There’s no doubt that the British menswear is inherently London-centric – in the UK’s menswear microcosm, there are two streets that get all the glory: Savile Row and Jermyn Street. Of course, this is more than justified – both are places of pilgrimage for stylish, in-the-know men, and have been for centuries.
That said, the focus on London as the UK’s sole hub for tailoring, shirtmaking and outfitting is grossly misleading. There are dozens of excellent outfitters the length and breadth of the country, each with its own foibles; from the reassuringly old school Rhodes Wood of Harrogate to the characterful Dick’s in Edinburgh. Manchester is no exception, of course, and in the very centre of the city sits Dooley & Rostron, a bespoke shirtmaker and made-to-measure tailor that’s been serving a loyal clientele since 1968. The store itself is on King Street West, surrounded by looming Victorian redbrick warehouses that once were Blake’s ‘dark, satanic mills’ and now house the offices and apartments that are home to Dooley & Rostron’s local customers.
“It all started with Frank’s mother making shirts at home and him selling them” explains the firm’s owner, Adam Dooley, whose name sits above the door with Frank Rostron’s, the original owner who founded the business. Adam took the company on from Frank, who was ready to retire, in 2006. He’s tall, slim and cuts a friendly figure as we sit and talk. He’s immaculately dressed in a trim dark blue suit – as you’d expect. “Slowly, Frank’s business grew into a beautiful townhouse shop on Princess Street, and I moved up from another outfitters in Bournemouth to take it on.”
Today, the brand is known for its thoroughbred bespoke shirts, elegant Italian made-to-measure tailoring (Dooley & Rostron make with Scuderi, which is one of the best workshops in Italy for soft Neapolitan style tailoring) and contemporary, playful aesthetic.
In shaking hands with Frank Rostron in 2006, Adam couldn’t possibly have foreseen what was just around the corner. “As soon as we did the deal, the financial crisis of 2007-8 hit. At the time, Frank lived in the USA, and 75 per cent of our business was American. All of a sudden, all those Wall Street clients weren’t there any more. That was a pretty big, pretty scary adjustment early on in my career.” Thankfully, Dooley & Rostron worked through the recession that followed with no shortage of elbow grease and smart thinking. “We made it through with good service, good products and being accessible,” Adam says. “We spent a lot of time travelling to customers to make it easier for them to place orders. You had to hustle, you had to get on the cobbles and graft.”
This is a comparable experience to Dooley & Rostron’s past 18 months. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the UK’s first lockdown looming, Adam had just spent a considerable sum moving the business into its current store, with its larger floor space, excellent coffee shop, two floors of retail space and shiny new in-house shirt factory (workroom is probably a more accurate term – there are five seamstresses and two cutters working full-time – but ‘factory’ references Manchester’s industrial heritage nicely).
For the second time in 10 years, he was faced with the prospect of a huge commercial challenge. “The very first day of lockdown, we started making luxury facemasks,” he says, “before masks really caught on. We had thousands of fabric off-cuts that I’d reluctantly held onto over the years, and we had the monopoly on luxury masks in Manchester while everyone was closed and locked up. Between that and the UK’s furlough scheme, we got through seven months with no physical business.” Adam also worked with a company called 3DLOOK to create an app that allowed customers to measure themselves using their phone, which kept Dooley & Rostron’s shirt business moving forward too.
Speaking of which, what exactly makes a Dooley & Rostron shirt special? “First things first, we have two cutters, Dave and Dave, which makes things nice and easy, and we do everything by hand,” says Adam with a knowing grin. “That’s the only way to do it, to make a shirt that’s been commissioned as a true one-off that’s going to fit you properly. Then, there’s the fact we have our factory here on the premises.”
The recipe for a great shirt is everyone working together, from the guy who measures up, to the guy who cuts it, to the girls who sew it together – everybody has to be able to communicate properly. We’re lucky here, if one of the girls spots a measurement they think sounds strange, she can turn around and double-check it with our cutter. That’s what makes a good shirt: passion and good communication in the team.
— Adam Dooley
Of course, fabric comes into the equation too. “I more or less stock Thomas Mason cloths exclusively. We’ve worked with them for around 10 years now,” explains Adam, thumbing carefully through some swatch books. “I love Thomas Mason’s superfine twill – it’s the best shirt that I sell. I recommend it to everyone, and live in it myself. A white shirt in the stuff is a beautiful thing.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I quiz Adam on the line-of-thought that opened this piece – does he feel that London gets all the glory in the sartorial space? His answer is gentlemanly, but also belies an understanding of how men’s style is changing: “English style can be a little stuffy, but there’s a way to do it. I don’t want my clients thinking they’re walking into their dad’s tailor’s shop. We’ve done the heritage thing to death – I was bored of mahogany panelling and crystal chandeliers.”
I quite agree. London, if you’d like some pointers on where to go next, you could do a lot worse than looking to Manchester.