We sat down for a chat with John Henry Bell, cloth representative and a friend to many on Savile Row.
How would you describe your job role?
My job role at the moment is focused on the public relations side of things. Nowadays tailors don’t buy a lot of stock like they did 40 years ago, so I oversee things and sort out any problems. I keep the bunches up to date, show them the new ranges and keep the customers happy as best as I can. Years ago it was different; you sold to the tailors and they stocked cloth on their shelves, but now they order through bunches so you just have to ensure that you promote your cloths.
How long have you been in the trade?
I have been in the trade for 52 years; I joined in 1962 as a packer. I worked in small wool merchant shop called TB Bendell that was based above Anderson & Sheppard when they were at 30 Savile Row. It was a lovely place; I met my wife there.
I have been in the trade ever since working in different roles for different merchants. I took a break from it for a while because there was a lot of talk of the industry dying out. I only took a break for about a year but then I just had to come back; it is such a special industry and is still going strong today. Most of the customers are my friends and the people that were apprentices 30 or 40 years ago are now the bosses. I have grown with them and can help them better than most because of our relationship.
How did you get started in the trade?
Well I wanted to be a farmer and a gardener, I was once asked to do a gardening job and quickly realised it actually wasn’t for me. I ended up as a packer and after a few years a lot of people moved on and I became a representative, I started travelling around Europe at such early age it was amazing. I’m 72 now and I am still going, the work has become more intense but I’m relishing every minute of it.
Who do you represent?
The mother company I represent is called Lear, Browne and Dunsford, they own Harrisons of Edinburgh, H. Lesser, Porter and Harding, Smith Woollens and W. Bill among others. Whereas before I was working with eight or nine bunches I am now working with about 75, we have really got the heart of the trade which is a great thing.
How has the trade changed over the years?
Well in the old days you had to be a salesman, you had to go out and you had to sell because the bunch trade wasn’t as popular then. I visited shops on Savile Row like Anderson & Sheppard and went all over Europe to sell lengths of cloth and the companies would order per season. Now the tailors buy the cloth when they have sold a suit, so merchants have to hold the stock and keep it on order so the tailors have it ready.
Things have of course changed but the relationships are still the same. The new generation that join the trade are wonderful, and that is why I cherish this place so much, it’s a real community.
I am an apprentice coat maker at Anderson & Sheppard. I have grown up around tailoring; my granddad has been a tailor for most of his life so I have always had the opportunity to see what it involves. It’s such a fascinating industry and it is lovely to see how much my granddad loves his work, his passion for the trade is what got me interested in tailoring.
I attended Soham Village College for two years and studied textiles, and then I started work with my granddad. He allowed me to do some work experience for him for two weeks and I also worked with him over the summer holidays when I was in my last year of college. I started my apprenticeship in November 2015.
Life as a tailor is so rewarding; I am constantly learning and there is always a lot to do. My most exciting moment was when I visited everyone at the Anderson & Sheppard bespoke shop. It was such an amazing experience and of course I can’t forget the day I got offered my apprenticeship. At the moment I am working on a black single breasted dinner jacket which has been really exciting to finish.
My favourite aspect of tailoring is that every day I get the opportunity to be productive, creative and discover something new on the coats I work on. My granddad ensures that I am always busy and I am so lucky I have him as my mentor.
Charmed Life: The Phenomenal World of Philip Sassoon is the latest edition to our coffee table book collection. It tells the story of a fascinating man who connected the great politicians, artists and thinkers at the height of British global power and influence. Many thanks to Damian Collins for sending it to us. Anderson & Sheppard is mentioned on page 109:
“Phillip’s tailor was the Swede Per Anderson, from Anderson & Sheppard, then at number 13, who regarded Scholte as his mentor. Scholte revolutionized men’s fashion and brought Savile Row into the twentieth century through the creation of what became known as the ‘London cut’ or ‘English drape’. They were ‘civil’ tailors who designed suits coats using softer fabrics which draped naturally from the shoulders, as opposed to the traditional tailors who made coats based on the principles of military tailoring, with high shoulders and stiff fronts, designed to make you stand to attention. The idea that a suit should be comfortable would not have been a primary consideration to a Victorian gentlemen.
The Prince recalled in his memoir, A Family Man, ‘My father and his generation, except when in the country, remained imprisoned in frock-coats and boiled shirts. All my life (until adulthood), I had been fretting against those constrictions of dress which reflected my family’s world of rigid social convention. It was my impulse, whenever I found myself alone, to remove my coat, rip of my tie, loosen my collar and roll up my sleeves – a gesture aspiring not merely to comfort, but in a more symbolic sense, to freedom’.
Some men may have thought it scandalous that a Dutchman and a Swede should be allowed to rewrite the rules of Savile Row tailoring. Their new look required a certain panache on the part of the wearer, and the Prince was the perfect model to polarize this.”
Click here to purchase the book on Amazon.
We are pleased to be part of bespokeapprentice.com which officially went live yesterday. The website has been developed to provide a platform for young tailors and cutters in UK companies to share experiences, display exhibition work and to provide information to anyone considering a career in the industry.
It was a great opportunity for our apprentice cutters, Max and Matthew and apprentice makers Finnan, Liberty, Emily and Ashleigh to get involved and share their stories. All our apprentices are on a long but fulfilling journey learning invaluable skills from experienced mentors, and we are very proud of how far they have come.
We often get young people contacting the shop to ask for advice about how to get into the bespoke industry, the website provides information on training, the processes involved and required skills. Learn more about colleges, careers, past events and what life is like for the new generation of tailors and cutters working on Savile Row and in The City.
Thanks to the CAPITB trust and all others who made the website possible. If you are one of those who wants to know more about becoming a bespoke tailoring apprentice or you are interested in reading the apprentices stories please visit the website here.