December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

Dapper in a gray suit he fitted for himself, Ray Jordan, master cutter at the Savile Row haberdashery Gieves & Hawkes, takes up a pair of giant, 150-year-old shears. “This is my favorite pair,” he says, the blades slicing into the blanket of wool before him. Jordan, 42, is in New York to show customers of Barneys clothing store the savoir faire that has made Prince Charles a regular customer and to tout the new line of $1,000 suits that Gieves & Hawkes is launching in selected stores on this side of the pond.

Jordan’s skill with the shears is rare, and he knows it. “Last Friday,” he says, “I had a customer from Pennsylvania come in. I cut him a suit without any fittings at all and shipped it. Fit perfect.” It helps, he admits, that the gentleman was of “a reasonable figure.” Otherwise there might have been trouble. “With fat men,” says Jordan, “you’re trying to take a flat piece of cloth and make it go around, you know. That’s the art of it. You’re trying, in a way, to make everyone look very much the same.”

Usually, Jordan says, that requires one or two fittings after the cutter takes body measurements, cuts a pattern on brown paper and transfers the shapes to fabric. (A tailor, who is lower on the haberdashery totem pole, then bastes the pieces together.) For regular customers, the paper patterns are then stored in the strong room at Gieves & Hawkes, which sells custom suits for about $1,700. Until it took a direct hit during the blitz, this vault was the repository of untold footnotes to British history. Captain Bligh’s inseam measure was kept there (Charles Laughton studied Bligh’s original uniform orders before playing the role in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty), as were sartorial requests from such monuments of empire as Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

To facilitate fitting-room patter, Jordan often scribbles personal notes on the patterns he cuts. “Wife into hospital after last fitting,” he will write, or “Son enters Cambridge this year.” Jordan, says his boss, Robert Gieve, the fifth-generation proprietor of the family business, “has developed not only a cutter’s skill, but he’s absolutely an ace diplomat. You’ve got to know how to say, ‘Sir, that’s not the cuff for you,’ in the certain knowledge that the customer will appreciate the advice, as upsetting as it may be.”

Thanks to custom and chemistry, Jordan—whose father and grandfather were cutters before him—has accumulated an A-list of Gieves & Hawkes clients, among them actor Christopher Lee (“very dour”), Peter O’Toole (“very striking”) and British press magnate Lord Rothermere (“very intimidating”). Gorbachev, too, is rumored to be a Gieves & Hawkes patron, though Jordan pleads the cutter’s code of silence when asked. “I’m not supposed to say too much about it, but needless to say, there’s not a Savile Row in Russia. Where else would he get something made?”

Most of Jordan’s clients come to him, though he does make house calls for royalty. Only rarely does a customer’s request cross the boundary of his own impeccable taste. “We did have, I won’t mention any names, a big film star who wanted something wild—far-out flared trousers,” he says. “It was just not our thing—and this was going to be seen. He went to someone more trendy.” Most customers, he notes, “don’t want anything outrageous that we’d be unhappy to make. We won’t go to extremes.” In fact, Jordan’s wife of 18 years, Angela, insists that she can always spot one of his suits. “It’s got my stamp on it, the lapel shape I cut,” says Jordan, who lives with Angela, their two teenage sons and 10-year-old daughter in Hertfordshire outside London.

How does a longtime Londoner regard U.S. fashion? The American male’s gravest affliction, in Jordan’s view, is “trying too hard,” and the chief symptom of this straining is label mania. Jordan’s reaction to a man in a Giorgio Armani suit, Gucci shoes and a Brooks Brothers shirt is that “it’s all very fragmented…. I wouldn’t want anybody to come into Gieves and buy just for the label. I want them to come in and buy because it makes them feel they can go anywhere and feel at least as well-dressed as anyone else in that room. That’s really what a suit is all about.”

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