“When I was a young man, the only place to buy a suit was from a tailor,” says David Saxby. “Everybody had suits made for them, and there was no such thing as ‘ready to wear’. I grew up in Yorkshire, home of Britain’s wool industry, and we all instinctively knew what good material was. It was rather like being able to tell what food tastes like, just by the look of it!”
For the past quarter of a century, Saxby has supplied superlative made-to-measure suits for people of taste and distinction – despite describing himself as an “complete outsider” to the fashion business.“I know absolutely nothing about it,” he tells me. “Instead I do things the old fashioned way. My classic suit is almost an Edwardian cut. It has been around a hundred years and never goes out of style.” For this reason, he’s in great demand – three Dukes buy from him, but he’s too discreet to name them, adding, “these are aristocrats who look down on the Royal Family!” Also, film companies approach him for period drama costumes, “I do dress a lot of actors, I make clothes for Warner Brothers.” Other customers include senior cabinet ministers and internationally famous rock musicians.
David has come a long way. His father was a miner in a Yorkshire coal town where he grew up. As soon as he was able, he escaped to a local seaside town, “which seemed like paradise”. He began working in tailoring, “and this gave me a grounding which set up my taste and style for the rest of my life. It was the early nineteen sixties, when Burtons tailors were still strong. They could do as good as anything you’d get from Savile Row in London. I used to think, there’s nothing better than this!” By 1965, London’s trendy Carnaby Street was setting the style for the rest of the Western world. “But there was also Jermyn Street,” David points out, “and that was making really fine suits that film stars like Michael Caine would wear. It was classic British tailoring at its best.”
By this time, Saxby had become interested in photography, and started a camera business which brought him a lot of famous customers. Then, looking to make more money, he made another big career leap and moved into property. “I ended up owning a nice castle in Scotland with forty acres of ground and an eighteen acre trout loch. I was quite happily retired, aged thirty five. Then my bank went bust, taking all my money with it! Thinking what to do next, I remembered that I knew tailoring inside-out, so I returned to making traditional suits – a business you could start without big money. Then I got into the manufacturing side, and bought a factory where I made caps and coats in exactly the same way they were always made. I took over the workforce too – all my girls in my factory are as old as me! They had been making for Jaeger, which had a superb reputation in the sixties.”
Now, in 2016, there’s a strong demand for his traditional suits. He has three shops (London, Harrogate, Tokyo), and spends time in all of them, serving customers and supplying made-to-measure suits the old fashioned way, using the best tweed cloth, cut by one of the most experienced head cutters in the country. “We measure you individually cut a jacket for you – we don’t alter another one – and this is made in my factory. Some parts are hand-stitched, others by machine because it’s much better that way. The fabric is laid out on the table and is cut to what we've written down on the order sheet individually and personally – so it fits. Mostly, the jacket is right first time and there’s no need to alter it after manufacture, but if you want changes of course they’re done. If a jacket looks too ‘skirty’, we will take a few quarter inches off from the girth down, for example…”
Traditionally, the customer can choose all the details, including the colour of the lining and the layout of the pockets. “Of course there is a standard layout but some people might want a ticket pocket or a poacher's pocket, or even a big wide pocket for their folded up copy of the Daily Telegraph”, he jokes. Everyone has their own idea of what they want with trousers, but David Saxby's classic line is a fairly lean cut with side adjustments. “Of course if you say you'd like turn ups, not cavalry cut, then we'll do what you want…”
David Saxby suits are all made from tweed, a material he adores. “I own jackets that are one hundred and twenty years old, made from Scottish tweed. I can buy Scottish tweed now that, if you were blindfolded, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference from one and a half centuries ago. Even if you were sewing it, you wouldn't tell the difference. I work with the highest quality stuff from Lovat Mill, which is better than you find in the designer fashion brands. These guys aren’t part of a group, they’re just two men interested in making the best tweed in the world. They’re valued friends. I am their only English buyer who buys full rolls of tweed!”
Anyone can tell good tweed from bad, says David. “If you hold it in front of a light and can see through it, then it's not going to last very long – except with some good breathable fabrics. Lovat tweed will outlast several pairs of good jeans, so it works out very cheap over the long term. It copes with water because tweed comes from sheep’s wool, and sheep stand out in the rain all the time – especially Scottish ones!” At this point, he grabs the sleeves of a jacket he has made and scrunches it up with both hands, then lets go. The sleeve snaps back into its original shape, showing no sign of creasing.
Saxby says that you can make even a fairly cheap new suit look great with a top quality press, such as a Hoffman. “I don’t actually have one, but it can take a flimsy suit and stretch it into really good shape. It doesn’t last, though. You wear it for a couple of months the look will come off it, and it won’t be so special. Ultimately, you can’t make a great suit with average cloth, just like rotten vegetables won’t make a delicious meal.”
Saxby offers a choice of eight pure cotton linings, using the same material found in British military officers’ tunics. “This is because it’s the only lining that will last as long as tweeds. It's just much better quality than the linings that you get in the suits made in the fashion industry – I make tweed suits that will still look good in thirty years so the lining has got to look good. It’s from Germany, because it’s hard to source in the UK currently. My cap linings use silk from Sudbury, where the finest silk in the world is woven. You see, a cap lining isn't subject to wear, and silk is very warm.”
David Saxby loves his work, and swells with pride when he sees his customers coming back. “A man came into my shop the other day, a very elegant man with good posture who wears suits very well. After parking his car he came in and a woman who was just leaving said, ‘what a lovely suit!’. People were looking at him on the street, even though his Bentley was parked outside. I said to him, ‘Philip, I haven’t seen that suit in years!’ I made it, but I was envious because he was wearing it so well. It was a great trim and cut, a beautiful Lovat Mill tweed with check. It's odd because if you wear a lovely tweed jacket no one notices but if you match it up with tweed trousers it starts to look amazing, – then put a waistcoat on, and it's perfect!”