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Clive & Steven Phythian, Master Cutter & Apprentice

September 13, 2011
by the gentle author

“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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. September 13, 2011

    My favourite thing about your blog is when you write about the makers in Spitalfields. It’s nice to see that there are still some old traditions and crafts that are continued in the area, even if they are, sort of, hidden away.

  2. September 13, 2011

    Blades! That’s reminds me of a fabulous velvet DJ that I had from them in the 60s. I was the envy of my friends, just as Clive was to his! I remember Aspers too, and many of my City friends went there…… Thank goodness that such craftsmanship lives on. Don’t let computers any further in than the accounts desk!

  3. September 13, 2011

    My husband also worked in saville row, he was a master tailor, I remember him working on a suit, sewing the canvas to the insides of lapels, hand stitched buttonholes, he was what tailoring was about, the suit would fit perfectly, my husband made suits to last, do they still have craftsmen in the tailoring?

  4. September 13, 2011

    Brilliant stuff. So sad that such garments are now a rare privilege, and that most people chose throw-away clothes that barely last a couple of seasons.

  5. E1 resident permalink
    September 15, 2011

    I’m a customer of Clive’s, and his skills are amazing! Excellent fitting suit, worth every penny!

  6. Steve Plumb permalink
    December 12, 2011

    I last spoke with Clive in c1977. We were on a bus, he must have been attending College by then. He showed me (from his holdall) some work that he was doing. It was a breast pocket on a jacket in a PoW check. It lined-up perfectly. He was so proud. Great to see that all that studying and graft paid off. If you are reading this Clive, I have not bought a suit off the peg since that time :) I shall call by some time to say “hello”. Steve Plumb

  7. November 12, 2012

    Hi Clive
    I probably haven’t seen you for …40 years, maybe once at a school reunion, but I heard you on the radio today and I couldn’t stop smiling. I did know that you had gone in to tailoring and at the back of my mind I think that our Grandfather’s may have worked together ????? Anyway, I was delighted to hear you and you so reminded me of our days at school together. Tailoring and dress making goes way back in my family too but not on the incredible scale that you have achieved. It must be wonderful having your son in the business with you and seeing the next generation before your eyes.
    You may not remember me but I just wanted to say Hi. Keep up the wonderful cutting…..there is nothing in the world like a beautifully cut garment.
    Next time I’m in the area I will drop in to say hello.
    By the way I’m still playing the violin….and now making chocolates as well.
    Best regards to you. Shelley van Loen

  8. John minton permalink
    October 31, 2015

    Wow, the photos take me back Clive, I still remember my time at Blades with fondness

  9. June Phythian permalink
    April 6, 2016

    I got onto this page just by typing my name in Google. I was married to William John Phythian for almost 60 years. His Dad was W.J. too. He was from Wales and sent to Canada at the age of thirteen. He was adopted but chose his Mothers maiden name over his fathers name Spread.
    Did not realize how many Phythian’s there are. The only other one I know of in Canada is a Barry Phythian.
    June

  10. Vincent Crapanzano permalink
    April 25, 2016

    This is a query. I am wondering if your knew Eric Joy. If so, do you have any idea where he is today. I was one of his clients in the early seventies, but I lost contact with him. Thanks, Vincent Crapanzano

  11. Roderick Bromley permalink
    May 24, 2016

    I still have a couple of velvet dinner suits from Blades as well as a set of Plus 2s and a single breasted dinner jacket. I’m not sure whether it was Blades or Mr Fish that sold beautiful brocade belts but I’ve the odd Blades shirt and a Mr Fish boating suit. I am desolated to say that these articles of apparel were created for a young man of 6ft 2ins and a 32 inch waist. The height remains the same as ever, it’s the belt loops that have stooped with time.
    There doesn’t seem to be a great demand for clothing such as this in East Anglia or South Africa.

  12. January 21, 2017

    I had the pleasure of working with Clive’s family, Roy and Terry and John Minton, at Blades of Saville Row on Madison Avenue in New York, back in the late 60′s and early 70′s. I was an exciting time in my life.
    I would certainly like to know how to contact Roy.

    Regards to all,

    Tony Polidori

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