Behind the seams (Financial Times How to Spend it)

The John Smedley factory, nestled amidst picturesque countryside close to Derby, represents British manufacturing as scarce in the 21st century as it is special. Elongated rows of inscrutably complex heavy metal machines with a beautiful Victorian-industrial green patina churn out fine gauge merino knits while ladies sit hand-sewing the necks to sweaters. Close to the end of the production line sits one woman attaching the Smedley labels, overseen by a poster of David Cassidy on the wall: ‘John Smedley… John Smedley… John Smedley… Margaret Howell… Paul Smith…’

Like many artisanal operations, Smedley are the go-to people for designers who want the best. Relatively few labels have their own production, instead calling on a specialist workforce for the tricky stuff, whether that’s an extensive range of tailoring in Vicenza or a handful of couture hats in Chiswick. In many cases the work is done in relative secrecy, the artisans acting as wizards behind a huge curtain of glossy advertising and hard sell. Elsewhere, designers are happy to applaud, albeit discreetly, the expertise of their go-to men. Those experts, whether it’s Gina shoes working for Giles Deacon, Hammerthor creating underwear for Comme des Garçons Shirt or the design duo Eley Kishimoto creating prints for APC and Marc Jacobs, have the talent that their patrons thrive on, and frequently have their own core product that’s well worth seeking out.

Vivienne Westwood is one of Smedley’s past customers, and has grown her business through choosing the best experts. For many years the majority of her line has been made by Staff International in Italy, also the home of Martin Margiela and Viktor & Rolf, while her leather accessories are handled by Bracciliani. ‘Vivienne Westwood is a team,’ explains MD Carlo D’Amario. ‘There are more than 30 people in the design department, split into teams, and a chief designer overseeing each range. But Vivienne oversees everything. And our work with our partners has produced classic items that remain popular today, such as the Yasmine Bag with Braccialini and the Bettina jacket with Staff.’

Braccialini’s showy, fantastical way with leather is a natural fit for Westwood’s style. Under their own label, Bracciliani now have a Gold Book from which clients can order any of the most popular Temi bags (£600-£900) from past collections – witty and chic pieces in the shape of flowers, crowns, steam trains and tropical birds – which are then made to order and come with their owner’s name etched onto a metal tag.

One of Westwood’s most faithful behind-the-scenes craftsmen is the milliner Prudence. Working with a team of just three out of her atelier in Chiswick, she’s known to insiders as the least exposed of London’s trinity of great contemporary hat makers along with Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones. ‘I’ve never had a press office and I’m not really interested in going to parties,’ she says. ‘I just want to make really beautiful couture hats. I operate on a different planet from other milliners.’ She’s worked with Westwood since 1990 and although often called just a week before the collections are catwalked – giving her seven days to make around 15 showpieces – the turnaround on her own label involves five days’ work on a single hat. Prudence’s pieces are a rarity – focused on a simple but defined silhouette rather than outre trimming, with three fittings required per hat (priced £500-£2000). She works in the most exquisite fabrics: fox and voluminous silk gazar – originally developed by Balenciaga – are favourites. Generally she designs to order, which involves seeing the entire outfit a hat is intended to complement, right down to the shoes, but she also has a seasonal collection. For this autumn she has created a range that is intended to be ‘light, to take the place of a hairstyle, and quite 30s – I’ve been inspired by Schiaperelli and the pleating of Madame Gres (the late couturier famed for Grecian draping). I was thinking about her at home with a turban on, in some trousers, with a strong shoulder.’

Millinery might be as specialist a craft as you could find in fashion, but for the kind of complexity that makes you wonder how anything is ever achieved to perfection, look at fine tailoring. The Forall factory in Vicenza, established in 1970 and still a family-run business, is best known for the in-house Pal Zileri lines that it produces. Its quality is as excellent as you’ll find within Italy and, like John Smedley, it operates in what feels like a poetically anachronistic bubble. Every weekday its employees eat lunch together in an attic space above their showrooms. Immaculately groomed men with slicked jet hair settle down at the elegant wooden dining table for their primi, secondi and a glass of the local Soave before work continues in the design departments and around the laser cutting technology.

Racked up in a corner of the Forall factory are a row of perfectly finished, made-to-measure black suits with the distinctive Futura Bold type of ‘Jil Sander’ across the cellophane wraps. ‘Forall is the most experienced manufacturer in Italy,’ says Andreas Bergbaur of Jil Sander. ‘They have an incredible know-how on sartorial craftsmanship, handmade techniques and top quality fabrics.’ Sander goes where the quality is: whether it’s having their made-to-measure tailoring handled by Forall, or their double-faced cashmere dresses put together by nuns in a monastery in Sicily.

The bulk of Forall’s work is the Pal Zileri lines, and their finest in-house line is the Sartoriale collection (from £1,699). ‘We call it Sartoriale because it takes inspirations from the old sartorial traditions but with the advantages of industrial production,’ says Pal Zileri director Manuela Miola. A jacket goes through 180 processes, and 100 people work to create that jacket. Nearly all the procedures are handmade.’

One of the other go-to factories in Italy is, of course, Zegna. It’s the most powerful, and vertically integrated, high-end manufacturer of its kind, controlling everything from textile mills to the ambience of the lighting in its stores. Tom Ford’s suits are produced by some of the best factories at Zegna before selling in Harrods and at his standalone boutique in New York. If Tom Ford has his own distinctly modern look, then so does Zegna’s most time-intensive line, Couture, with its narrow and powerful silhouette. ‘There are 33,000 stitches in each piece,’ explains Anna Zegna. ‘We have 15 people working exclusively on Couture. The look is very contemporary, with a natural shoulder rather than padded, and a higher armhole for more freedom of movement. Everything is done by hand to feel the tension of the stitching because it changes according to the fabric. Even the pressing is like sculpture because when you use cashmere or vicuna, the fibres must be pressed in a special way and at the optimum temperature.’ One of the most desirable Couture pieces for this autumn is a men’s double-breasted dark grey suit with a broad burgundy chalk stripe (£2015), a deeply sophisticated design concept as well as piece of tailoring.

