High up in the inner sanctum of Savile Row sits Adam King, co-owner of King & Allen bespoke tailors. Bright, smart in his flawlessly cut, slate blue, three button, single breast, double take, two-piece and surrounded by rolls of two twill Harris Tweed, velvety soft pin-striped Kanzada Cashmere, South African mohair, an oak hat stand and a chesterfield sofa in the background; he looks every bit the part. In fact, there’s just one tool of his trade that doesn’t quite fit with the scene - his iPad.
Apple’s tablet, or any kind of technology for that matter, is not what you would normally associate with any branch of the sartorial arts, but then King & Allen isn’t your run of the mill tailoring service. As it happens, we’re not sitting in their offices, largely because they don’t have any. The company is as mobile and as virtual as it can possibly be; counting Google and Twitter as two of its closest friends. We’re actually in the nerve centre of Holland & Sherry, what is considered to be the finest clothier in the world and one of the key partners for King’s business that brings a modern approach to one of the oldest professions in the world.
“It’s the best of the old meets the best of the new”, levels King proudly, every bit the modern gentleman, as he looks up from his iPad bearing Pocket-lint on the freshly fingered screen.
“We use cutting edge software, marketing and business methods with our clients while their suits are still made by a jolly old boy with a tape measure round his neck, a pair of scissors in his hand and a big roll of cloth on the table”.
Established in 2004, King & Allen brings Savile Row Bespoke tailored suits to its customers at a fraction of the actual Savile Row prices. Spotting a gap in the market while travelling the world, the core model of the business is to supply hand made suits of the finest fabrics to UK clients, but as stitched by the very best tailors in the Far East. Each suit is created in Hong Kong, sent to the UK for the first fitting, sent back again for the next round of adjustments, returned to the West once more for the second fitting before the final alterations are carried out by a set of master tailors in England. Even after you factor in the shipping costs, it still brings down the price to the customer dramatically with traditionally tailored, hand made, bespoke suits starting at £499.
“We don’t spend on shop fronts, print advertising or expensive premises”, explains King. “So, the spend on your suit goes on your suit. That’s where the traditional Savile Row businesses are failing. Our website is our shop front and we spent a lot of time and effort when we first set up investing in SEO and getting the site itself as smooth as possible. Sixty per cent of our suits sold are new business. You need people to be able to find you and it’s just not enough to rely on a well known street address in this day and age”.
As well as ensuring high search rankings, King uses Google for its Alerts system allowing him to monitor forums and check that his customers are satisfied and, if their suits are being criticised, that at least what’s being said is factually correct.
“Tailoring is a highly traditional area and there are some people of the attitude that Johnny Foreigner doesn’t know how to make a suit, so I do have to deal with some reactionary opinions to what we’re doing. First of all, the reason we use Hong Kong tailors is because traditionally they were trained by Savile Row masters of the past. When British gentlemen went off to settle in Her Majesty’s colony off China, they took their tailors with them to ensure they would be properly clothed and these tailors in turn trained locals and began businesses of their own out there using the very same Savile Row techniques”.
In 2004, the tailors of London’s famous street formed the Savile Row Bespoke Association in order to protect and develop the art of bespoke tailoring, drawing up a list of pre-requisite rules for each suit to ensure that no passing off as a genuinely hand stitched item could happen unless it was indeed the real McCoy. In answer, King & Allen coded a special page on the company website about Savile Row to show that their suits match these same criteria on every single point using Flash animation to help explain to customers exactly what is meant by a single floating canvas and where you might expect to find a welt pocket. Of course, it also means that even first timers can have the confidence of knowing what they’re ordering and what they’d like to have left out.
Websites and internet marketing are of course all very well and good, but it’s King’s iPad that’s got our attention. Quite how it fits into the cloth stitching trade is the reason we’re down there in the first place.
“Until recently we’ve been using a pen and paper during fittings, as any tailors would have over the last few hundred years, then someone would take them to the office, type them off and send them out to Hong Kong. What the iPad offers is a way to remove the hassle and make the whole process more efficient”.
King & Allen’s UK measuring team carry the iPad in one hand a tape in the other; recording each inside leg, collar and chest size with the swipe of a finger. Each customer’s details are then sent straight out by email from the spot they were taken over 3G or Wi-Fi, or whatever connection is available.
