Shirtmaking at the Savoy

Posted on January 27, 2014 by Richard Hoptroff

Savoy Hotel, London, 27th January 2014

Occasionally, unexpected and interesting design jobs crop up.  A couple of years ago, Aoki, a well respected Japanese fashion house, approached Saleem, my point man in Japan, to scout for guest designers.  Each one would design one of the season's shirts for their premium Cafe Soho brand. 

But there was a twist: Each designer had to be British, and had to be a designer of something other than clothing.

I think it's a great idea.  Brits aren't known for their business prowess, low costs or manufacturing capability particularly.  But we are known for our ability to design and create.  Go to any fashion house in Paris or Milan, and the chances are most of the creative team are British.  Even when we design technology - look at Jonathan Ive at Apple, or James Dyson at Dyson - we aim for cool as well as capable.

And recruiting designers of something other than clothing makes sense, too.  I've long believed that you're at your most creative when you apply your skills to a new field you are unfamiliar with.  Not knowing how the old school does it brings a fresh perspective.  (This is why I allow Magic Mike to go on any training courses he likes, except watchmaking.)

Last year, it was the turn of Dale Harrow, one-time car designer for Lotus, and now dean of the School of Design at the Royal College of Arts.  This year, Saleem asked me. 

So I designed a shirt.  I knew what I wanted.  Red and blue stripes on white cotton.  This reflected the flags of Britain, and also France, where I lived for ten years. 

The constraints and possibilities in clothing design are not unlike watchmaking.  Some things you think would be simple, such as sourcing a particular fabric pattern, can be complicated.  Other things that you think would be difficult turn out to be simpler than expected, and you have more creative freedom than you bargained for.  A good example of this is that Aoki asked me to put some kind of echo of watchmaking in the shirt.  I suggested buttons with Roman numerals, expecting the idea to be turned down because it was too complicated.  But they went for it.

The biggest constraint, of course, is the customer.  I originally designed the shirt with portofino cuffs, but they explained gently that it would not be popular in the Japanese market.  So we switched to a double button barrel cuff.

Today I received the prototype for approval - pictured below.  It will be in Aoki stores in Japan from April - so if your budget doesn't stretch to a No.10, you can at least get the shirt.  And talking of the No.10, what's that sticking out of the company president Akihiro Aoki's pocket?

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