As his suits for Chester Barrie launch in Harvey Nichols, and as a coda to last week’s ’70s-themed coverage, London’s most celebrated tailor describes how he and Tommy Nutter revolutionised the bespoke world 40 years ago
On first acquaintance Edward Sexton can resemble one of Guy Ritchie’s East End geezers, with his lived-in, pinkened features, punkish shock of white hair and an accent that’s lost none of the grit of an Elephant & Castle upbringing – especially when he says: “My old boss defined our clientele as the three Cs – the crooks, the cranks and the cripples. And he wasn’t far wrong!” Or referring to some ready-to-wear suits he’s created that he considers particularly good value: “It’s a steal really, one of these suits – a blahddy steal!”
As it happens, he’s right. Accessing Sexton’s work for only a few hundred quid – care of London ready-to-wear specialists Chester Barrie, more of which later – is distinctly reasonable, given that he’s arguably London’s most celebrated tailor. He must also be one of the city’s snappiest dressers. Even at 70, his Brummell-ish mix of elegance and careful decadence is a thing to behold: the luxurious lapels and immaculate hang of his suits, the statement white shirt collar with whopping tie pin, the foppish pocket squares and boutonnières.
“What makes a suit outstanding, apart from a good cut and a good fit, is the way it’s romanced,” Sexton says. “The way you make it express itself with the shirt, the tie, the accessories. The right amount of cuff width, for instance – the finer points of dressing. Clients love to be educated on that stuff, and that’s what we’re here for.”
“What makes a suit outstanding is the way it’s romanced, the way you make it express itself”
Sexton has been teaching clients the finer points of dressing – and more importantly, fashioning them sensational suits – since the 1960s, establishing a tailoring business in his own name in 1981. But it was in the early 1970s that his reputation was made, when he and the great Tommy Nutter wrought a revolution on Savile Row.
REVOLUTIONISING THE ROW
They opened Nutters of Savile Row in 1969, when both were still in their mid-twenties. They’d previously worked together at a tailor’s in Burlington Arcade, Sexton as the hotshot young cutter and Nutter the front-of-house boy making a name for himself on London’s social scene. Going into business together, their mission was to inject the razzle-dazzle of swinging London into a Savile Row that had singularly resisted the changing tempo of the era.
“At the time there was the younger feel of Carnaby Street or the King’s Road, and then there was Savile Row,” Sexton says. “But there was a huge clientele out there that wanted Carnaby Street or King’s Road style but with Savile Row quality, and it wasn’t around – so we filled that void.”
Nutter and Sexton’s answer to Savile Row’s straitlaced conformity was to go maximalist in every way: billowing flared trousers inspired by the “Oxford Bags” of the 1930s, huge lapels curving out almost to the shoulder, vibrant fabrics and boldly contrasting patterns.
“It was about flamboyance and confidence, but never about being flashy”
Among their clients would be the Beatles (including the suits worn on the Abbey Road cover), Elton John, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Elton John and the couturier Sir Hardy Amies.
“We were very influenced by the 1930s and 1940s,” Sexton says. “I think it was about flamboyance and confidence, not being afraid of a bit of colour – but it’s never been about being flashy. Definitely not that.”
Unsurprisingly, the Savile Row establishment looked on with suspicion and alarm, not just because of the rakish threads coming out of Nutters, but because they were taking an entirely fresh approach to the once-closed world of Savile Row bespoke.
“Savile Row wasn’t at all like it is now. It was known to the elite, to a certain class – it really was a closed shop. You went there because your father went there, or it was your regimental tailors: it wasn’t a walking through street like it is today. You’d get a curtain across the windows and a big heavy door that was so intimidating in itself, and when you pushed it open you’d have some old guy who’d interrogate you about whether you were recommended. No wonder people would run a mile.”
UPSETTING THE OLD GUARD
Nutter and Sexton did what was then considered unthinkable, creating a window display to showcase their lavish designs and lure in customers. The old guard were not pleased.
“They were all horrified,” Sexton laughs. “But we got huge interest, and of course their clients would look in our windows and then go to their tailors and ask for their lapels to be made a little bit wider or to have more flare in the trousers. So we influenced them that way, and gradually things started to change.”
Sexton bought Nutter out of the business in 1976, before setting up under his own name in 1981 (Nutter, who later established a ready-to-wear business back on the Row, tragically died as a result of Aids in 1992).
“I’ve been invited back to Savile Row many times, but no.”
For a period Sexton based himself in New York, living the Manhattan high life, but eventually returned and set up shop in Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge, where his business remains. Would he ever return to the Row?
“I’ve been invited to come back so many times, but no. My clients are international, and a lot of my English-based customers live in that area – and let’s face it, the parking’s a lot easier.”
SEXTON FOR CHESTER BARRIE
He’s also plugging some of that wealth of knowledge into the world of ready-to-wear and made-to-measure, designing gorgeous new looks for Chester Barrie, the company set up in 1935 with the aim of bringing Savile Row quality to off-the-peg suits. The results are formidable: suits that carry the hallmarks of Sexton’s style – “the lapel always has a nice curvature to it, the shoulder line always comes up and a little bit forward, with a high armhole that’s much better for movement,” – and his profound understanding of structure and proportion, but for relatively affordable prices (ready-to-wear starts from £695).
The suits are available in Harvey Nichols, where Chester Barrie has just opened a store-within-a-store, as well as House of Fraser and Austin Reed on Regents Street, not to mention Chester Barrie’s Savile Row HQ.
“You can go and buy a readymade suit anywhere that looks beautifully made, but they die – the shoulders don’t work, the collar doesn’t quite fit, and it’s because of all these little things that technicians in a factory, who don’t work with clients, can’t do,” Sexton says. “This is different – it’s investment clothing. All my previous life experience that’s gone into this – my history is Savile Row, that’s all I know.”
Extracts of this interview were first published in City AM newspaper.
Edward Sexton: shaking up ’70s Savile Row
Londond’s most celebrated tailor on how he revolutionised Savile Row in the 1970s
Tim is the editor of QP Magazine, is watch editor for City AM business newspaper, and writes on watches, travel, style and good living for the Financial Times, Wired, the Telegraph, Departures and many others.
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