Edward Sexton, the subversive tailor who gave us Bianca Jagger’s 1971 white wedding suit, is back on Savile Row after a 32-year absence.
Fashion rebels come and go but Sexton, who turns 80 in November, remains the definitive rock and roll tailor. He cut Elton John’s most extravagant suits for years, Jarvis Cocker and Bobby Gillespie are loyal customers, as is Harry Styles. When Andy Warhol and his business manager Fred Hughes wanted tuxedos in the 1970s, they came straight to Sexton. “I know when someone wants drama,” says Sexton, speaking to me in his newly opened boutique at 35 Savile Row. “Andy and Fred definitely wanted it, so I accentuated the silhouette. I can turn it up or down.”
The new store has been fitted out by Daniel Hopwood in what the interior designer calls “a découpage approach to art deco”, featuring angular panels of golden corduroy on the walls, and a “giant central marble table that can be for cutting, coffee, or cocktails”. It’s the space for a tailor who has forever been synonymous with flash. But this isn’t about marketing. Sexton isn’t coming back to build a global brand, he’s just coming home from Knightsbridge, where he decamped in 1990.
“His return will be welcomed by all who share his passion for bespoke tailoring,” says Anda Rowland of Anderson & Sheppard, and chair of the Savile Row Bespoke Association. “He cuts one of the industry’s most recognisable silhouettes which has been widely copied, but never matched.”
Sexton says he has never been in it for the money. He just wants to be the best in show. He worked his way up from Lew Rose, one of the most fashionable tailors of the 1950s, to Kilgour, French & Stanbury 10 years later, then famously partnered with Tommy Nutter as his cutter from the end of the 1960s. They made an odd couple — Nutter the ultimate gay society hedonist of the day, and Sexton a family man who barely drank. But they forged a friendship while both were working at tailors Donaldson, Williams & Ward, and recognised each other as kindred spirits creatively. They opened Nutters together on Savile Row on Valentine’s Day in 1969.
The cut of their suits caused shockwaves when it first appeared. Famously, their neighbour Hardy Amies took a tape measure out at a cocktail party to measure the proportions on a Nutter suit, calling it “extraordinary”. “The super wide lapel was Tommy’s idea,” explains Sexton. “The long lean body was mine. It was a unique combination.”
“The look represented a culmination of everything modern,” writes Lance Richardson in the biography House of Nutter, of the first suits the duo made together, “everything mod, smashing, subversive, Continental American, queer and camp — combined with a keen fidelity to old-school Savile Row craftsmanship.”
Sexton remained managing director of Nutters until 1976, after buying his chaotic co-founder out of the business. He then relaunched under his own name, and he is still credited with revolutionising the British luxury métier of bespoke.
Those suits had their roots in Sexton’s mastery of jackets originally designed for horse riding, with flared dimensions to spread across a saddle. Sexton saw the potential for a new blueprint for postwar tailoring; something glamorous, for a newly glamorous era. “Younger people were going to the King’s Road for interesting clothes, but there wasn’t the quality. We were new and different, but all about craftsmanship,” he says.
“I was in my mid-teens in the 1970s and was aware of the Sexton name and his role in dressing The Stones, Bianca Jagger, The Beatles and Yoko Ono,” remembers art director, graphic designer and Sexton client Peter Saville, known best for his work with Burberry, Factory Records and Yohji Yamamoto. “The House of Nutter captured a ‘rock aristocratic’ feeling that I loved. They made stunning clothes for musicians and artists who probably slept in them. I identified with that carefree, dissolute attitude.”
Nutter and Sexton’s approach to the presentation of what they were doing had as much impact on Savile Row as their cuts. “Back in the day, it was a very boring street,” says Sexton. “Then we opened up, and we had window displays that were exciting.” By all accounts, the original Nutter space functioned as a raucous club house for celebrities as much as an outfitters. Things are less louche today, but Sexton is still engaged with the avant-garde.
On one of the afternoons I visit Sexton, he is fitting the TS Eliot Prize-winning slam poet Joelle Taylor. She was approached by Sexton’s creative director Dominic Sebag-Montefiore after performing at the Royal Festival Hall. “He was struck by the parallels between me wearing a suit on stage, and talking about female masculinity,” says Taylor. “There’s quite a feminine aspect to the way Edward works, it’s gentle as well as architectural.” A collaborative short film involving both parties is currently in the works. “His suits have power,” says the poet.
While Sexton is creating his typically masculine cut for Taylor, as an homage to her father’s suits, he has a strong business among women who come to him for a tapered silhouette. You can tell by work-in-progress suits, hanging up in the workroom in pink and white fabrics, that his customers aren’t just coming to him for basics. “I’ve developed my style over the years,” he says. “I like strong architectural lines, and a higher waist which elongates the body. But crucially, there are no rules any more — we have so many more interesting fabrics to work with, and you don’t have to wear a tie. You can wear trainers with your suit.”
Watching Sexton work on the chrysalis of a suit is fascinating. He circles his client with his cutter Nina Penlington, gently marking the fabric with his triangular chalk here and there, whispering for Penlington to take notes in his special code, debating whether a change should be a half or quarter inch. Occasionally he folds his clients’ fingers into a loose fist, to gauge how the sleeve breaks. There is a performative aspect to the process.
Edward Sexton is part of the history of Savile Row, and might be its future too. Numerous houses overextended themselves (Nutter himself did it in the 1970s, by launching a shirt range that flopped, and Gieves & Hawkes is currently up for sale after its Hong Kong owner went into liquidation in January), but Sexton has purposely remained small and stable, punching above his weight only in influence. Besides his bespoke service (around £6,000), he has a small seasonal core of ready to wear, launched in 2015 (jackets start at £1,100), and a made-to-measure service. He also offers “offshore bespoke” (from £2,750) where the pattern is cut in London, but the suit is made by Sexton-trained tailors in China. Sebag-Montefiore is exploring the potential of ecommerce, working via video calls on fittings.
Sexton’s product is now available at various price points but, ultimately, it will remain niche. You can’t really do anything similar, on the cheap, with Sexton’s kind of cut. His style isn’t for everyone either, as he continues to balance tradition with sartorial provocation. Fundamentally, it’s sexy in a way that men’s tailoring almost never is. As Peter Saville says: “Sexton makes clothes with a silhouette that says, ‘I’m up for it’, even when you’re not.”
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