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Editorial blog

Patrick Grant talks about his role as a Sewing Bee judge

31 Aug 2018

Patrick Grant, talks to Angela Sara West about resuming his role as a judge, rejuvenating the fortunes of Norton & Sons and resurrecting ready-to-wear label E. Tautz

Always well suited and booted and with a passion for fashion since childhood, style icon and star of The Great British Sewing Bee Patrick Grant never fails to look incredibly stylish. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with looking smart,” he tells me. “I remember being really proud of my uniform on my first day of school. In my teens, my walls were covered with pages from Vogue and Elle. I used to spend whole days in secondhand and charity shops, trying to find pieces to recreate outfits from the men’s fashion pages.” He started sewing at school. “I just did simple alterations, and properly learned to sew when I started at Norton & Sons.” With a meticulous eye for detail and fantastic fabric handling skills, he’s also quite mean with a sewing machine. “But I’m a clothes designer, not a great maker. I have brilliant staff who do the sewing.”

A tailor-made simple style

Describing his own impeccable style as “simple”, he has numerous style icons and favourite designers. “I love men whose character shines through their clothes, like David Hockney or Jarvis Cocker. I loved Lee Alexander McQueen - he was the rarest talent and the loveliest man. There are so many great designers in London right now… Christopher Kane, Roksanda, Erdem, Molly Goddard, Simone Rocha, Craig Green, Charles Jeffrey…”

No business like sew business

Edinburgh-born Patrick studied Materials Science and Engineering at University and then worked in manufacturing in the engineering and technology sector. After a brief stint in marketing, he studied for an MBA at the internationally renowned Saïd Business School at Oxford University. It was there that he found his calling, under “Businesses For Sale”, in an old copy of the Financial Times. An ad offering a venerable Savile Row tailoring house caught his eye and the rest, as they say, is tailor-made history. With a background in engineering and technology, why go down the sewing route? “I had never planned to move into fashion, but I had always loved handmade things, historic brands and men’s style. Purely by chance, I found out that Norton & Sons was for sale. It sat perfectly at the intersection of all of these things.”

Selling his house and car, and borrowing from the bank and raising money with friends, in 2005 he took the plunge and bought the failing family-owned business. He has since transformed the struggling niche business, which looked difficult to grow and scale, into a phenomenally-successful brand. By focusing on its heritage and increasing innovation, the once-ailing company now efficaciously fuses the old with the new, retaining its traditional history, complemented by contemporary high-end offerings.

A successful Savile Row tailor

Established in 1821 by Walter Norton as tailors to “the Gentlemen of the City of London”, Norton & Sons was originally located on The Strand. Continuing to thrive in the 20th century, it then incorporated the celebrated Savile Row houses, Hammond & Co, J. Hoare & Co, E. Tautz and Todhouse Reynard & Co. Radiating a rich history, the firm gained eminence as a sporting tailor, making sharply-cut garments, from dinner suits to racing silks for Europe’s sporting and military elite. Along with King Edward VII and other UK royals, the business boasts being proud tailors to the royal households of Europe and three US Presidents.

A young Winston Churchill was a big fan of “breeches from Tautz”, while other illustrious clients over the years include Alfred Hitchcock, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and Cary Grant. Before Patrick took over the reins as Creative Director, the company had attempted to diversify by selling guns and offering sporting tours alongside its high-quality garments. Patrick re-concentrated the business on tailoring and within a few short years, tripled annual revenue to nearly £1 million. Nortons uses the very best tools, many of them passed down from one tailor to another over the years. Living in the workshop six days a week, he had to learn everything from scratch, from how to make trousers and fit a suit to directing the staff.

