By Daniel Evans
For a man a week away from retirement, Alan Alexander is full of vim. When we meet at 9am for coffee, the Henry Poole veteran has already been at work for the best part of two hours and certainly seems to have as much energy and enthusiasm for the day as the young apprentices he works with and so admires.
“The increasing number of apprentices I see in and around Savile Row now – both male and female – are incredibly good news for our business,” he says with clear delight. “When I first came to Savile Row, nearly every shop was a tailor’s shop and there were lots of apprentices. Then it petered out a little but, in recent years, there has been an upsurge. The good thing now is that a lot of young people seem to be keen to get involved in a craft tradition, especially women. There has been a sudden increase in interest.”
As Alan, now 66, looks back on his 50 years in the business – he began as a 16-year-old apprentice coatmaker for a tailor who worked for Savile Row companies – he does so with understandable pleasure. “When I came into the trade, one of my ambitions was to work on Savile Row. Now I’m proud to say I’ve been working here for 36 years. When I was at school, I was interested in fashion and a career adviser suggested tailoring. I went to see the rep from the National Union of Garment and Tailor Workers who knew someone who needed an apprentice coatmaker. I gave it a go, liked it and have stayed in the business all my life.”
Over his career, it has been the chance to see the world that has been one of the highlights for Alan. “I never expected to travel when I came into the job but I’ve been all over the place,” he says. “In my early twenties, I went to America several times and I’ve been going to Paris since 1977 though I stopped that in 2016. I enjoy travelling and, at one time, we were going five times a year just to Paris where Henry Poole has a proud history, stretching all the way back to Napoleon III, then onto Charles de Gaulle and then, in my time, onto President Giscard d’Estaing.
“When we went to Switzerland we would fly to Geneva and then catch a train to Zurich which was a lovely train journey, around Lake Geneva and then cross country. Beautiful scenery. We are very much involved with America and Europe and now we are growing in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. An Arab client of mine who would be off on his yacht somewhere would phone to organise a fitting and I’d fly out to the nearest place to where he was and he’d sail in to see me. I went to Sardinia once to meet up with him.”
Alan, who stepped down from the board of directors at Henry Poole last year, joined the team in 1980 when the business was in Cork Street before moving to its current home at 15, Savile Row in 1982. Now, as he takes his leave for a well-earned retirement, he is confident that the tailoring business in the area can look to the future with confidence.
“I’m definitely far more optimistic about the future of tailoring on Savile Row than I would have been, say, ten years ago,” he says. “There will always be a demand for quality craftsmanship and there are so many young, talented people coming into the trade. We have a lot of young apprentices here at Henry Poole.”
For the future Alan and his wife Maureen can look forward to spending time in their new caravan. “There is such a lot of this country we have not seen so we decided to buy a small caravan and take a look,” explains Alan, who also plans to spend more time by the river, fly fishing for trout. But their first trip will have to be interrupted as Simon Cundey and the team at Henry Poole are organising a retirement party for Alan at the RAC Club in Pall Mall.
What will he miss about not working at the centre of bespoke tailoring? “I’ll miss my colleagues and miss seeing the clients,” says Alan. “And I’ll miss seeing a finished garment go out of the door with a happy customer. As Angus Cundey said, ‘A customer is not a customer until he comes back and buys another suit’.”
And Alan’s final thoughts? “I definitely made the right decision to come into this trade all those years ago.”