Kathryn Sargent has been the tailor on everyone’s tongues this year. As well as garnering attention for her bespoke garments, she made history in April by becoming the first woman to launch her own store on Savile Row, which is where we meet – a haven from the day’s blazing sun.
Much like her Brook Street boutique, 37 Savile Row is inviting, bright and relaxed; two cutting tables sit in the window, on view to passersby – while a photographic display documents the bespoke tailoring process. Kathryn is warm and laid-back; her calm Leeds lilt is a welcome sound in Mayfair. I wonder if she’s surprised at how long it has taken for her to get here – particularly as a woman. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. Bespoke businesses don’t open up every day. The last one, 10 years before me, was Richard Anderson.” She explains that the lengthy learning process means only a few reach that level. “New businesses don’t open in this trade because it takes such a long time to learn. You’ve got to learn to cut, which is five years at least; then you need the experience. You’ve got to know the industry and you have to understand the business model.”
The likelihood of even the most experienced cutters starting their own businesses is slim. “The odds are stacked against you, I think. Even Richard (Anderson) setting up his own company – it’s not an easy thing to do, even as a man. To go through all the training and then to open a business… I respect and admire him greatly for what he’s done, because you’re not just making a suit. You can be a great cutter, but can you be a businessperson as well?”
But of course, Kathryn is aware of the lack of female tailors on the Row, and the historic difficulties for women working in this industry. “Perhaps,” she suggests, “some businesses wouldn’t have supported women in client-facing roles and taken the risk to put the investment in women, when they could go and have children. Who would look after the clients?”
But there have been big changes in recent years – and Kathryn believes that the industry will only become more diverse. “Fortunately, there’s more women in cutting roles now, being trained in the businesses,” she says. “There will probably be more women – there’s been a massive change in the last 20 years – the style of the business is so much more open.”
Kathryn was born in Leeds, to parents that embodied sartorial elegance. “Even though they didn’t have a lot of money, my mum and dad have always taken great care in putting their outfits together,” she says. Kathryn thinks that these values had an impact on her interest in tailoring over the years. “I never saw my dad wearing jeans – he wore suits constantly. Looking back now, I can see that must have had a really big influence on me.”
Moving to London to attend fashion college, Kathryn was the only student of 60 interested in tailoring. “Tailoring wasn’t very fashionable,” she explains. “It was the mid-90s and it was much more about casual wear.” But Kathryn was “a bit of a mod – I used to wear tailored stuff myself.” That influence, alongside figures like Michael Caine, Paul Weller and James Bond, played a significant part in Kathryn’s aesthetic trajectory. Sensing her affinity with the art of tailoring, a lecturer asked if she had been to Savile Row. “The immediate impact of some of the clothes in the window… I’d never seen anything like it.”
Wanting hands-on experience, Kathryn started knocking on doors, and was offered work experience at Denman and Goddard – a small tailors on New Burlington Street. “I was with them for almost a year. I was there more than I was at college in my final year.” Shadowing tailors and cutters, Kathryn began learning her trade, and crafting her own tailored garments.
With a desire to work on the Row, Kathryn was advised to move to a larger house. According to Kathryn, Denman and Goddard introduced her to Gieves and Hawkes. “They interviewed me and I got a job – before I even graduated.” Her graduate collection was praised and garnered the aspiring tailor a prestigious award – presented by Jeff Banks, now Kathryn’s Savile Row neighbour.
Savile Row was in the process of rejuvenation during this time, thanks to refreshing outlooks from Richard James and Ozwald Boateng. “I wanted to be like that, I loved it,” remembers Kathryn fondly. “I just thought the two of them were really inspiring – using colour and doing things in a contemporary way, and taking tailoring to another level.”
She says that there was resistance towards the new school tailors from the more traditional institutions in the area. “Richard James said that when he first opened here, it wasn’t well received at all. I think it’s the shock of the new,” she says. “I think some of the old guard wondered what the hell they were doing. But there was a demand for it.” Kathryn says that now, the majority of Savile Row’s tailors have accepted the need for change. “Savile Row has existed for over 200 years and will continue to exist. But the way we work and communicate with our clients is different, and the pieces we make are different. It’s becoming less classical and more interesting.”