On purchasing Norton & Sons, Patrick also gained the rights to the name Hammond & Co., bringing all the brands together as one big happy family. Hammond & Co. has proved one of the most successful designer projects for Debenhams after Patrick relaunched it as a diffusion menswear line exclusively with the store in 2012. He relaunched the defunct Nortons subsidiary, Oxford Street-based E. Tautz (famous for its sports and military wear and for inventing the ‘Knickerbocker’ breeches) in 2009 as a ready-to- wear brand and showcased it at Fashion Week 2010. The re-imagined label, which is more experimental than the Nortons line, transformed British men’s style, for which Patrick was awarded ‘Menswear Designer of the Year’ at the 2010 British Fashion Awards. He has also recently been working with English luxury fashion brand, J. Barbour & Sons Ltd., as Creative Director of their Beacon Heritage line.

At the forefront of fashion

With his unique flair and precise craftsmanship, combined with an inherent sense of commercial awareness and business nous, Patrick’s business is beginning to take pride of place at the forefront of the British and global menswear stage.

“How does it feel to own a piece of prestigious Savile Row? “I feel very proud that I’ve managed to make modest successes of these brands, and have done so with integrity and honesty and in a way that, hopefully, is sustainable for the long term. They all have wonderful and unique histories and characters.” His ethos? “I work very hard, I care very deeply about the product, how it’s made, what it’s made from and by whom.”

Accolades & runways

Other accolades include Retailer of the Year at the 2008 Scottish Fashion Awards and winner of the 2015 British Fashion Council/ GQ Designer Menswear Fund.

Patrick has also appeared in ‘best dressed’ lists, including GQ’s 50 Best Dressed Men, being named in Esquire magazine’s Most Stylish Men in the World, and included in the Business of Fashion 500 index of the most influential people in global fashion. As a massive influencer, he has also appeared in both Who’s Who and Debrett’s People of Today. In 2013, Patrick was made an Honorary Professor at Glasgow Caledonian University’s School of Business and Society, in 2016, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) while in 2017, he was awarded an honorary degree by Heriot-Watt University.

What does this avid follower of fashion love most about styling runway shows at London’s Fashion Week? “It’s a great part of the fashion process. I always have the outfits in my mind’s eye as we’re designing and developing the collections, but it’s really something when they all come together. I usually take about a week, starting with a rough first go, all the outfits on hangers, then I’ll leave it a day before coming back and putting them on our model and making a second cut at it. Then, I will usually have one last go, fine tuning every look, thinking about the order in which they come through. It’s fun!”

Inspirational travels

The charming tailor says he sources inspiration from “everywhere” at all times. “Art, film, museums, books, nature, bus seats, tube floors… I keep my eyes and my mind constantly open.” Having spent a lot of time living abroad and travelling, the celebrated tailor’s overseas’ travels also influence his work. “Time spent abroad is always inspiring. I like to walk through cities and ride the bus or the tube. I love local museums, big and small. I’ve been lucky to travel extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia and this is constantly creeping into my work, both subtly and overtly, from ancient Magyar costume to Japanese shibori dying.”

It’s… TV sewtime! Judging the sewing bee

Patrick is a regular fixture on TV and radio as a commentator on British fashion, clothing and textile industries. He has also contributed to several major TV documentaries, including Savile Row, Harris Tweed and The Perfect Suit. With filming underway for the next series of The Great British Sewing Bee, there’s a big buzz in the air of the needlework world as the quest to find Britain’s best home sewer begins and viewers count down the days to see this year’s amateur contestants come into the fold and reveal how they measure up. Patrick resumes his role as a much-loved, fastidious judge (for which he was nominated for the 2017 National Television Awards), this year alongside resident expert judge, Esme Young, and new host, Joe Lycett. What does Patrick love most about the popular BBC Two show and what can we expect from the next series? “I love all of it. I love the contestants, their passion, their humour and their camaraderie. I’ve loved working with Claudia and am already loving working with Joe. And Esme is a force of nature, she’s amazing. We’ve set lots of great new challenges and have a great new week focusing on one of the huge issues facing the world of clothing right now, something that I personally feel hugely passionate about.” As we get set for another spectacular small-screen sew down, are there any funny behind-the-seams stories that have happened to Patrick on Sewing Bee that have had him in stitches? “Lots, but I can’t possibly tell you. You’ll have to come on the show.” Patrick is all about great garments, celebrating individual craftspeople and British homegrown manufacturing, and encouraging people to start making clothes again so our home industry can rebuild itself. With a huge rise in the numbers now making their own garments, does he think people are taking much more interest in, and are better informed about, the clothes they wear and their quality? “Many are but, sadly, still far too many people treat shopping as a pastime and clothing as disposable. Our consumption is out of control and we need to change, but I think home sewers are very much leading the way in this.”

The Community Clothing Project

With a pattern emerging of people picking up a needle and thread and trying sewing for size, Patrick recently embarked on another exciting project to encourage uptake and rekindle the craft, in his new role as co-chairman of Future Textiles, part of the Prince’s Foundation. “It’s both a great honour and a great challenge, and something I’m already getting stuck into!” In 2015, Patrick purchased another ailing business, clothing manufacturer and sewing factory, Cookson & Clegg, in Blackburn. Saving the factory from closure, he’s attempting to restore it and, in 2016, he launched the social enterprise Community Clothing in response to the extreme challenges facing the British clothing and textile manufacturing industry. Designed to create great jobs for skilled workers to make excellent-quality affordable clothes and, therefore, helping to restore real pride in Britain’s textile communities, the not-for-profit project has earned Patrick much praise from across the political spectrum. How’s his initiative going? “Happily and fantastically!

Eighteen months in, we’re already selling a lot of great clothing, creating a lot of work, and we know from the wonderful emails and comments we get that our customers appreciate what we’re doing. We have lots of beautiful womenswear in development for Community Clothing, which we hope will be ready for next spring.” Cutting out the wholesaler and retailer, the brand acts as a manufacturers’ cooperative and produces simple, everyday items for men and women, such as blue chinos, V-neck jumpers, simple trench coats and jeans, all sold directly at everyday high-street prices.

The tailor, the suit & the wardrobe

If you’re wondering what’s in his wardrobe, wonder no more… Patrick reveals his current staples fit with his simple style. “For me, right now, it’s grey trousers, navy jumpers, and oversized chinos and work shirts. I’ve never been out of love with the suit, but I’m very bored with the skinny look.” His most treasured suit? “I have a dinner suit that was my father’s that I’ve always loved. It’s been with me for 30 years and was with my dad for about the same before me.”

What’s in store for the fashion industry?

So, no more tightly-tailored suits for Patrick it ‘seams’. What other changes has he witnessed in the fashion industry recently and how does he see it evolving? “Sustainability, ethics and traceability are all big issues in the fashion world that have only really become hot topics in the last decade, and they’re only going to get hotter. Fashion is a three-trillion-dollar industry and the world’s second worst polluter. It has to change.”

Top tips from a top tailor!

With the trend for tailored looks and the return to improved standards of dressmaking looking set to continue, what are this Savile Row superstar tailor’s tips for readers looking to become high-end tailors? “It’s hard… there are only a small handful of places to learn on Savile Row and places don’t come up in any structured way. There are accredited bespoke tailoring courses which are a good starting point. The Savile Row Bespoke Association, of which most of the good houses are members, has details on the website. The UK has only a couple of tailoring factories, and I don’t know how many training places they offer.”

Home makeovers

Patrick has taught a couple of other crafts in the past. “I spent two summers working on a summer camp in California teaching pottery and crafts. We did all sorts, native American crafts like moccasin making and weaving dream catchers… I also love to paint.” The king of threads recently made his first foray into interior design, collaborating with LG SIGNATURE to design an installation of cutting-edge home technology at last year’s Esquire Townhouse with Dior event. Are there any more interior design projects in the works? “At one stage, I wanted to be architect, and it was great fun to work on the LG lounge. It was great that it won a prize, too. The only other project in the pipeline is one of my own, on a derelict house I’ve bought near our factory in the Forest of Bowland.” So there’s a new home in store for this successful Savile Row tailor… although the sew must, of course, go on!

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