In the hands of a few good men
Truly bespoke … father-and-son team Daniel and Robert Jones at work in their Oxford Street shop. Photo: Wolter Peeters
What is the collective noun for ''tailor''? In London, it would have to be a ''row of tailors''. A Savile Row, to be precise. In Sydney, I think it would have to be a ''rarity of tailors''. Sure, the Yellow Pages lists 140 men's tailors in the greater Sydney area, but there are few to whom I'd actually entrust my inseam, let alone rely upon to squarely inset a sleeve, calibrate my interface or navigate the intricate distinctions between patch, flap or jetted pockets. The truth is an authentic tailor is not so common a beast on these shores.
The dressmaker, the shirtmaker, yes (being relatively unstructured garments both), but a correctly trained tailor, nope. Which is curious, given the widely remarked shift in market ethics and aesthetics towards the handcrafted, the made-to-measure and the (oft misattributed) ''bespoke''. This move is more strategic than organic and its principal strategists were Tom Ford and his chief executive-elect, Domenico de Sole, when still at the helm of Gucci in the early 2000s. The so-called ''luxury'' sector had taken a knock due to flagrant overuse of the word and so Ford and de Sole decided to launch the concept of ''made-to-measure'' and ''bespoke'' within the upper mass market (a made-to-measure Tom Ford suit today will set you back about $6000).
As if by osmosis, the cognoscenti among Sydney men have also begun turning to that dainty handful of skilled professionals, that rarity of tailors, to sculpt and embellish their bodies. It's partly, one assumes, a result of a general ''dressing up'' of the male species. Not just in the workplace (though the demise of so-called casual Friday - nothing casual about such considered nonchalance - is not to be regretted) but also in evening and even weekend attire.
Cutting edge ... with his fashion-forward approach, Patrick Johnson, in his Paddington store, is at the forefront of Sydney's wardrobe revolution. Photo: Steven Siewert
Patrick Johnson (trading under P.Johnson) is at the forefront of this pan-wardrobe revolution. Sandy blond, lantern-jawed and with (by his own admission) ''a big bum'', Johnson studied fashion at London's Central Saint Martins College before going to work with esteemed shirtmaker Robert Emmett on Jermyn Street, Mayfair. Upon returning to Sydney, he set up P.Johnson in Paddington. His white showroom is airy, large windows giving directly onto leafy Liverpool Street, and his samples have none of the sombre air one habitually associates with suits.
In fact, the entire set-up screams ''new generation''. Johnson wears a pale-grey cashmere vest over a high-collared pastel-pink shirt with Neapolitan (read: ruffled) shoulders. His high-waisted trousers are cuffed loftily above the ankle. His bum may or may not look big in them - but I'm more interested in the very particular tomato hue of his socks. ''I play the peacock so my customers don't have to,'' he says with a grin. But then, the customer who chooses the puce, chartreuse or powder-blue 120s wool (high-microfibre or warm-weather wear, yet still durable) to be worked into one of Johnson's five basic models is obviously something of a strutter.
''Yes, we do have a much more fashion-forward approach,'' he admits, ''but the essential is that the garment fits well.'' He tends to go for lighter construction, to ensure comfort in warmer climes. ''And colour, to really maximise the incredible Sydney light!''
The buff Sydney body, however, can pose a problem: often, during the second fitting (of three, before the made-to-measure garments are sent to the Netherlands for finishing) padding needs to be removed, arms cut more narrowly, waists carved into a more elegant shape. Expect to pay upwards of $1500.
The director of G.A.Zink & Sons, Robert Jones, says: ''Many of our customers come to us because they have a physical issue they want to deal with - a shortened shoulder, girth issues, that sort of thing.''
Unlike Johnson, Robert and son Daniel, of the Oxford Street institution that opened in 1895, opt for heavier wools in the belief that their drape affects the suit's fall. Unlike Johnson, also, they believe the suit to be a more, well, Robert says ''dignified'', I'll say ''muted'', affair.
Either way, Jones snr wields his tape measure like a maestro: he studied tailoring at East Sydney Tech when it was still East Sydney Tech and it still taught tailoring, and it shows. In a flash he's got my ''length of coat'' (nape to upper lower buttock) my half-back (8¾), my hips (40¾) and my waist (there are some things a gentleman just does not reveal …)
The Joneses fabricate their suits upstairs, themselves, by hand.
The result may not hit the heights of fashion, but it will be totally bespoke.
Bijan Sheikhlary, the Iranian-born, Savile Row-trained master tailor, is the indisputable king of Sydney bespoke.
He uses superfine 150s, eschews padding for a slightly softer shoulder, keeps his palette muted and duly receives the cream of local politicians, bankers and high-flying business types in his discreet O'Connell Street, city, atelier.
His suits are the kind that the untrained eye would hardly notice walking down the street (no chartreuse for our Bijan), although they exude an undeniable aura of elegance, assurance and wealth.
They remind me of the first phrase the French learn when studying English: ''My tailor is rich (but my English is poor).''