She says that despite the obvious rivalries between houses over the years, they have learnt that Savile Row is greater than the sum of its parts. “Even though we’re in competition with each other, we realise that we’re working together for the greater cause, to promote what we do. When the Savile Row Bespoke Association was formed around 12 years ago, I think the businesses realised that together, we’re a much stronger force than separately.”
Kathryn spent 15 years at Gieves and Hawkes; at first, she was learning and honing her limited skills, but became ever more immersed in the craft and community that she had grown to love. “You’re in the heart of it, surrounded by these amazing craftspeople. I’ve built some great friendships and connections here. I just shadowed them, watched them – I came in morning, noon and night and learnt as much as I could.” By the time she left Gieves and Hawkes, Kathryn had graduated to head cutter – the first ever female to do so.
Describing her tailoring as “free and artisan,” Kathryn refuses to be pigeonholed into a particular style. “I don’t restrict myself – I work very much with the individuals. It’s more about personal brand consultation and making something unique for the individual.” She says she is influenced by “the fabrics, the new collections coming out twice a year and new technology…”; but her primary inspiration is derived from the clients themselves. “I’m interested in people and what makes them tick – their lifestyle and how they wear their clothes.”
Despite the dominance of ready-to-wear, Kathryn believes that bespoke tailoring still has a relevance in our lives – and fits into the mindset many of us have today. “I think there’s a big trend towards personalisation, individualisation. The idea of bespoke is actually quite contemporary, because we are all individualising our lives – from personal trainers to how you have your apartment; how you live your lifestyle or how you work; everyone has this flexibility and the idea of ‘bespoke’ in their lives.”
Unusually, Kathryn’s client base is fairly equally split between male and female – a conscious decision on her part. “It’s very nicely balanced. We’re close to 50 per cent women now,” she says. Is the rise in women shopping on the Row related to Kathryn’s presence? “Yes, in some way. There is also more knowledge about bespoke tailoring – and the idea of having something made for you that will complement, fit and last you,” she says. She finds making for women a stimulating process. “I enjoy it immensely. There are certain rules with menswear – whereas with women, there are no guidelines.” As women have not historically been served on Savile Row, there is no template for women’s tailoring. “There’s no formula for a woman to wear a suit, which is interesting. It’s about using your eye to figure out what works best for the individual.”
Being one of the sole tailors to make for women, I ask if London Fashion Week, which takes place this month, is on her radar. “To actually put on a catwalk show, that’s me saying that I’m a designer – that’s my brand, that’s my thing. But I’m a tailor.” She says there is potential for her to bring out a collection – but it’s not her main goal. “If I did develop a small offering of women’s capsule wardrobe pieces, then I’d certainly like to do something with London Fashion Week. But at this moment in time, the focus is bespoke.”
For Kathryn, the plan is to take it one step at a time. “I’ve launched a made to measure service, where we can make you a personalised suit but the quality is more like a ready-to-wear garment – and the price point is much more accessible.” Her initial deal with The Crown Estate puts her on Savile Row until the end of the season; but Kathryn is open to further opportunities here. “I’ve really enjoyed this summer and being part of the Row again,” she says. “I don’t want to be hidden away; but at the same time, I want to make sure we grow in an organic, manageable way. I’m a small step person, but I do want to grow my business.”
Kathryn’s ambition is to have longevity. “I want to grow my team, and I want to work for the rest of my life. I want to take it forward. I’ve become a self-appointed spokesperson for bespoke – and I want to be in that space.” She says that furthering the business will require thoughtful evolution. “I want to look after it and nurture it in a healthy way, and present it and still be fresh. We’re constantly thinking about what we can do, our point of difference and how relevant it can be. I’m not the sort of person to sit still.”