Weddings. Funerals. Job interviews. It’s been said before that every man should own at least one suit. For some, even one is one too many but for south London’s George Dyer, a master tailor who can count world boxing champion David Haye and Madness’s Suggs amongst his most satisfied customers, bespoke suits are a life long passion upon which he has built his livelihood.
A curious but not out of the ordinary premises on the Walworth Road, George’s tailoring shop Thread-needleman Tailors had been a frequently discussed mystery for some time before we had even opened the door. We’d peer through the window in passing, looking at the pre-folded pocket squares and vintage cufflinks or admiring the latest jacket in the window, careful not to linger too long as — let’s face it — neither of us was in the market for a bespoke suit and our bank accounts couldn’t take the chance of us being talked into one.
But there’s a big difference between walking into a shop and buying a suit at a grand and a half — although George’s start at six hundred and fifty quid — and having one made for you for the same money. George prides himself on his ability to produce the latter, providing the sort of truly top-notch service that is fast disappearing from today’s high street.
“My dad was a trouser maker; he loved clothes,” offers George by way of explanation. “I grew up in an environment where clothes, music and style, they were all there. By the time I was six or seven, he used to make my trousers for school.” Influenced from an early age by his dad who had moved to the UK from the West Indies, George finished what he had to of school education and quickly found a position at Dombey & Son, a tailors on London’s Fleet Street, where the manager was so interested in his abilities that he sent him to the London College of Fashion. Upon finishing a formal tailoring course, George returned to the company as a striker, responsible for cutting out the individual pieces of fabric that make up a suit.
Although the academic training was essential, it was on the shop floor that George really honed his talent and picked up the skills that would eventually allow him to set up his own label. Everything — from shaking the customer’s hand as he arrives to helping him into his own coat when he leaves — matters: “What I learnt in the shops was how to greet the clients because the salesmen had a particular technique …how to measure them, how to cut them and how to fit them; basically how to sell a suit.”
His shop itself is a testimony to George’s love for his craft. Inside, reams of fabrics lie stacked on top of each other — spots, stripes, checks, paisley prints — alongside framed press cuttings, old coat hangers displaying the previous store owner’s signature, portraits of the man himself painted by friends and a rail of works in progress, some ready and awaiting collection, some held together by a network of carefully placed pins. Hidden from the view of the shop window in the studio’s only changing room is the pièce de résistance; a sprawling patchwork of photographs — part hall of fame, part showcase of what you’ll get when you purchase a George Dyer — showing customers in their finery, grinning on their wedding days, staring down the camera in their latest Mod threads or in the case of one regular, accepting world heavyweight boxing titles.
The variety is overwhelming, of clientele and of suits. I mean, you would assume it’s a fairly simple affair: A jacket. A pair of trousers. A waistcoat if you must. But looking closer, each one of George’s creations incorporates slight variances on the next. Two buttons, three buttons, small lapels, slanted button holes, an extra pocket, the cut of the cuffs. And all finely tuned, as the man put it himself, “not just to the shape of the customer’s figure but to the mind of the customer too.” Evidently this is what you get for your grand and a half.
“It’s us working on behalf of you, the client,” he says when quizzed on what the term ‘bespoke tailoring’ actually means. “A client can go into a bespoke shop and say, “I’d like a single breasted square front jacket with double breasted lapels.” The tailor may not like the style, but that’s what the client has asked for. He can find fifty or a hundred fabrics and the client isn’t restricted as to the style that they select. Different coloured stitching, different coloured lining. Fabric, buttons, the lot.”
“That’s the high fashion” George comments, pointing out a particular customer’s attire from the jumble of images. “He’s a big lad and it almost looks like it don’t …” One of London’s top tailors about to say a suit of his don’t fit? “It fits much differently from these,” he eventually concedes. “These sorts of things, I don’t like doing,” he admits. “I feel as though I’m robbing from other people. An' I feel like if anyone should be doing the robbing, it should be the high fashion people from the bespoke people. In fact, we’re all borrowing from each other.” A very diplomatic stance in today’s over-protective world of so-called fashion.
Pulling our conversation away from the business of tailoring and towards the tailoring itself, he continues, “It’s sculptural. You bring the clay into a certain shape and then you start to work it, don’t you? That’s basically what it is — you’re molding it not just to the shape of the customer’s figure but to the mind of the customer too. Me, the tailor, might think, “Oh, you’ll want that tight,” and you might say, “No, not tight, I just want a shape in the garment.” So I have to be able to decipher the meaning of what you’re saying.”
At this point I think it’s fair to say that George could pipe for Peckham. His infectious, kindly laugh punctuates our conversation, dotting it with mentions of friends, clients, south London old-timers. You get the impression that he’s never caught without a good tale hidden up his sleeve and as soon as he utters, “I’ll tell you this story,” you know you’re in for a good one.
Talking of sleeves, as well as working to the tastes of his customers, George has also been known to talk a few into his signature cut; a style borrowing from mod culture with a flashy flared cuff, pinched at the top of the vent so that cufflinks can be worn on both the suit and the shirtsleeves. A real statement look, it’s something that sets George’s signature style — and his approach to new forms of tailoring — apart from the Paul Smiths and Hugo Bosses of the suited and booted world. “If you were to put just one jacket of each of these names on a rack and one of my jackets on a rack too, you could immediately tell which was mine…It’s like an old standard song,” he explains. “Someone’s come along and heard the song and thought, “I like that song, I want to do it my way.” Like Amy Winehouse and ‘Valerie’. It’s a perfect example — she’d done it her way.”
So what keeps George interested? Surely after the best part of forty years in the industry, even the Threadneedle-man must find it difficult to get out of bed some Monday mornings. “What really does it is when a client puts on the suit and they look in the mirror and a big Cheshire cat grin begins to form on their face. That, and the eagerness when someone says, “George, I like this suit,” then, “I love this suit.” Then they’ll go, “I fucking love this suit!”” No airs or graces, he turns to the chang-ing room and gestures towards the menagerie of clientele, each one proudly staring back at us. “You know, what can’t speak, can’t lie,” George concludes. “Those people in there have all got smiles on their faces.”
“I had this one client, he came in to talk about getting two suits made before going away on business to japan or somewhere, and he wanted these two suits, one blue and one black, let’s say. He came to his fitting and tried on some trousers and things, still speaking nice and articulate and all that. Anyway, he came in three weeks later to try on the final thing and say, for the story’s sake, he tried on the blue one first, the navy blue suit. And he’s a well spoken gentleman, always has been, and he looks in the mirror and says, “I fucking love this suit!” And all I could hear was, “fucking marvelous, fucking marvelous…” about a quarter of an hour went by, twenty minutes and then I said, “bill, you do have another one to try on today you know.” And he goes, “fuck me, yes,” and he had never before uttered an expletive! I can remember that one.