5 May 2020

Spear's Magazine: The Collar of Money

Spears Magazine: The Collar of Money by Alec Marsh

OLIVER CROSS IS on his knees, adjusting the hem of my trousers, when I ask him about the Prince of Wales, for whom he recently made a tail coat. He gets up, strokes a strand of hair behind his ear, and removes several pins from his mouth. ‘It was a fantastic experience,’ he beams. ‘Such a down-to-earth gentleman.’

Cross is the head cutter of Benson & Clegg, a bespoke tailor ‘off Savile Row’ which occupies a slim tranche of the Piccadilly Arcade. At 35, he’s probably among the youngest to hold such a position at a respected house, and he brings an artisanal passion to the craft. He resembles a celebrity chef or an extra from Braveheart, and the flaps of his enormous double- breasted jacket are big enough to house a family of Bedouin.

Benson & Clegg holds a royal warrant from the Prince of Wales and also counts his grandfather, King George VI, among its illustrious former clients. Back in 1937, when Messrs Benson and Clegg set up their own shop, the King was their first customer. A royal warrant came their way in 1944. As aficionados of the era – not to mention the costume directors of The Crown and Darkest Hour – know well, the King was a pretty dapper dresser.

When I arrive, Cross invites me to take a seat in the snug, club-like quarters of his shop and offers me a drink. Over two generous gins and tonic we discuss the bespoke process – which I’m about to experience first-hand. He’s ‘the architect, the project manager’, who oversees the production and works with trouser makers, coat makers, waistcoat makers, finishers and pressers. ‘Each suit probably gets into the hands of 10 to 15 people,’ he says.

Most importantly, he will help me navigate the mesmerising landscape of choice, measure me and decide what will flatter my physique when he creates the pattern on paper, before ‘striking’ the cloth using tailor’s chalk and then cutting it. The fabric is then bundled up with layers of cloth for pockets, padding, linings and collars and so on, and given to the makers. ‘It takes about 40 hours to make a jacket,’ Cross explains. ‘It takes about 15 hours to make a pair of trousers, so the suit... it’s 55 to 60 hours, really.’ This prompts a thought. ‘It’s a meticulous amount of handcrafting,’ he adds. ‘And it’s built to last.’

It’s time for measurements – around 20 in all. Cross mans the tape measure, and tells me a little about Benson & Clegg, where he’s been since 2017. The house style is the ‘West End look’.

‘It’s a structured suit,’ he explains, ‘with lots of body and chest, roped sleeve-heads, A-line silhouette. Instead of taking all the suppression at the waist, we take it above the waist and give the coat a bit more skirt.’

He demonstrates, and I can see it’s a flattering cut. ‘Everybody’s slim here,’ he grins. ‘It’s almost a nod to a cavalry cut. Very British.’

Now for fabrics. I’m going for a sports jacket, so Cross opens a tweed book. ‘Too green,’ he observes. Another is too hairy. We settle on a 14oz woollen herringbone in forest green from Holland & Sherry. It has the glorious lustre of a wet labrador. Next is lining: I shy away from the racy prints or garish colours, and we arrive at a brown. What about the trousers? ‘Flannel is a super wardrobe staple,’ offers Cross. My hand trembles before a bundle of enormously wide cords. ‘You’re making a statement wearing that,’ he cautions...

We turn to style: side-vents, buttons, flaps, lapel styles, turn-ups, belt loops or strap and buckle, slanted pockets, pen pockets, ticket pockets (‘We make them to the dimensions of a iPhone’), in-breast pockets, zipper versus button fly, pleats, hip pocket...

Three weeks later, I return: the exoskeleton of the jacket and trousers await. They’re dotted with basting stitches. Inside you can see all inlays and seams. When I try it on the arms sit well. Cross spots a wrinkle – out comes a razor blade, and the sleeve is off. ‘We’ll pivot that,’ he says. Next, something is amiss with the balance of the jacket: it’s rolling forward. He rips the shoulders apart and removes the top collar. He dabs the fabric with the white chalk. ‘It needs half an inch,’ he says. He’ll lower the armholes too.

A fortnight later, the pockets are on, the jacket’s lining is in, the collars are still unfinished, and whole ensemble is still dotted with white stitches. With some minor final adjustments, it’ll be perfect.

I’m soon back for my third fitting: I see the jacket and trousers hanging waiting for me. The light catches on the immaculate jacket. ‘Look at it,’ declares the tailor, his hands passing over the chest. ‘It’s almost like you’re wearing it.’

And indeed there is a lot of body in a British suit – three layers: the cloth you see, then a layer of lapped horse hair and a wool canvas. As I take the jacket off the hanger, it feels heavy, but once on, it floats on my shoulders. It’s an astonishing, herringbone soufflé.

I do up the button of the jacket and check myself in the mirror. It feels great. ‘So what is the secret to the perfect suit?’ I ask Cross. ‘Having a good relationship with your cutter,’ he replies. ‘That makes all the difference. If the cutter doesn’t understand you and what you want, you change tailoring house. Cutting a suit for somebody is a very intimate thing.’

 

Words by Alec Marsh