Cut from the right cloth
Dege & Skinner: In good hands
By Charlie Thomas
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Dege & Skinner was founded in 1865, making it one of the oldest institutions on Savile Row. It is also one of only two family-owned tailors still operating on London’s famous street. You feel this heritage when you step foot inside. There are dark wood shelves stocking a wide variety of colourful shirts; sharply dressed mannequins in velvet jackets, and people making things the old way. Dege & Skinner is also one of the few houses where everything, from the trousers, jackets and shirts are all made under one roof. And unlike many of the shops that line Savile Row, you don’t need to enter the basement to see the makers at work. Overseeing the shop floor is the shirtmaker’s table, and behind it stands head bespoke shirt cutter, Tom Bradbury.

A tall, imposing figure, Bradbury looks as though he was born wearing a suit, with high-waisted, pleated trousers framing his perfectly fitting striped shirt. His hair is slicked back, with a side parting as straight as the ruler he uses to mark paper patterns, but the rolled-up sleeves and tucked-in tie hint at the hands-on nature of his work. He wasn’t always behind this table though, and first started out on the shop floor in 2011.

“After quitting college my dad told me I needed to get a trade, and he said about Savile Row”, he tells me. “So basically the next day, I put on my Next or Topman suit with the shiniest blue tie to go with it, I printed out a load of CVs and walked in and out of every door on Savile Row.” It was then, after confidently strolling into Dege & Skinner that he first met managing director William Skinner. “He was standing in the front talking to a cloth merchant called John Bell. I asked to speak to the MD and he said ‘that’s me’. So I ended up chatting to William and John Bell for 10 or 15 minutes and then basically without me knowing it, was interviewed on the spot. I’d just turned 17. They offered me work experience for the following Monday. So I came back in on the Monday, did the day’s work experience, and then got offered the job at the end of the week, working in the front of the shop.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, on quieter days Tom would offer to help out Robert Whittaker, the legendary shirtmaker who had worked at Dege & Skinner since 1992, and been cutting shirts since 1968. A few months later, after turning 18, he became Whittaker’s apprentice, and learned under the master until his retirement in 2018. It was then that Bradbury became Savile Row’s youngest head shirt-cutter at just 25 years old.

Now, five years later, Bradbury puts a lot of his success down to those years working under Whittaker, and he’s passionate about keeping the trade alive and helping teach the next generation. “There was a lot of bad language at some points. A lot of shouting and swearing”, he says. “It was tough at times but once I got to learn a little bit more, I stopped being a burden on him and became the help. You get to the point where you’re like ‘I saw this thing and I want to try it’, and he would be very willing to let me go ahead and try it. It was crucial to experiment and through that you’re just forever learning.”

Today Bradbury has his own apprentice, Xanthe Godwin who works full time for Tom after previously doing two days a week while studying. What are some of the pearls of wisdom he learned from Whittaker that he can pass on? “He always said, ‘he who made no mistake, made fuck all’. I did follow that mantra. He was a very good person to learn from, because up to the day he retired, he maintained his passion.

“And there was another rule that he said from day one, which I actually passed on to Xanthe as well. It was that every day’s a new day. So if we get into a shouting match, or we argue about something, I don’t hold a grudge and you don’t hold a grudge and you come in the next day fresh.”

For Bradbury, his work is all about the people. This is true of his team of shirtmakers, who he works with collaboratively, and his clients, who he prides himself on building solid relationships with. It’s also why he favours working with Thomas Mason. “Across the whole brand, they’ve just obviously put a lot of knowledge and spoke to a lot of people including us whenever they come over”, he says. “They ask what our customers are up to and what we think they should do. They collaborate between different tailors and they actually take stuff on board, which is really cool.”

As for specific fabrics he counts as favourites, he cites the limited edition range as a highlight. When the new books come through, Bradbury sends photos to his clients who ask to see them as quickly as possible, and it becomes ‘almost like a hype thing’. He also loves the bolder stripes in spring and summer, and denim bunches for more casual shirt styles. “We’ve done different kinds of things with Thomas Mason Brisbane and Victoria fabrics”. He says. “With Victoria you could wear it with a tie and underneath a suit. It’s perfect underneath a linen suit or in the winter with a tweed. Then the Brisbanes are a bit thicker. We’ve done a couple of western style shirts and it’s quite a heavy denim. It’s got a nice wintry feel that people wear underneath a thicker overshirt or a corduroy jacket.”

I leave Dege & Skinner both impressed and in admiration of Tom’s knowledge and passion for his line of work. There is often talk of tailoring and shirt-making being a dying craft, with automation and overseas production rendering the slower, more deliberate handmade process defunct. But with people like Tom and his apprentice Xanthe at the shirtmaking helm of one of Savile Row’s oldest houses, it’s difficult not to be optimistic.

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