From Trinidad to Savile Row: Andrew Ramroop tells Cindy Lawford about his journey to the top of his trade
Andrew Ramroop is busy sewing when I turn up at 19 Savile Row for our interview. Though he has already devoted over 200 hours to the 6½ ounce checked wool suit he is working on (for exhibition at the Milano Unica textile fair), he is clearly still relishing the job. “I enjoy sitting and making,” he says, though running both his tailoring house Maurice Sedwell as well as the Savile Row Academy does not allow him much time for it. “People are surprised that I still sit and sew but that’s how I am. You can’t ask an artist to stop drawing or painting.”
Andrew, who is 65, has been making clothes for more than five decades, and 2018 sees him celebrate three major anniversaries which demonstrate his dedication to the tailoring craft. The house of Maurice Sedwell is 80 years old, having been established in Fleet Street in 1938; Andrew himself is marking 30 years as the sole owner of Maurice Sedwell; and the Savile Row Academy he founded in 2008 is 10 years old. That same year Andrew was awarded an OBE, the first Savile Row tailor to win one. It truly is an impressive list.
“I was lucky I found at a young age what I wanted to do for a career,” Andrew says. That age is a vague, single digit one, when a boy with the name of Madan living in a village in Tunapuna, Trinidad, began to let his playmates climb trees without him, as he preferred using “rusty old scissors” to cut clothes out of newspapers. “My nickname was ‘Madman’, so they would say, ‘Madman, what are you doing?’ I would say, ‘I am making myself clothes’.”
He describes his family’s circumstances as “very humble”. His father worked as a gardener, barman, cleaner, car park attendant and charcoal maker – “everything to make ends meet”. His mother cooked for the wealthy and got paid in food rather than money so she could better feed her five children. Habits of self-discipline and saving were inculcated by a father who “didn’t spare the rod” and a job at age nine, delivering fresh bread on his bike before school. Andrew left behind newspaper clothes for ever when he fashioned his first pair of real trousers from his mother’s pillowcase. Eventually, and not without some difficulty, Andrew managed to persuade his parents to let him work under a village tailor. At 14, having successfully avoided going to senior school, he was making trousers for the men of the village as well as fellow schoolchildren and earning 45 cents a pair.
When Andrew then asked his boss – who was himself making $5 for each of Andrew’s trousers – to teach him to make jackets, his request was refused, and his boss further threatened, “I will see to it that no one [in the village] takes you.” A period of enforced idleness ensued until, after several refusals, Andrew’s father managed to find a tailor in Port of Spain to give the teenager an apprenticeship. Within four months he was making jackets. Andrew’s employer had trained at the Tailor & Cutter Academy in Soho’s Gerrard Street and was fond of bragging about the fabulous craftsmanship he had seen on Savile Row. Not realising how ambitious and determined his apprentice was, the tailor “excited my young mind with this mysterious place where the captains of industry, the prime ministers, presidents, Hollywood stars went to have their suits made.”
Andrew compared himself to a young athlete hungry for glory. He had found his goal and was determined to get to Savile Row – “not to England, not to London but rather to the street famous for the world’s best tailoring”. Making $4 a suit and three suits a week in Port of Spain and working from 7.20am when he swept the shop until 9pm most days, Andrew managed to save $1,000 in three years, which was enough to buy a return ticket to Southampton. “I had never learned geography, so I didn’t know where the heck I was going,” he says.
On a late July afternoon in 1970, a 17-year old Andrew paced up and down for five hours waiting for luxury liner the Northern Star to arrive, largely alone as “Mummy had to go home and cook”. But, at the last minute, the whole family turned up to say goodbye. “I was in pieces,” he says, though the realisation that one of the six passengers travelling with him was the world heavyweight wrestler Golden Ray Appollon must have helped divert him a little.
He remembers the culture shock of arriving in the UK. “Even though I spoke English, it was a very different English. It took a little while … to understand how people speak … And then, growing up in the hills and forests, I wasn’t used to having houses joined up together. I wasn’t used to seeing smoke coming out of chimneys. It was a very, very foreign environment. But I had a focus and I had made myself two suits. I wore one [brown-checked] and carried another [green-checked with an inverted box pleat instead of a vent], and I came to Savile Row looking for a job.”
That first Monday morning Madan Ramroop, as he was still known, managed to get himself hired by Anthony Sinclair but, when a white English candidate named Richard came in just after him asking for the same position, “I was fired in about 20 minutes”. He then went to Jim Welshman who liked the double breasted that Andrew was wearing enough to call Colin Hammick. By 10.30 that same Monday morning, Andrew was working for Huntsman. But he never forgot that first morning’s firing and, many years later, Andrew took great satisfaction in buying Sinclair’s business and giving that same Richard a job working at Maurice Sedwell.
At Huntsman, Andrew sewed in the workroom but really wanted to be in the front. “I had heard of all the big names who came to Savile Row and I wanted to be a part of that. In fact there was a tradesmen’s entrance and we had to come through there. You couldn’t even walk through Savile Row. You had to walk through the back, on Heddon Street.”
