Huntsman: a revolution at the heart of London's Savile Row

A stone's throw from the flagships of various global luxury behemoths on New Bond Street, the gentlemen's tailors of Savile Row remain steadfast in their devotion to tradition and understatement.

Bells tinkle in mahogany doorways to sound a customer's arrival; swaths of checks, wool and herringbone from the finest mills in Britain are piled high; and cutters sit hunched in basements and pokey back rooms to fulfill orders for wealthy clients around the world.

But behind the scenes here in London's Mayfair district, many of the small businesses have been in flux as they try to keep pace with the changes transforming the men's wear market.

Several houses were shuttered in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, while others have gradually been bought up by large companies keen to export the lucrative heritage and reputation of the street known for its expert tailoring. William Fung, for example, the billionaire boss of the Chinese trading empire Li & Fung, now controls a string of tailors including Gieves & Hawkes, Hardy Amies and Kilgour.

Revolution on the Row

It is Huntsman, however, at 166 years old and one of the most famous names on the street, that has become something of a poster child - or cautionary tale, depending on your point of view - for the revolution on the Row.

"The future of bespoke remains strong, but Savile Row is a delicate microcosm, needing a critical mass of tailors in order to attract quality trainees and the right face in order to continue securing the patronage of the right clients," says Mark Henderson, the chairman of Gieves & Hawkes and a founder of the Savile Row Bespoke Association. "That has been easier for some than others."

"I think, thankfully, we are now past the days of headlines like 'Savile Row's tailors are hanging by a thread,'" adds Henderson, "mainly because of the efforts of a few to make sure the street remains a revered part of the British men's wear scene and global luxury goods stage."

Clothier to kings

Huntsman is the most expensive establishment on the Row, with prices for a custom two-piece suit starting at £5000 ($10,300), and its clients have ranged from Clark Gable to Winston Churchill, from King Edward VII to the Rolling Stones.

Owned for decades by a consortium of 15 private investors, the shop was bought in January 2013 for an undisclosed sum by Pierre Lagrange, a Belgian hedge fund manager, who installed the British-born Sudanese women's wear designer Roubi L'Roubi as creative director. (L'Roubi was Lagrange's boyfriend at the time.)

"The decision to buy Huntsman came from pure passion, although I have always done investments in creative industries as part of my day job," Lagrange, 53, says during the recent London Men's Fashion Week.

A business decision

"I wouldn't have done it unless I saw an exceptional opportunity with room for nurture," says Lagrange. "Bespoke is the ultimate luxury - a piece of art crafted just for you. And as those who can increasingly look for less branded and more personalised cars, jewels, guns and, of course, wardrobes, I saw a real opportunity for a scalable business."

Certain corners of the Row viewed the outsiders with some suspicion in early months. Some archly noted L'Roubi's lack of men's wear experience and a subtle shift in the time-honoured Huntsman cuts, while others raised eyebrows over Lagrange's recently concluded very public divorce battle with his wife, Catherine, which resulted in a £150 million settlement and the sale of a £90 million, 15-bedroom house in Kensington Palace Gardens to the Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich.

But now Lagrange seems to be a golden boy of the Row.

"Pierre launched into both his relationships at Huntsman and with the wider Row with gusto," Henderson says.

Reputations matter

Caroline Rush, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council, praised Lagrange's ability to join the dots across multiple facets of the tailoring business.

"He has breathed new life into Huntsman, absolutely, and brings new perspectives to the table, too," says Rush. "He understands that in the boom years of ready-to-wear, we need to build the reputation of the Row across international markets in order to ensure its longevity."

Lagrange, worth an estimated £258 million as a co-founder of the investment firm GLG and the current managing director of Man GLG, took the commercial reins as a non-executive director of Huntsman, installing a new management team and overseeing a renovation of the Savile Row headquarters. And he then took his commitment a step further by becoming chairman of the Savile Row Bespoke Association, in 2015.

"Savile Row has a formidable reputation worldwide for what is actually just a handful of small houses, many of which - dare I say it - were not historically being run as businesses," says Lagrange.

"As a financial outsider, I see things differently from many here. With Huntsman, I've been able to suggest new routes for sustainable growth, while still holding huge respect for the knowledge and craftsmanship at the tailor - and at the heart of the street.

"It will protect the interests of all of the traditional tailors individually if we are able to build up the international power and footing of the Savile Row brand."

The creative custodian

One new, if unexpected, route was taken in May: L'Roubi is no longer at Huntsman. He and Lagrange parted ways last year.

In L'Roubi's place, Lagrange hired a Scotsman, Campbell Carey, a 20-year veteran of the street who forged a continent-spanning reputation for himself, most recently as head cutter of Kilgour.

"I've always seen Huntsman as the jewel in the crown of the Row," says Carey. "The history and quality of workmanship here is unparalleled."

Carey, who serves as co-head cutter (with Dario Carnera) in addition to his role as creative director, is dedicated to the signature Huntsman aesthetic: a one-button slack pocket, strong but natural shoulder line, and high-waisted jacket.

"It is more of a house than a brand, and I'd like to think of myself more as a creative custodian than creative director," says Carey.

Both Lagrange and Carey say the future of the business will depend on Huntsman's international expansion efforts. A star turn by the tailor in the 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, both as the setting and the inspiration for a fictional tailoring house that acts as a covert command base for a secret society of spies, has unleashed a small army of fans, particularly in Asia.

New frontiers

Last fall, Huntsman had its inaugural Asian trunk show during a tour that covered eight cities. Its first foreign location - a club on 57th Street in New York City - will open in February.

"The US is responsible for about 60 per cent of our clientele base - elsewhere on the Row that figure is far higher - and in this day and age, it's naive to think that everyone still comes to London," says Lagrange. "To show our customers they matter, then we need to come to them.

"We need to move with the times, protect what makes us unique, but also prove ourselves as a 21st-century luxury business."