'I'm a Female Tailor—Men Told Me Not To Waste My Time'

I've always loved making things. From a young age, I used my granny's sewing machine and eventually my best friend and I had a stall at a local fair where we sold all sorts of fabric items we'd made with it, like cushions. That was a little taste of entrepreneurship.

At school, art and design was where I flourished, so during my foundation diploma at the London College of Fashion, I specialized in menswear and afterwards, I was offered a place on a bespoke tailoring design course.

One afternoon, our university tutor came around and told us that Burberry needed some help ahead of their London Fashion Week show. I immediately ran off to Burberry's headquarters in Westminster. Everyone was rushing around and we were told they needed all the buttons changing on white trench coats for the show. Myself and a handful of other girls and guys spent the rest of the day just changing the buttons. I loved it but I remember my fingers bleeding because, back then, I didn't know what thimbles were!

At that time, the design team was run by a very powerful, intimidating American woman and at the end of the night she asked me to come with her to her office. Of course, I thought it was all going to end badly. But instead, she told me she was really impressed by my tenacity and offered me a three month apprenticeship. I actually ended up staying at Burberry for about a year while I was studying, and I loved every moment.

I then went from Burberry, where you don't have that much say in design, to work for Jonathan Saunders, who's this hilarious Scottish guy. It was much more hands on and the stylist Katie Grand and designer Lulu Guinness worked with Jonathan, so they would often come in. It was really fun, and really fast paced.

On weekends, I would often spend time wandering around Savile Row, going into the tailors' there and seeing if I could help anyone. I became friends with an older tailor named Bobby and every Saturday I would go and watch him work. He started to give me little jobs, like sewing pockets. It was really refreshing to have a sort of grandfather figure who cared and didn't mind that I was there asking questions and trying to learn.

Tailoring can be a really misogynistic industry, and it has so many faults, but there are also really good men, and without them, I wouldn't be where I am. I learned so much from people like Bobby.

But when I started out in tailoring, my gender did present a roadblock. I had my sights set on a cutting apprenticeship at a prestigious Savile Row tailoring house, so I did a lot of work for free but things didn't go my way. It was made clear to me at one point that I wouldn't get a cutting apprenticeship because of my gender. One guy took me to one side, trying to be a friend, but telling me not to waste my time.

I actually had a coffee with another prominent female tailor when I was starting out. She was a figurehead in the industry and told me to keep going and keep knocking on doors.

Caroline Andrew in her Mayfair store
Caroline Andrew is a female tailor running her own business in London's Mayfair. Caroline Andrew

So, I worked for various people but I didn't get an apprenticeship at any of the big tailoring houses, which had been my dream. I also had to really hustle, because I wasn't getting any financial support at the stage. I was working part time in hospitality to make my tailoring dream happen.

Over time, clients began suggesting that I start my own business, so in 2018, I did. Now, I'm in St. George Street in London's Mayfair. The building has been a home to tailors for more than 100 years. But other than me, it's just male business owners. I'm the first female owned business in the building, and by far the youngest. I did have to have a lot of interviews before I could set up shop here.

In the past three years, I've had so many really nice clients. I even made a tartan suit for a prime time TV anchor and she actually came in for a final fitting the week Prince Philip died. She wore the suit when she was presenting on TV during the funeral, as it was made from Duke of Edinburgh tartan.

Although I do make suits for high profile politicians and public figures like Jack Guinness and British star Joe Wicks, my general client is probably a middle-aged businessman in his late 40s or 50s who wants his business suits made. Though I did make a lot of casual jackets and trousers during the pandemic, in my experience, men I work with don't really like the thought of having to match things, they just want to put a suit on, get out the door and not have to worry.

I have had a couple older, more traditional British male clients who have a rather old fashioned mindset and will still say they can't believe their tailor is a woman. My feeling is that women in the industry have a lot to overcome because we're changing the actual industry itself and the client's mindset. As a woman you have to prove yourself, and people expect a lot from you. So you work harder. But, I'll often have middle aged clients come to me and say that they would much rather have my opinion.

I think we slowly need to change the world and people's perceptions. But I believe that will happen as long as you have decent humans. This newer generation of tailors that are coming through, both female and male, are looking to do that.

Caroline Andrew in her Mayfair store
Caroline Andrew is a female tailor in an industry that is historically run by men. Caroline Andrew

A client came in a couple of weeks ago, a seriously successful guy in his early 60s who runs a huge part of a big bank. He told me he found it very intimidating going into the traditional tailoring houses. Whereas I had called him to have a chat beforehand on the phone, which kind of broke the ice. I'm a really open person.

It's a lovely thing to have a suit made and it's a journey that I love taking people on. It's really satisfying to be able to help so many different people. Making wedding suits is great. Often guys who've never worn a tailored suit will come in and essentially say, "Help! I'm getting married." That's always really funny and enjoyable.

But nothing happened for me for a long time, so it's important to stick with what you're passionate about. You have to stay true to yourself, because you absolutely can get to where you want to be.

For me, there's something really satisfying about creating a suit from start to finish and seeing it become an item that someone cherishes. I'm creating a product that can last a lifetime.

Caroline Andrew is a highly-respected tailor based in London, with stores in Mayfair and Kensington. She focuses on traditional hand-crafted British suits for both men and women and, in 2020, was awarded the Bright Young Thing accolade by Mayfair Times. Find out more at carolineandrew.co.uk.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.