A First for Savile Row - Nick Foulkes meets the black tailor working his magic at the heart of the British establishment
Published by: London Standard, 1999, by Nick Foulkes
For all the talk of the new-found grooviness of bespoke men's clothes, Savile Row is still a conservative, sombre street. The idle window-shoppers who throng neighbouring Bond and Regent Streets do not come here. Yet, compared to the Row of 30 years ago, the scene today is one of quiet emancipation. Conran's coolly modern restaurant Sartoria does brisk business. Richard James, the Row's token trendy, brightens his patch with eye-popping windows. At No 8, Kilgour French and Stanbury is trying out a ready-to-wear line.
However, the address that says most about changing ways and attitudes on the Row is number 19. Maurice Sedwell (Savile Row) Ltd, looks much like any other Savile Row tailor. It is not as pricey as Huntsman, nor as famous as Anderson and Sheppard, and not as long established as Henry Poole; nevertheless it commands around £3,500 plus for its suits, has customers in 52 countries and has managed a respectable 70 years in business. Its managing director is also chairman of the Master Craftsmen's Association.
In fact it is the firm's managing director, Andrew Ramroop, who makes the difference. Ramroop was born in Trinidad in 1952. And on 26 July, he will be the subject of one of the BBC TV series Black Firsts. The series is part of the Windrush Season and although the arrival of the Windrush preceded Ramroop's birth the story of his rise in the Row is a remarkable tale of the changing face of tailoring.
At 45, with a Lenin-like beard, spectacles and an intellectual brow, Ramroop is a distinguished figure. His voice is quiet, yet listen carefully and you might just catch a faint West Indian lilt.
At 10 years old he made his first pair of trousers. By the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Kissoon Singh, the best tailor in Trinidad. This was at a time when although independent from Britain, the colonial spirit still pervaded public life and suits were worn by professional men. Ramroop made suits for lawyers, government ministers and diplomats.
So, if not motivated by a desire to find work, what was it that drove him to Britain? "My attraction was to Savile Row", he says, "not the UK or Britain". His fascination began when he heard that President Kennedy had a suit made on the Row.
So, having never been to southern Trinidad let alone off the island to neighbouring Tobago, 17-year-old Ramroop announced to his surprised family that he was going to work on Savile Row. A fortnight later he boarded the Northern Star liner.
"It was an extremely sad departure," he says. For a start the boat was four hours late. "All my family left the quay. When the Northern Star arrived, the captain had to hire a small boat to take us out because the duty was too much for the liner to dock for so few passengers". Apart from Ramroop there were only six other passengers joining the vessel at Trinidad, including a World Heavyweight Championship wrestler called Golden Ray Appollon. Nine days later Ramroop was met at Southampton by a friend of a friend and taken to a top floor flat in Finsbury Park.
He turned up in Savile Row with two suits he had made in Trinidad. One was a green checked, single-breasted number with an inverted box-pleat instead of vent and box-pleats at the wrists. The other was a more sober affair. Huntsman took him on, but he didn't enjoy the system: "The difficulty was that I was very efficient and I finished the garments very quickly". Once the head of his department took a jacket to pieces in front of him and instructed him to remake it, this time do not do it so quickly; Ramroop was told that he was simply too productive and he would "give the hierarchy bad habits".
He took a supplementary Saturday job on the King's Road, which gave him insight into the other London world where bold patterns and broad lapels were prized.
Ramroop decided to enroll at the London College of Fashion. "West Indians brought pot, excitement, noise and music to this country, and the point of things like the Notting Hill carnival was an expression of identity, showing that they were not interested in getting into British society, that they had transported their lifestyle", he says. "But it wasn't what I was doing. Even though I had taken part in carnival for five years before I came here", he explains, adding with pride, "and the Port of Spain carnival is probably the most colourful frolic on earth", After he finished his studies he wanted to return to the Row and work as a cutter at the front of a shop. But there was a problem - although, of course, nothing so obvious was ever stated: Ramroop sensed an absence of enthusiasm about having a West Indian at the front of the shop.
Eventually he was taken on by Maurice Sedwell, the son of an East End cartwright, who had first opened an eponymous tailoring business in Fleet Street in 1938 and then moved to Savile Row in the early Sixties. He was engaged as an assistant to Sedwell, but even then it was a number of years before he would get a chance to deal with customers himself. "Initially Mr Sedwell wanted to protect his business", explains Ramroop. Then one day "Mr Sedwell went out to lunch and in walked a customer with a number of suits for alteration; that customer was Mark Lennox-Boyd, PPS to Margaret Thatcher".
Mr Lennox-Boyd had a reputation as a particularly demanding customer. He was, however, overcome by the quality of the work. As Ramroop recalls, it was an alteration to the shoulder that won Lennox-Boyd over and has kept him as a customer to this day. He later telephoned Mr Sedwell, asked my name and then said 'whenever I return to your establishment I would like Mr Ramroop to attend to my tailoring needs.'
Although this story is almost 20 years old, Ramroop still plainly relishes it: as he does the arrival in the shop soon afterwards of the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Peter Rees. "He was only about five foot four," recalls Ramroop, "he stood at his maximum height, one of the most powerful men in the country and asked to see the guy in the back room. You would see them on the TV news. You never thought you would have them inside your fitting room taking".
Mark Lennox-Boyd recommended 20 MPs and at one time Ramroop had six Cabinet ministers among his clients - a coup only equalled much later when he made clothes for the Princess of Wales (the cashmere jacket she wore to be interviewed by Martin Bashir on Panorama was his).
In 1988 when Ramroop wanted to leave and set up his own business, Maurice Sedwell arranged to sell him the firm, of which he is now the proprietor.
Over the past couple of years Sedwell's quiet fame has been obscured by the arrival of another black tailor if not on, then certainly close to, the Row: the charismatic Ozwald Boateng, who established a showroom on Vigo Street and a media presence that many would envy.
When Boateng ran into financial difficulties Ramroop sent him a card urging him to fight on. "I don't mind him getting the publicity he gets, because we are streets ahead of him in quality".
If this comment sounds a little waspish, it is probably safe to say that Ramroop has no real need to be sensitive about a younger man's fame. At the age of 45, he has his own business, a wife and two children, one of whom works on the Japanese desk of BBC World Service News, while the other, having studied at Cambridge and the LSE, is to start at HSBC bank.
Besides, the swagger of youth has left him. "I wonder if I would have the same courage to wear two-tone shoes, and a green suit with broad lapels?" he muses. But in truth such speculation is redundant. He no longer needs to wear flashy suits with box-pleats, fancy collars and roped shoulders.
All he does these days is slip you a card that reads "Maurice Sedwell bespoke tailors" under which legend is printed his name.