When I think of the many jobs that I’ve gone through in my short life I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I feel saved only in the knowledge that I am not alone. The problem I feel with most people is that we knock on so many doors before one eventually opens. After years of faltering and restarting may we finally stumble across our calling, if at all. Not so for Keith Levett, Livery tailor at Henry Poole, Savile Row, who at the very tender age of 15 entered his apprenticeship knowing that this was his job for life.
Keith’s grandmother taught him to sew from an early age and he later developed a deep fascination for flags and military uniform after his grandfather took him to see a ship’s figurehead of Admiral Howe. When Keith first presented himself at Henry Poole’s in 1989 it was his up to speed knowledge of all the uniforms on display that so impressed Angus Cundey that he was immediately taken under the wings of two coat makers Phillip Parker and Arthur Bruschen. His very first lesson was how to sit properly and hold his tools correctly. These fastidious old school tailors instilled in Keith a benchmark to always set a high standard in one’s work, with the eventuality that quality will indeed wane. Within 3 years he had mastered the art of tailoring and was already working in the livery department in charge of state liveries, court dress, ceremonial uniforms and garments for the Royal stables, – most intricate work for a man so young.
Henry Poole & Co. first began with the success of his father James Poole making military uniforms during the Napoleonic War. In 1806 James opened a shop in Brunswick Square, moving it to Regent’s Street in 1822. Upon his death in 1846, his son Henry extended the grounds with the entrance opening onto Savile Row. He was, arguably, the first tailor on Savile Row, thus beginning the long tradition of the ‘Savile Row suit’. When Henry Poole died the company fell into the hands of his cousin Samuel Cundey, whose family still run it today.
The Royal Warrant for livery tailoring was only granted by Queen Victoria in 1869. By this time the company had every European monarch in its books. Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde have all been fitted with a Henry Poole suit and when looking through their button archive we even come across Napoleon III’s. I find it reassuring that had Napoleon III or his descendants ever needed a button, he/she would have known exactly where to come.
Today the prestigious Royal Warrant title is shared with only a couple of other firms such as Gieves & Hawkes and Dege & Skinner. Keith explains that the difference and most defining factor with a Henry Poole livery garment is that it is entirely hand stitched. Most livery tailors use machines in order to work faster, but results in a very stiff garment that does not give to a body’s shape. With 14 stitches to the inch and 56 yards of gold lace this makes roughly 32,500 stitches for a coat and waistcoat. Keith unwaveringly says it pays off to do all the painstaking work by hand as working the joins and seams by hand produces an uneven but organic garment that will settle into its fit more easily. Keith goes on to say that “even the legs on Chippendale chairs are not even.” Coming with a hefty price tag these garments are understandably made to stand the test of time. Just recently Keith has started the arduous task of replacing all the liveries of the Royal grooms, which were last made by Henry Poole back in 1876. As well as the eminent wear and tear factor of clothes, men are now taller and more muscular so therefore their body shape is totally different.
The basement of Henry Poole’s is a vast rabbit warren of quiet industriousness. His desk, like most other tailors, is organized chaos, with every scrap of paper and safety pin in its rightful place. He proudly shows me his collection of left-handed scissors, going on to say that not only do you have to sharpen them once every 20 years but that it has taken him decades to locate them. Back in the day, if you were left handed you had to learn how to use right-handed scissors or would find yourself out of a job. Times have obviously changed. Looking around I see that Keith’s is the only workspace with livery pieces. Keith confirms that he is currently the only person in the livery department. I’m positively shocked. For how can this immense fount of invaluable knowledge not want to pass on the secrets of his trade? In an age where tailors are failing to replace themselves Keith puts my mind at rest, saying that he has his beady eyes already searching for his successor. What with ideas on reorganizing the much dilapidated archive rooms and helping maintain historic displays in museums it seems that Keith has more than his hands full for years to come. With his eyes sparkling like he’s still the new boy it’s obvious his zeal and energy for his craft is as great as the day he started. I just hope it doesn’t stop with him.