Kathryn Sargent made history back in April 2016 when she became the first woman to open her own tailoring house on Savile Row. It was only a year-long lease, and Sargent already had a premises at 6 Brook Street, Mayfair, where she still plies her craft, but her future plans include returning to the home of tailoring. She did, after all, learn her trade at one of the finest, Gieves & Hawkes, at number 1 Savile Row. With so many women now wanting to become tailors and taking apprenticeships Sargent has been a real trailblazer. Her take on it is inspiring.
When, how and why did you become a tailor?
I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up making clothes, but I had an idea that I wanted to be a designer, and I just got really interested in the technical and fitting side. I studied fashion and that led me to menswear, in particularly tailoring. I’m originally from Leeds, but I studied at Epsom at what was then called The Surrey Institute of Art & Design, though is now part of the University for the Creative Arts. I graduated with a BA in 1996. While on the course, I became quite obsessed about fitting and cutting and I set myself a challenge to make what I believe is the most complicated garment, a tailored suit, rather than doing flat pattern cutting for dresses or more simple garments. One of my tutors at Epsom recommended I go to take a look at Savile Row, which I wasn’t really aware of at the time. I hadn’t really seen anyone making anything by hand before, so I went up there and went in a few of the businesses to see if I could do some work experience. A few of them laughed and showed me the door, but one company said ‘yes’. It was one of the smaller tailors called Denman & Goddard on New Burlington Street, just around the corner from Savile Row, and I absolutely loved it. With bespoke you get to know your clients really well and that appealed to me, as well as the craft and quality of the work. As soon as a man puts a good suit on it really does something. Savile Row is also like a community.
So, were you the only one who did men’s tailoring on your BA design course
Yes, I was. Actually, only five out of a class of 60 even did menswear, and the other four were guys! I made sure I did a full tailored collection for a catwalk show at Graduate Fashion Week. I won an award when I graduated, and from there I got a job at Gieves & Hawkes at number 1 Savile Row. There wasn’t many young people in the trade at that point. Tailoring had actually become a bit unfashionable. I knew that Alexander McQueen had been to Gieves & Hawkes as an apprentice, and I was thinking ‘oh I could be like Alexander McQueen’ and do this tailoring and then I’ll go and be a fabulous designer somewhere. But, once I was on Savile Row, I just fell in love with it and decided I didn’t want to do anything other than tailoring. It was a real opportunity for me to learn the trade from the bottom to the top.
How did you progress through the ranks at Gieves & Hawkes?
When I first started I learnt how to make waistcoats, and I was a trimmer doing the buttons and linings. I then became an assistant cutter, learning how to cut patterns and observing fittings. Then I got the opportunity to start measuring and taking on my own clients a number of years later. I think I measured my first client about four years after I started there, so around 2000. It was heavily supervised, but I was really always asking to do more. I wanted to really put my skills to the test, and I wanted to do the job well and be profitable for the business. When you’re an apprentice, you realise that the people teaching you have so many more years under their belt than you have. So, you have to work really hard to try to prove yourself and to also demonstrate how serious you are about it. It’s a bit of a school of hard knocks! I ended up being at Gieves & Hawkes for 15 years in total.
When was it that you really established yourself at Gieves & Hawkes?
In 2009 I became the first female Head Cutter in a tailoring house on Savile Row. So, I won the promotion to be the most senior person within that department. That in itself was such an achievement. I thought that would be enough, but I still wanted to do more. I realised pretty soon after becoming Head Cutter that I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to be on the board of the company, and I wanted to have a say in everything. But the only way you can really do that is by setting up your own business.
Was it your intention to become the first female tailor to open a shop on Savile Row?
I left Gieves & Hawkes in 2012 to go out on my own. For me, being a woman is incidental, I am a tailor first and foremost. I also wanted to make for women as well as for men. It was a big decision to leave Gieves, and I started very small with low costs, sharing space with another tailor around the corner on Sackville Street in Mayfair. I then got enough money under my belt to put down my first deposit on a commercial property on Brook Street, where I’ve been since 2014. Then got offered the opportunity to open a shop on Savile Row itself in 2016. It was only a year-long lease, but it gave me a chance to get an idea if it would work. It wasn’t as if I was really out to be the first woman to open a shop on Savile Row. It was more a case of the landlords approaching me and asking ‘why are you not on Savile Row? We’d love you to be here and there’s a space coming up – would you like to try it?’ I wasn’t sure, but then I realised it was a great opportunity to test the market and see whether actually having a space there works, how people respond to it and whether I could make it work for me financially. I had a full trading year in the shop, but I also continued with the Brook Street shop as well.
Is it your desire to one day return to Savile Row with another shop?
Now I am looking at other places and commercial property again. My dream is to have my business on Savile Row standing proudly next to these other businesses that stand for the same values. I’m not a tailor that just came up overnight without any skill after all. I’ve had to do a lot of hard graft to get to this point, so the other guys on Savile Row would be pleased to have me there.
How would you best describe your clients?
They are a mix of different professions and ages. They are people who appreciate the craft, but also people who want to work with me and who want to support me because of what I’ve achieved. They think that to hold your own in this world you must be good. They are coming to you for your expert eye and skills, but I also offer a discreet service and my clothes don’t wear people, they become part of them. I don’t have a really stand out style which means you can really recognise my tailoring, say like Ozwald Boateng. I’m more subtle. The majority of my clients look really great. I try to find out as much as I can about them, about their lifestyle and about how they want to look and be perceived. There is a bit of phycology behind it. I work with people and work on their personal brand. There’s CEO’s of businesses and people in the public eye who just want to have a really understated elegance in their dress.
How far and wide is your client base these days?
I go over to America a few times a year, where I have a good client base, namely in New York and I’m going to Washington DC very soon. I’m actually taking part in Walpole’s New York Trade Mission this year, as I’m on their ‘Brands of Tomorrow’ programme, which has been really fantastic. I’m about to go out with 16 other businesses to promote British luxury in New York.