Andrew soon understood he needed to learn more of the Savile Row style of cutting fitting art and design, so he started saving to afford the £900-a-year fees – enough to buy a house in those days – to attend London College of Fashion, taking on an evening job making trousers and working as an alterations tailor on Saturdays amid the bright patterns and wide lapels of the King’s Road. He managed to complete the three-year course at LCF in two years and received a diploma of distinction created just for him.
In 1974, he returned to the Row, looking to work as a cutter dealing directly with customers. However, when potential employers were faced with his “curly hair, my West Indian accent, that wasn’t happening. I was turned down from every job”. Although he was the “most experienced and qualified” of the eight graduates from LCF and, with more than 40 tailoring houses in the Mayfair and St. James’s area, the demand for new staff was enormous, he still struggled to find work. “John Dege [of Dege & Skinner] said, ‘Our customers wouldn’t take kindly to a foreigner but if you want a job in the workroom, we can give you a job there’.”
This time Andrew, now aged 22, was determined not to settle for the workroom. Fortunately, Maurice Sedwell then called LCF looking for a new staff member. “I still have the piece of paper the head of the college, Mr Clark, gave me: ‘Maurice Sedwell, 78304’, written in pencil,” Andrew says. “I got a one-month trial.” To get the job, he had to give up using “Madan” as his first name. “I was told, ‘We can’t call you that here’.” From then on, he introduced himself as Andrew.
Andrew does not attribute his difficulties to racism on the Row, but rather to a lack of “confidence that [employers could] keep customers if they had a West Indian in the front of the shop”. Sedwell had Andrew mainly doing back-office work and alterations, still not what he yearned to be doing but, because so many alterations were being requested, Andrew was able to convince his boss that he needed to be present at fittings to see if they could be improved. “It was just to stand and look, not get involved,” he says. Only after customers had left could he make suggestions.
Gradually he was allowed to fit trousers on customers and one day found himself dealing with MP Mark Lennon-Boyd, then Parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Energy. Lennox-Boyd was unhappy about two of his Sedwell suits. “I made a comment on the suits and said that if he let us have the suits back, then I would have them fit perfectly. He sent them back and I fixed them. He then phoned up Mr Sedwell and asked what my name was.” Andrew recalls the MP’s exact words: “‘Next time I come to your establishment, I want him to do my fittings’.” Soon Lennox-Boyd became Parliamentary private secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Andrew found himself doing the fittings for six members of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet.
“At one time I was doing 90% of cutting and fitting,” he says. Andrew would go on to make several suits for Princess Diana, most famously the midnight blue cashmere jacket she wore for her 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir. “The briefing went to designer Katherine Walker and I was the tailor,” he says, the goal being to create something “simple and classic”. Not until he turned on the television that night did Andrew discover for what occasion the suit had been made. “It looked black and sombre. It was a sombre interview.”
He is not one to name more names, but a few of his customers have willingly displayed their appreciation, including cricketers Brian Lara and Mark Ramprakash and film stars Tony Curtis and Samuel L. Jackson. “Soft-structured tailoring” is the way Andrew likes to describe the suit-making style he has created at Maurice Sedwell. “There is some firmness to what we do but not hardness. The Italian way is not as structured.” From the 1970s, Andrew has gradually developed a rather intricate signature style for Maurice Sedwell, involving slightly narrower shoulders and wider sleeves, with delta lapels and delta pocket flaps that mirror the bottom front edges of the jacket, and including a front pocket that follows the line of the shoulder.
Yet Andrew is keen to say: “I work on expressing an individuality for customers. So [creating a suit] is more of a communication with that customer, getting to know their lifestyle . . . trying to some extent to get them not to conform to a sartorial image that is expected in a business environment”, and, most of all, encouraging them to “want to stand out”. He likes to say that a customer does not come to Maurice Sedwell to buy a suit but rather “to commission a sartorial image”.
Here, where the 16 people who work for Andrew are all trained to cut, fit and make garments, there is no room for ready-to-wear or made-to-measure. “The nerve centre of any tailoring business is the tailoring room, it’s not the cutting room,” he says, aware that his ambitious younger self might not have said this. “You can be a fantastic cutter, but a tailor can destroy you with bad workmanship. But you can be a mediocre cutter, and a handcraft tailor is the one who can make you look good.”
For his “ultra bespoke” suits that receive a whopping 130 hours of hand-tailoring and bear a starting price of £6,000, so much value lies in the details. “No one makes a suit like us,” Andrew says. He points to the five-button working cuffs and glossy Milanese button holes that adorn lapels, some sporting an array of rainbow-thread colours against the suit’s dark background – an oh-so-slight reminder of the vibrant carnival that Andrew returns to enjoy in Trinidad every year.
These days greater challenges are provided by the trend toward lighter weight cloths, and Andrew is eager to stress that tailoring must “respond to the demands of [a hotter] environment”. With customers in no less than 60 countries, bespoke suits have to be made comfortable enough to wear in the most sweltering of climates. Moreover, the fact that his luxury suits are not subject to fashion trends and never need to be thrown out makes them a kind of “eco-clothing”. “What we do [on Savile Row] is unique and relevant,” Andrew observes, “and you’ve got to be relevant.”
Dr Cindy Lawford gives regular tours of Savile Row. To find out more, go to cindylawford.co.uk