“We’ve taken an app we bought for £4.99 and turned it into an incredible tool for us. It cuts out an entire member of staff, eliminates copy errors and removes a complete step of the process. It means that a customer’s order and measurements can be with the tailor in Hong Kong before they’ve even walked out the door. We tried it with a netbook a few years’ back but it’s just too cumbersome to hold during a fitting and the iPad has that near-A4 size which means we can get everything we need all on one screen”.
The iPad may be a rather expensive alternative to the pencil and paper but the app King & Allen use to do the job is certainly cut price. Documents to Go for the iPad is as complicated a piece of software that’s required to record and upload the tabular data although a glitzier way of doing things certainly has it’s appeal for King.
“Originally, I approached a company and asked them to design an app specially for the job. They came up with something and it was absolutely beautiful. It had a measuring tape built into the top and everything but they wanted £5000 for it and you just can’t justify that compared to a fiver”.
While Apple’s latest darling may have turned out to be an excellent tool for tailoring, it’s not quite perfect according to King. One can take as many measurements as one likes and hold a series of fittings but a good tailor should also use his eye to address any physical idiosyncrasies of their customers - an unusual gait, hunched shoulders or shorter leg. The tailors for King & Allen never actually meet the people they dress, so another important piece of gadgetry for the company is a digital camera to mail over shots of each person out to Hong Kong, but quality this time is of little issue.
“We only need VGA resolution to give our guys enough to go on, so we just use the cheapest cameras we can find. It’d be great to use high end ones, but the fact is that because we’re permanently on the road, we lose them all the time. You could probably follow us by our trail of forgotten cameras”.
Wherever the business goes though, you’ll always find them on Twitter with dressing tips, sartorial quotes of the day and even the odd competition to win yourself a bespoke tailored suit, but perhaps the best part about a modern interpretation of clothing the chic gentleman of today is that King & Allen is also adept at dressing the modern gadget geek with a sense of style.
For the Suit Innovations contest, the company invited suggestions from customers as to what new tricks their stitchers could add. Among the top ten chosen were mobile phone pockets, with a pocket to charge up a battery much in the same way a Powermat operates and an extra eyehole on the lapel that goes all the way through the lining and allows you to feed through a headphones cable from your pocket to your ear.
“One the ideas that I quite liked is trying to fit in an iPad slot in a suit jacket”, says King with a chuckle as he taps his tablet on the table in front of him. “The trouble is that we’re not quite sure where to put it at the moment”.
We suggest mounting it on the back in much the same place as where Conan keeps his broadsword. King raises an eyebrow, practices the motion and then jots down the idea on his iPad.
The point, of course, in these competitions is not just to spread the word of the company but also to get across the beauty of a bespoke tailored suit in the modern age - bespoke, meaning it’s yours, it’s made for you and you can have it any way you want to.
“At the very least each suit comes with a free embroidery design for the inside pocket area and we encourage customers to choose whatever they want”. No mean feat considering that there are 500-800 bespoke suits going through at any given time.
Of course, not everyone sticks to the straight and narrow. A good tailor will always keep what’s said between them and the client just that way, but King indulges us just the one insight.
“We’ve made the entire Michael Jackson Smooth Criminal suit for people before. Twice, actually. They look amazing and the joy of the iPad is that it’s a full catalogue at my fingertips. It means we can guide our customers through the almost infinite styles and options when they walk through the door. Yes, we could do that on a computer on some desktop somewhere, but a tablet makes it so much more stylish and smarter and more in line with the experience that tailoring is all about”.
The next major step for King & Allen on the technology front is to start an online shopping service. Naturally, this isn’t wildly new in general but in the world of bespoke tailoring it’s basically a first.
“The only issue we’ve got with it is that it requires people to measure themselves accurately and, let’s face it, some are going to make mistakes. The first they’ll know about it is when they get their suit back and it does fit. At this point it’s going to be a hard situation to manage especially when we take pride in our products, so we’re not quite sure how we’re going to do it yet.”
In the short run, in that case, it’s probably the introduction of an iPad 2 complete with an onboard camera that’ll make the biggest impact on the King & Allen business. A few lost compacts here and there, and it practically pays for itself. Suits you, Mr Jobs.
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