Clive & Steven Phythian, Master Cutter & Apprentice
“When I was twelve my father said, ‘What are you going to do in life? You need to learn something.’” recalled Clive Phythian, Head Cutter at Alexander Boyd when I dropped by to see what he had in hand last week. He spoke as he worked at the cutting table in the small tailoring workshop that he shares with his son Steven at the rear of the shop in Artillery Passage. “
I learnt a little but I couldn’t say I learnt a lot” confessed Clive with laconic reserve, considering those Saturdays spent in his grandfather’s tailoring shop in Walthamstow which were the outcome of that conversation with his father. “At twelve you’d rather be outside running about,” he acknowledged with a sympathetic smile, “but it gave me the discipline and I saw how hard he had to work.”
Every Saturday, I worked with him and, as I grew older, I had clothes made for me which was absolutely fantastic – I was the envy of my friends. At the time, my father was Head Cutter at Blades in Savile Row. When I was fourteen, I used to go up there with him and I started making the baists (first fittings) of jackets and waistcoats. I had my eyes opened to what goes on there, and my father said, “I’m going to try and get you a place at the London College of Fashion on a three year City & Guilds tailoring course.” I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I won cups for my work too.
Prior to leaving, I had two interviews, one with Davis & Sons, traditional bespoke West End tailors, and the other was with Gieves & Hawkes in Savile Row. I went to Gieves & Hawkes! When you are a young person, you see a bigger company and you think you are going to go places, and I worked there nine years – a fantastic experience. There were nine cutters and I managed to learn so much from them, they were a fount of knowledge. In some respects, I have forgotten some of the things I learnt at Gieves & Hawkes, but I expect they are still slotted away somewhere in the back of my mind. From there, I went to work for my uncle who had a very successful business in the City, Aspers in Cullum St, by Lloyds of London. You could say he poached me from Gieves & Hawkes because he offered more money. The West End is the more elegant side and you have more time, whereas in the City people always want it yesterday.
Then my father moved from the West End and set up his own business in the City too. I knew I would always work for my father, so there came a time when I said to my uncle, “I’m going to work with my dad,” and it put his nose out of joint – but you can choose your friends, not your family.The company my father bought was J.G.Chappels near Fenchurch St Station. I enjoyed working alongside him, and my brother joined the company as well. But then my father father died, and although my brother and I ran the business for another three years, we got tired of it. So we decided to take a gap year and I went to do tarmacking. When I was a young kid, my uncle used to work in tarmacking and I helped him out, so I had the knowledge. It was much to my wife’s disgust, but we needed a year out to get our heads back together.
One of my friends, Stuart Lemprell, was Head Cutter at Timothy Everest and he gave me a call and said, “Do you want to come back in?” So I said, “Yes.” I enjoyed working there for four years, until new people arrived who wanted to computerise things, so I said, “I’m off.” I’ve got morals. I don’t want a computer to do what I do. I don’t need a computer, my knowledge is in the tape, the square and the yardstick.
I came and spoke with Boyd, and I’ve been here as Master Cutter at Alexander Boyd ever since, more than five years now. The role of the Master Cutter is very important, without the knowledge of someone who knows how a garment is put together and how it should be cut, you’re not going to get a good product. You have to measure, but if your eye tells you it’s not right, even if the measurement is correct you know it’s wrong.
I get immense satisfaction from seeing a client put on a garment I have made and walk out of the shop with a big smile on his face. I love cutting. I’ve been doing it thirty-six years and I’m still learning. Cutting is my passion. You have to have that… something. Steven has it. He’s inherited it from my grandfather who was a tailor, and my father, and my uncles, Roy, Terry and Paul, they were all tailors, and my aunty Pam, she was a tailor too. So I suppose you could say it’s in the genes.”
“Dad’s always said, ‘Do what you want to do,’ there’s been no pressure to become a tailor,” Steven Phythian confided to me with unaffected honesty, when I joined him at the counter where he was cutting patterns for trousers. It was quite a different story from his father, yet the result was the same – though Steven revealed he had worked in Argos, as a car valet and as pizza delivery man, as well qualifying as a locksmith, even applying to the police force, in the ten years after college before he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the fourth generation to work in tailoring.
“It will be quite a long process,” he admitted with calm acceptance, just six months into his apprenticeship, “Five years before I can fully understand all aspects of cutting. But as my father says – even after more than thirty years – he’s still learning.”
So I left them there, both absorbed in their work in the quiet of the tailoring shop, the atmosphere broken occasionally by customers coming and going. Whenever I walk through Artillery Passage in future, I shall always cast a glance in their window to catch a glimpse of Clive & Steven at work. Almost the last tailors in Spitalfields – a place that once the centre of tailoring – yet I think we may be assured these two will be here for many years to come.
Clive Phythian in Men’s Wear, February, 1977
Steven Phythian, September 2011
Clive Phythian’s three piece co-ordinate in Walnut dogtooth check that won first prize in the IMBEX Student Fashion Competition, 1977.
Clive Phythian, Master Cutter at Alexander Boyd, September 2011.
Clive & Steven Phythian
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman