Interview: Gill Long of Cock of the Walk Tailors (part one)

by Modculture 21 September, 2016

Cock of the Walk shopfront. Signage by Steve Millington.

Cock of the Walk shopfront. Signage by Steve Millington.

The mod scene’s rising star of tailoring is Gill Long of Cock of the Walk Tailors. We caught up with Gill for an extensive interview covering everything from her training and skills through to the clothing she makes and why mods from all over the UK and beyond are knocking at her door. Part two of the interview can be read here.

1. First off, thanks for talking to us, I know you are VERY busy. An obvious first question, how did you get into tailoring and what kind of training is involved before you are in a position to call yourself a tailor?

By accident if I’m completely honest. I must have been around 17 and didn’t know what I wanted to do. But what I did know was that I didn’t like any of the clothes you could buy in the shops at that time. I started messing about with making my own clothes, and as I was only working in the evenings in a bingo hall, I would easily do a little college course in the day.

The tutor on that course pulled me to one side and encouraged me to take it further as she could see I had something. That led to me moving down south and pursuing a degree in Pattern Cutting and Clothing Manufacture. For what end, I still had no idea. While I was on that course I took a shine to menswear. When I finished my degree I still felt as if I had more to learn, and the hardest thing I could think of in menswear was Bespoke Tailoring. So that’s what I aimed to do next, as the next challenge. And it was only when I had been invited to spend the day at Gieves & Hawkes that I finally knew it was the career for me.

To be called a tailor you must have undertaken formal training under a master before you have the right to call yourself a tailor. Unfortunately, there aren’t any certificates to prove this, which leaves the industry open to abuse and untruths. People who sell suits call themselves a tailor these days and a person who alters clothing is also known as a tailor. But a proper tailor must have trained somewhere, under the instruction of someone in a specific field. I trained under Mr Luff at Gieves & Hawkes, as a Bespoke coatmaker, and then under Mr Kelly in Manchester also as a coatmaker, but in Made to Measure. I only started calling myself a tailor when I had stopped learning the job and was actually doing the job. And for customers to specifically request that I made their work was always a boost.

2. Was it worth the work and would you recommend it as a profession?

It was 7 years of absolute learning and training, before I was finally doing. I would recommend the profession to a certain type of person. They absolutely must be patient, have an eye for detail, and have a perfectionist streak. They mustn’t have a sense of self importance or a righteous nature, as they will not find it easy submitting to the greater wisdom of their master. Bespoke Tailoring has been done a certain way for centuries, and there tends to be a reason for that. There isn’t a lot of money in tailoring so if that’s something you are after, I wouldn’t recommend this job. There are much easier ways of making money. But few as rewarding. To be honest, the money is what ends up weeding out the wrong people in the long run.

The hours are long, and most people you meet are better dressed than yourself. But you get an enormous sense of pride from a job well done. And when your customer’s partner can’t stop checking them out, you know your job is done.

First ever Savile row customer, Mr Quinn, wearing a kid mohair 2-piece semi bespoke.

First ever Savile row customer, Mr Quinn, wearing a kid mohair 2-piece semi bespoke.

3. Making a suit is obviously what most people associate with tailors. But what other garments are in your arsenal after training? Is it a case if the skills pretty much adapting to anything?

Training in tailoring very specifically concentrates on one garment. There are 3 paths: Coat making, vest making and trouser making. Coat and vest making use very much the same skill set. A lot of hand work, felling, buttonholing, padding etc and are predominantly made up on the bench. Trouser making is a completely different game. Trousers are very much made up at the machine, so are a faster and a cheaper garment.

We also have a shirtmaker, who does just that. but we approach shirtmaking very much from a tailor’s point of view. We always have a basted up fitting, plenty of hand finishing details and the construction is very much a 3D construction, akin to that in bespoke coatmaking. This is something we are very keen to continue and grow.

4. Those skills are one thing, working is another. How easy was it to set up a tailoring business in the current era?

It took quite a long time. But I wasn’t in a hurry, I wanted to get it right. When I was training on Savile Row, I was being paid £1 an hour, for 40 hours a week. It cost me £38.50 a week for the train fare, so it was always going to be a slow process to go on my own. Up until a couple of years ago I was still working evenings in a bingo hall as a safety net, but it got to the point where I had so much tailoring work, and not enough hours in the day I had to quit the side job and take the leap into the scary unknown.

Since then we have become a team of five workers (currently hiring number six) with our own shop, and visiting Savile Row every month to see our own customers, on our own terms. It does sound like it was easy when I put it like that, but it took a long time, building proper foundations. There are loads of people setting up suit selling businesses these days, but they don’t make their own product, and have hardly any training. And I think that is where they will fall down in the long run.

Double breasted blazer in medium weight flannel.

Double breasted blazer in medium weight flannel.