In the UK, celebrated bespoke tailor Tony Lutwyche may work out of a narrow fourth floor studio on Berwick Street that brings to mind Francis Bacon’s less salubrious Soho, but by taking over what was Cheshire Clothing in Crewe he has become the most important figure in English tailoring. The company, with a workforce of 50 tailors, had already been responsible for developing the niche, ultra-luxe Purple label for Ralph Lauren, and producing it for many years. Since Lutwyche took over, 40 of the UK’s most exclusive tailors – including Hardy Amies, a high proportion of Savile Row’s houses and London’s oldest tailor, Ede & Ravenscroft – have become faithful clients, heading to Cheshire for the ready-to-wear and made-to-measure arms of the business. Unless it’s from a bespoke workshop, if a label says ‘Made in England’ and it’s a fully canvassed hand tailored garment, then it’s by Cheshire Bespoke. ‘We work behind the scenes,’ says Lutwyche. ‘A brand appears graceful and serene like a swan, and we are the little legs paddling furiously under the water getting the whole thing sorted out.’ This year Lutwyche launched his own ready-to-wear and made-to-measure ranges at Saks in the US (prices from £2,700), while his own bespoke work continues to attract commissions from the likes of Tom Aiken and the British Polo Team.

Some designers manage their own tailoring, but very few international designers with a footwear range produce their own heels. For most it’s a case of finding a suitably swank cobbler to channel the DNA of their brand. Raymond Massaro helped create a certain iconic two-tone sandal with his father for Coco Chanel over 50 years ago and, although he retired recently, his atelier in Paris still creates all the shoes for Chanel Haute Couture. It also produces around 1,350 pairs of shoes a year for private clients, each pair containing 40 hours of work and costing between £1,700-£4,300. If Massaro’s own range also looks decidedly Chanel in style – all variations on 40s film star heels – then its important to remember that Massaro invented the look. Two tones and satin court shoes aside, there are also flights of fancy: ‘We recently had a commission for a pair of thigh-high boots ending in trousers,’ says Massaro’s director Philip Atienza. Massaro is a rare and exclusive proposition: in 2002 Chanel bought the company to safeguard its history, and a ready to wear range launches this month for the first time and more men’s designs are in the pipeline, but the business remains Massaro, not Chanel. Fellow Parisian Christian Louboutin creates many ranges for designers, including the show pieces for London-based Todd Lynn, famed for his sharp rock and roll chic and monochrome palate. ‘I give my vision for the season and Christian puts his stamp on it,’ says Todd. ‘You should stick to what you do best and work with other experts to complete the vision.’

Just as Louboutin and Massaro are masters in leatherwork for the foot, Gala Gloves are masters of the art for the hand. The Pellone family business started in 1930 in Naples, and create the gloves for Armani, Etro, Alfred Dunhill, Paul Smith and Temperley. Every piece is hand-crafted and produced in the kind of romantic atelier that one hopes is the reality behind everything ‘Made in Italy’, where vast swathes of butter soft leathers are unfurled and cut by Neapolitan artisans wielding huge haberdashery scissors. Although 70% of all the gloves they produce are black or brown, for this season their own range includes some wonderful women’s burgundy and purple nappa gauntlets (£95) with contrasting top stitching and inter-finger flashes. Back in the UK, Lewis Leathers have courted their cult appeal in Japan: Junya Watanabe commissioned reworkings of their classic leather biker jackets over three seasons to sell under his own label, while Watanabe’s parent label, Comme des Garçons, released a range of Lewis Leathers baseball trainers last year. The strength of the design and quality at Lewis – which opened in 1892 and where you can get a made to measure leather jacket that will last a lifetime (from £625-£700) – is equal to its refreshingly unfashiony, practical cool. Its functionality sets it aside from fashion whimsy.

Back at John Smedley, creative director Dawn Stubbes has been overseeing a new tailoring line for this season, as well as a capsule collection of ultra fine 13.5 micron pieces (finer than most cashmere on the market), with Chanel-inspired ladies twin sets and men’s black V-necks (from £400). As she checks the new samples, she recalls a recent visit to Tokyo, where the Smedley label is held in such high regard for its history that Margaret Howell adds their name to her, or indeed their, knitwear labels in her stores. ‘I was looking at the pieces we’d made,’ recalls Dawn, ‘and the shop assistant came up to me and told me the whole story about this wonderful 225 year old factory back in Derby called John Smedley that made all these amazing things.’ The fashion world’s artisan wizards sometimes do, it seems, get the recognition for adding more credibility and authenticity to a garment than any amount of advertising could ever do.


Braccialini, 27 Conduit Street, London W1; 020 7408 1716;

Christian Louboutin, 23 Motcomb Street, London SW1; 020 7245 6510;

Ermenegildo Zegna, 37-38 New Bond Street, London W1; 020 7518 2700

Gala gloves, from Milletre, 15 Victoria Grove, W8; 020 7584 1588

John Smedley, 24 Brook Street, London W1;

Lewis Leathers, 26 Chilworth Street, London W2; 0207 402 0863;

Maison Massaro, 2 Rue Paix, 75002 Paris; +33 1 42 61 00 29;

Prudence Millinery; 0785 327 7499;

Tony Lutwyche, 0207 292 0640;

Pal Zileri, 125 New Bond Street, London W1; 020 7493 9711;


One Response to “Behind the seams (Financial Times How to Spend it)”

  1. Nice post & nice blog. I love both.

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