Savile Row Tailor Huntsman, and the Pursuit of Elegance

Colin Hammick, a Saville Row tailor for Huntsman, poses in the Huntsman store in London, England. Kirsty McLaren/Alamy

When I started writing about men's clothes in the 1980s, Savile Row struck me as a museum. It looked like a street of elegant undertakers—and I mean that in a good way. Window displays were clearly thought to be infra dig; I seem to remember that glass was frosted, or, if transparent, shop fronts featured a brass rail with a curtain pulled to obscure the interior from the vulgar gaze of passers-by. There was a mausoleum-like solemnity about this street of Britain's most storied bespoke tailors for men, as if it had just exited a period of prolonged mourning for a much-respected monarch.

To cross the threshold into these august establishments required confidence. The firms were run by patriarchal figures: There was Norman Hallsey at Anderson & Sheppard, and Angus Cundey at Henry Poole (his son Simon now runs the firm), while Huntsman, arguably the most forbidding (and inarguably the most expensive) of all, was the domain of Colin Hammick.

Hammick was an enigmatic figure. He started as an apprentice at Huntsman at age 14 in 1942 and dedicated his life to the pursuit of elegance. He took elocution lessons so that he spoke as well as the noblemen whose patterns he cut. He changed his suit up to four times a day. And in 1971 he topped the Tailor & Cutter best-dressed list, ahead of one of his clients, actor Rex Harrison.

And it is thanks to Hammick that of all the great names in tailoring, Huntsman is the house with the strongest visual signature. Other houses may have a style, or a way of cutting, but at Huntsman there is a definite look that over time has attracted such stylish men as Gianni Agnelli, the Duke of Beaufort, Hubert de Givenchy and Bill Blass.

A classic Huntsman coat (or jacket, if you must) is instantly recognizable: a single button front, high armholes, suppressed waist and sharp shoulders. It is also slightly longer than average, with a flare to the coat that hints at the house's sporting origins.

Founded in 1849, initially as a breeches maker and sporting tailor, Huntsman soon became a favorite among Europe's royal houses. First came the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), then his brother Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, and in 1887 Queen Victoria herself became a customer, buying riding breeches for herself and other items for family members. As the century turned, more Royal Warrants appeared on Huntsman's walls, including those of Edward VII (1901) and George V (1910). After Huntsman moved from Bond Street to No. 11 Savile Row in 1919, it acquired the warrants of the two most stylish examples of 20th-century royalty: the Prince of Wales (1921) and King Alfonso XIII of Spain (1926).

Then came Hollywood royalty. Gregory Peck was Huntsman's most devoted movie star fan, placing some 160 orders. Peck had a soft spot for Huntsman's signature checks. No. 11 also made many of Peck's on-screen clothes, from the costume he wore in The Million Pound Note to the tweed overcoat that is the real star of The Omen. Clark Gable also became a customer after having Huntsman make his costume for the big-game-hunter movie Mogambo.

My first visit to Huntsman was not a success. I demanded to see the loud checks for which the company is famous and followed one of the salesmen into the basement to examine them, which is a bit like pouring yourself a large glass of communion wine rather than letting the priest get around to serving you. Happily, the salesman kept his job (just), and I am pleased to say that I was not barred, which would have been a pity as over the years I have become fond of the place, although not quite as fond as long-haired financier Pierre Lagrange, who, to borrow from the immortal Victor Kaim, liked Huntsman so much he bought the company in 2013.

Lagrange freely admits that before Huntsman the closest he had been to entering the world of bespoke had been to commission a pair of Holland & Holland 20-bore shotguns and a Harley-Davidson, but he has installed a new management team that has wasted no time in revamping the place. The front of the shop remains the gentleman's club it has always been—a pair of stag heads, left behind by a customer in the early '20s, still hang above the slate fireplace. But the new cutting tables under the massive skylight must now be among the best in London's West End, and at the back is a sort of den, with tweed-covered walls and a tweed-covered billiard table, which can be transformed into a dining table.

Close readers of movie credits will know that Lagrange was an executive producer of Kingsman: The Secret Service, starring Colin Firth. When he bought the firm, Lagrange was thrilled to find that his friend Matthew Vaughn, with whom he has also produced the two Kick-Ass films, had written a script inspired by Vaughn's tailor—Huntsman.

Order is being brought to the Huntsman archive, which includes old fabrics, customer ledgers, photographs and old advertisements. (Unlike many Savile Row tailors, Huntsman's records are largely intact.) The firm has also been buying back key items of clothing to keep in its archives, such as shooting suits made for Eric Clapton. And classic cloths from the company's past, including some of the more vigorously checked tweeds favored by Peck, have been rewoven in the Highlands of Scotland.

In 2015, Lagrange was also chairman of Savile Row Bespoke, the association that promotes and protects Savile Row tailoring, and during that time he asked me to curate an exhibition at the British Embassy in Washington that explored Savile Row's relationship with America—an unexpected twist on my first impressions of the Row as a museum. But that first impression really has become outdated. As Lagrange likes to put it, "What strikes me when I look at today's Savile Row is how current it is. The museum has become an art gallery."