Jon Perks visits a Birmingham tailor still going strong after more than 50 years in business.
These days, everything, it seems, can be ‘bespoke’.
You can have a bespoke kitchen, bespoke jewellery – even bespoke software for your computer.
In most fields it means the personal touch, customised – but in the world of menswear, where it orginated, few tailors outside Savile Row can still claim to be truly bespoke.
This is where the complete suit is made from scratch, hand stitched, entailing several visits and fittings – and a price tag of over £1,000.
There is a corner of Edgbaston, however, where this wonderful craft is still upheld.
Step into Ahmet Yusuf’s shop in Chad Square – where he has been for the last 38 years – and you enter a world where the thimble, needle, thread and scissors are still king.
The worktops are home to huge heavy scisssors, curved rules (shapers) and ‘donkeys’ – resembling a mini ironing board, a sleeve platform to raise the garment off the table for ease of access.
Shelves are stacked with rolls of fabric, or heave under the weight of row after row of bunches (the books containing swatches of sample cloth) bearing such names as Dormeuil, Dugdale, Scabal and John G Hardy.
While daughter Deniz holds the fort out front, Ahmet and his team – Mark, Gary and Valerie – are in the workroom at the back, pressing, sewing and stitching as they work on half a dozen different bespoke suits in progress.
Ahmet had given up hope that one of his children would follow him into the trade until Deniz, youngest of the siblings, agreed on a two-year trial. Seventeen years later she is still there.
“Bespoke is such a hard term; you hear it all the time and not always just in clothing,” she says. “Somebody says ‘tailor made’, somebody says ‘personal tailoring’ – now people are being a bit more up front and clearer.”
Ahmet, 73, arrived in Birmingham from his native Cyprus in 1954 with the teenage dream of becoming a tailor. His brother (who ran a chain of coffee shops in the city) and a cousin were the only two people he knew.
From a cellar in Bath Row furnished with just a sewing machine and table, the young Ahmet worked ‘for trade’ on alterations. Four years later and he began working for himself, moving base several times including the Bristol Road and then in four rooms at 213A Monument Road, before opening his first – and only – shop in 1972 at the then newly-built Chad Square.
The likes of Bob Warman, Jimmy Tarbuck and Muhammad Ali have all been satisfied customers – the latter having a suit made in just 33 hours during his brief visit to Birmingham in 1982.
There are plenty of non-celeb clients, however – several of whom pop in during our visit. One regular brings in his own cloth, but most will choose from the dozens of bunches or the shelves of end of line cloth, some of which are decades old – yet look brand new.
“Everything is done here,” says Ahmet proudly. “We say 101 per cent is bespoke; I think once people get the taste of it or wear it they will always go back to bespoke – it’s the comfort, the look and it’s just so elegant and it lasts longer.
“When people bring me their garments to clean and press they still look brand new for 10, 20 years... we put a lot of stitches and a lot of work into them.”
While Ahmet shows little sign of hanging up his tape measure just yet (“I promised them until 80,” he smiles), he and Mark are all too aware of the need to bring in fresh blood.
Modern colleges do not teach many of the handmade techniques employed at Yusuf’s shop, however, so instead they are training their twentysomething protégé themselves. On his days off from working for a city centre clothes store, Oliver is tutored by Mark and Ahmet in the ways of ‘making’.
Mark knows all about the importance of on the job training; after a three year City & Guilds course, he joined Ahmet in 1996 on a six month, three days a week trial.
“Nobody teaches this,” says Mark, holding up his finger where his tailor’s thimble permanently sits. “Unless you do that, you can’t be part of the trade – you’re working with that and the needle all day.
“[At colleges] they’ve done away with the industrial machining, it’s domestic machining, it’s all about pattern cutting; the last thing Oliver’s doing is pattern cutting, we don’t want him to – we want him to make – when he makes, pattern cutting will fall into place.
“He’s coming in when he can find time,” Mark adds. “The only funding he can find wants to send him off on a college course, but we don’t want him to go on a college course because they won’t teach what we want him to learn – you’d only get that if you go to London – and if you do they’re going to want to retain you in London – plus everybody wants to walk through the front door and be a salesman and a cutter.”
Ahmet adds: “It is a very interesting trade and I try to tell the youngsters that, but unfortunately they’ve been told it’s a dying trade – but it will never die.
“I think people do come into this trade but they all want to be a designer, but you can’t; it’s just like football, not many people succeed in that field.
“Students are amazed when they come out of college into this workroom, they love it,” he says. “They’re amazed how much work goes into it.”
“I don’t think they can believe it,” says Valerie, looking up from her work.
Ahmet adds: “I say you’ve got to learn how to sew even if you’re a designer, because one day you might have to put a few stitches in somewhere.”
Mark has the final word on the importance of a good suit:
“Everybody’s critical with their eye,” he says. “But when the suit fits, you look at the person.”
Yusuf Menswear, 6 Chad Square, Hawthorne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3TQ
Tel: 0121 454 3363