5. How did you manage to build up your clientele?

I’ve always said the kind of customer we get, are those that WANT a suit, not those that NEED a suit. Those that want a suit tend to be dressing for fun, have a higher than average interest in tailoring and how their suit is made, and are interested in having something a little unique. I won’t name any names but we started dressing some of the pickiest mods around, and we knew if we could make them happy, then we could make anyone happy. We also get quite a lot of dandies through the door. And it is purely word-of-mouth and the sense of oneupmanship that we blame for our expanding client list. That and a lot of return custom.

6. Obviously expanding as a tailor requires help. How easy is it to get staff with the right skills to assist? Or do you need to train your own staff?

We tend to train our own staff. It helps if they have had prior experience, but ultimately we like things done our way. Plus we can guarantee consistency and quality that way. We have recently hired a highly trained couture sewer from Poland, who as it happens has found it very easy to translate her skills into bespoke. But finding skills locally, or even ‘at home’ has been a struggle. But our trainees are coming on tremendously.

7. You are based in Hull and have a shop there, but you also work out of Savile Row. What is the thinking behind that? Was it by accident or by design?

Our shop in Hull is a workshop first and foremost, so it doesn’t matter too much where we are. We have a great space, and a lot of natural light. And importantly, a city centre location. But we are also aware that Hull can be a bit of a trek for a lot of people, so we started using a pub in Kings Cross for our London / South England customers. We were there for a year or so before being approached by Holland & Sherry on Savile Row to make use of their fitting rooms. We bit their hand off. And at the last count we had racked up over 200 fitting hours on Savile Row with them.

8. Can you see yourself expanding to take on other locations in the future?

We make regular home visits in Manchester, and the occasional trip to Sheffield. For now that is more than enough for us to contend with. I think the next step would be to find the perfect shop for us to use as a visiting location in Manchester.

Bespoke details on a madras jacket.

Bespoke details on a madras jacket.

9. Ok, you have set up and you are open for business. If I wanted a suit off you, what should I consider before I met up with you?

We always give our first timers a bit of homework before we begin. We like to know what they like and what they don’t like. Chances are, most people have a dream suit in their head already and it is our job to tease it out. We find pictures help enormously with first timers, so any image gathering on the customers side is a great idea. We also need to know if you are a bit of a ‘fluctuater’, what you would like the suit for, and when.

We offer two different levels of tailoring, so an idea of budget and timescales usually help make part of that decision already. The rest of the information we can gather in the workshop as we look through cloth books and show examples we have hanging on the rails.

10. Do you offer cloth or do you need to source your own? Is one option better than the other?

We certainly do offer cloth. We only work with the best cloth companies, based in Yorkshire, Scotland and Italy. Around 90% of our selection is British. People think cloth from the tailor is expensive, but we offer the cloth at trade prices to encourage our customer to get the best cloth their budget can afford. It really does make a difference to both the customer and us. We instruct the cloth houses to send us everything that is under £100/mtr and we will select the odd book over that price bracket.

You can also provide your own cloth, but we would need to check it over first, and there are no guarantees of being able to add a waistcoat or an extra pair of trousers to the suit in the future.

Handmade buttonholes at cuff with graduating shades of real horn.

Handmade buttonholes at cuff with graduating shades of real horn.

11. How do you see your role as a tailor – do you like to be a guide or do you like to be guided by a client?

Ultimately, we act as a safety net. We won’t let our customer make an awful mistake. We allow as long a rein as possible to allow personal expression and creativity in commissioning a suit, but we will always step in if we feel the look is starting to get into the wrong territory for our customer. At the end of the day our customer is paying for a tailor. If we didn’t give our advice and gentle guidance, they would be getting a seamstress at a tailor’s prices.

12. Has there been any point (without naming names) that you’ve had to put your foot down on what a client wants – or is the client always right?

We did have a unique request a few years ago. A lad had done a lot of research into what he wanted, to the point where he even wanted to dictate the construction and cut we applied. He’d had the idea of marrying his two favourite items, a Fred Perry polo shirt, and a mohair blazer. He had done a lot of sketches of how he wanted it to look, down to the detail of the sleeve continuing from the body, but in long sleeve version. He had in fact just invented the mohair kimono, and no matter how much I explained this to him, and the properties of tonik being completely opposed to cotton pique he was adamant it would work. We just refused and told him to bother another tailor.

Other than that it’s quite mild. Certain shades of blue, in a certain cut can look less like an elegant suit and more like double denim. We’ve had people wanting to mix racing green and burgundy separates, which can all look too much like a Christmas elf if care isn’t taken with the accessorising. That kind of thing really.

Bespoke trousers with brace tops and button fly.

Bespoke trousers with brace tops and button fly.

13. Any detailing requests that has shocked or surprised you?

We did make a suit that had 18 pockets in it, all fastening with handmade working buttonholes. That was a lot of work, and we managed to make it all look discreet too. We once had to make a suit which could take the strain of cossack dancing, whilst still looking elegant.

And we are currently working on a fastening solution for a man who carries a sword as part of his uniform. That is more a pleasure than work as we get to look into traditional military fastenings. And next week we get to do our first fitting with a real sword. We are looking forward to that very much.

You can read part two of the interview here.