From the trading floors of the Big Bang City to Clerkenwell, Susannah Hall chats suits and being a woman in a man’s world
Article by Rupert Watkins
Now possessing a Clerkenwell outpost well known among aficionados of her suits and jackets, Susannah Hall began her tailoring career during the final phases of the City’s Big Bang. Having studied textile design at the Central School for Art and Design, she cut her teeth heading onto the trading floors to measure up and take clients’ orders. After splitting with her original business partner and finding that her own premises became a necessity, she began operating from a small office in Whitechapel until 2002 when she found her current space in Clerkenwell.
Well placed for both the Square Mile and West End, Susannah has acquired many customers from other professions in this mixed area. Barristers from nearby Grey’s Inn and many of the legal sets in the surrounding streets have come to her as well as media clients from the agencies and broadcasters that cluster in this neck of the woods.
Susannah offers bespoke tailoring only, her suits made with a half canvas. Measurements are taken and cloth chosen before all details are sent to her Yorkshire factory where the one-off individual pattern is cut and the suit made. The house cut is tailored and comfortable, not quite as waisted and structured as many in West London though, of course, she is happy to tailor to those seeking a much tighter silhouette as preferred by some of her customers.
In common with other tailors, Susannah uses mannequins to display cuts and cloths which she finds a popular and useful move. Some customers – especially repeat ones – are exceedingly precise in their demands, while for tailoring novices she offers guidance and inspiration. The label is associated with her bold use of colour– brighter blues than are traditional alongside Prince of Wales check, for example, and Susannah seeks out limited-run tweeds and linings to add zest to her garments. She has always enjoyed the interpersonal aspect of the process, from measuring and fitting to the final touches (aided by a prodigious memory for faces).
Having been in the business for many years, Susannah is well placed to comment on the rise and increasing prominence of women in this most austere and traditional of men’s worlds. “In the early days, especially when I was out on fittings, people would be surprised,” she recalls, “but in the last few years it hasn’t been something people comment on.” The business has moved on: “These days,’ she argues,`it’s about competence.” Female tailors such as Kathryn Sargent have risen to the top of the profession and Dion Reeves of Huntsman won the Silver Shears at the Merchant Tailors Hall this year. Many customers particularly enjoy the informal atmosphere Susannah has created at her shop and understandably she gets many female clients.
Susannah has offered women’s tailoring since the start. Unable to find what they want in the shops, many customers then turn to the idea of having something made bespoke. “Such is the transient obsession with fashion, women struggle to find top notch, stylish and classic trouser and skirt suits,” Susannah comments. Her female clients prefer to be measured by her as they know she understands the issues and problems they confront in finding the right clothes. She offers tailoring in both feminine and more masculine styles – both of which are popular but uses a London workshop to make up her womenswear rather than the same Yorkshire factory as her men’s suits.
A wide range of customers head to Susannah’s Clerkenwell door, ranging in age from early 20s to mid 50s. She has a number of second-generation customers now, and recounts fondly how a number of her oldest clients have brought their sons to her for 21st–birthday-present suits. She stocks a small range of ready to wear jackets and shirts – mostly to show off the range of fabrics, cuts and options; over time Susannah has found many off-the-peg customers do return to order a bespoke piece. Bespoke shirts are also offered and customers are usefully able to deal in single orders for these. Amongst a colourful range of accessories, she stocks Augustus Hare ties, Edition Scotland scarves, the London Sock Company and Ballanby tweed washbags.
Susannah and her team aim to continue to offer an intimate and careful service – there are no plans for concessions or further stores. Seeking to be a counterpoint to the more traditional brands in the tailoring world, Susannah consciously tries to use photos satisfied customers have sent in (frequently of wedding suits) to act as her advertising material and finds she increasingly does a lot of work for vintage events such as Goodwood Revival. The turnaround for her garments is around eight weeks, despite the courier requirements, and generally the suit will be ready within two fittings. The first fitting returns from the factory only loosely constructed, with initial stitching, unfinished collar and lapels, single sleeve at this stage and no button holes. Measurements are re-checked, modifications chalked up and the button placement are confirmed before the suit goes back to the factory to be finished.
Such is Susannah’s success she has lured many a Savile Row customer to her door. Given her manufacturing – and customers’ pattern storage – base is away from London, she is able to offer her tailoring from a starting point of £850, while womenswear starts at around £1,000. You do not, unfortunately, get the open-plan cutting bench here at Susannah Hall, yet the shop is stylish and welcoming. Given her roots as a travelling tailor (though she happily admits she is not a trained cutter), she is looking to take on another fitter to handle work away from the shop so she can concentrate on delivering her warm welcome to those that cross her Clerkenwell threshold.
Throughout her time in tailoring, Susannah has been hugely supportive of UK craftsmanship and manufacturing. Aside from her suit factory in Yorkshire, she uses a factory in Northern Ireland to produce her small range of ready to wear shirts and one in Manchester for her bespoke variety. The accessories she stocks are also made in Britain. For those looking for something different and a less formal atmosphere than further west in London, Susannah Hall is certainly worth an exploratory excursion to Clerkenwell.