work.
It is a very different picture today, and, when I set out to search for tailors in Spitalfields, I could only find a handful in the directory. Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie and I set to visit them in person to make a survey and see what we might find.
In a humid windowless room in Artillery Passage, we had the privilege to shake hands with Alan who now works for Norton & Townsend, doing their alterations at a bench in a narrow corner of a first floor storeroom. With a deferential nod to the sharp City types lingering outside, we made our way inside from Artillery Passage to stand upon the deep carpet of the showroom. We were told that all the tailoring is done off site, and these premises are simply where customers come to make orders and have their fittings. But brand manager Graham Hall intuited immediately who we would most like to meet, and we were grateful to be ushered up a back staircase and into Alan’s workroom. The circumstances could not be more modest in contrast to the affluence of the customers. Yet, although Alan no longer does tailoring any longer, he is every inch a tailor and, as the most senior practitioner in Spitalfields, we were eager to pay due reverence to this distinguished yet unassuming gentleman.
“It’s a good trade,” said Alan, speaking softly with an easy smile and quite surprised at our interest, “You can get a lot of satisfaction from putting a suit on someone and knowing it looks good. The whole business is in satisfying the customer. They bring back their friends and that’s how you built up contacts. I started at fifteen and my whole family were in the trade, my brother Norman had a big factory in Princelet St. When I was young I had loads of jobs but unfortunately all the little tailors have dropped away and there’s no workshops left in the East End any more. I’m seventy-five now and I only do a few days a week – but I continue because it’s part of my life.”
Alan would have been surprised to meet young Sharjahan, barely into his twenties, and working enthusiastically with colleagues Guffar and Lillur in the cramped backroom at Hussain Tailoring in Hanbury St - for a business that primarily serves the Bengali residents of Spitalfields, making suits, copies of customers’ clothes, and doing repairs and alterations too. With bolts of suiting arrayed on either side of the old wooden counter, wide enough to lay out a garment where Guffar was cutting a ladies’ tunic from richly woven green silk, this lively establishment is exactly how I imagine a tailor’s shop to be.
We were honoured by an invitation to visit the sweltering low-ceilinged workroom, where Sharjahan proudly showed us four sewing machine benches and three hemming machines around the walls, and the pressing bench in the middle of the workspace – another sewing machine and buttonholer were outside in the shop. As we spoke, he set about pressing a pair of worn stonewashed jeans, swiftly marking off the legs with chalk to tailor them for the owner. Meanwhile, two eminent white-haired gentlemen had arrived for a conversation in the front of the shop, revealing the premises as a social hub where local people constantly come and go, passing the time of day and making and collecting orders.
It could not have been in greater contrast to the cool of the cavernous office of Neil O’Brien tailors on the first floor of the former Fruit & Vegetable Exchange Building in Brushfield St. Agent Richard Elliott sat alone at his desk, in between visiting the offices of law firms, investment banks and private equity companies, where customers can order their suits without ever visiting his premises. A former sales manager for read-to-wear tailor Chester Barrie, Richard has worked for the last six years as an agent, visiting customers in offices, taking measurements and fitting suits. Welcoming us genially, in spite of our arrival unannounced and out of the blue, he snatched a fine linen jacket from a rail – hand-stitched in a unique style by a traditional family business in Puglia – as an example of the finesse of their Italian tailoring.
Our final stop was Max Hence, the tailor in Folgate St, now incorporated into Eveleigh & Read where executive Paul Read – natty in a glossy two piece with just one button at the front - was eager to show off his two hundred year old shears as an illustration of the traditional core values of the business that he started four years ago. Although all their garments are individually bespoke, Paul was keen to emphasise that they endeavour to suit every pocket, or – in other words – you can cut your coat to your cloth here. The biggest surprise here was to discover that, although some tailoring is done in Italy, Eveleigh & Read have a tailors’ workshop in Shoreditch. Excited, I thought we had found the object of our quest, if not in Spitalfields then nearby in Shoreditch, but Paul remained inscrutable, insisting that we could not visit it. Like the last rare specimen of an endangered species, the location of the tailoring workshop must remain a jealously protected trade secret.
In a single morning, we walked through the history of tailoring in Spitalfields, from the friendly neighbourhood tailor to the corporate agents speaking the paradoxical rhetoric of family businesses and British craftmanship. And memorably we encountered the king of Spitalfields tailors, Alan Shaw, a heroically soulful figure who carries the story of when the East End was full of tailors, just half a century ago.
Let me confess, I was more interested in the workrooms than the showrooms, which were calculated to flatter the customers’ tastes. However the economics of tailoring reconfigures the labour market, in the end it is about the rare human skill of working with cloth, creating outfits of subtle psychology that engineer modest transformations to show the wearer at their best, and this is what touches me.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie