10,000 Hours: Philip Parker, Henry Poole & Co

10,000-hours-Philip-Parker Dan Williams

As MD and Head Cutter of the Savile Row house who invented the Tuxedo jacket, put Churchill in chalk stripe, and set the sartorial standard for generations of the rich, the royal, and the respectable, Philip Parker has the weight of tradition on his neatly-padded shoulders. He’s cut Rex Harrison’s cloths for My Fair Lady and re-created Emperor Hirohito’s costume for Madame Tussaud’s, and here he explains to Laura Barber how he stitched his way to success

The first time I picked up a needle and thread, I wasn’t thinking of a career – it was the early 1960s and I was just a teenager messing around, trying to make my jeans fit tighter.  But when my father asked me what I intended to do when I left school, I told him I wanted to be a tailor. A week later he’d got me an interview at the Federation of Merchant Tailors on Savile Row.  The man I met there was very tall and incredibly elegant, and I was so intimidated I barely spoke, but he mentioned that there was a position going at Sullivan, Woolley & Co on Conduit Street and I was taken on as an apprentice coat maker. On my first day, I arrived in the workshop, which was like something out of Dickens, and my master asked me if I knew how to sew.  I said I did, so he watched me for about ten seconds and just said “stop”.  Then he showed me how to do it properly – how to hold the cloth, how to position the needle, how to make a stitch – and that was all I did for the rest of the day.  There are some tailors who are complete naturals and seem to have the knowledge inside them; and there are others who have to learn it – I was one of those.  But right from day one, I never doubted that I was destined to be here.

Normally, the side of the business you go in on is where you stay, but I’d been at Sullivan’s for four years when one of the cutters left and, although I wasn’t thinking much beyond the end of the week, they must have sensed that I’d do alright in the front shop, so they moved me up and started me off as an undercutter. In those days, the senior cutters on Savile Row were absolutely terrifying – they seemed to sit just below God and I’d cross the road if I saw one coming out of his shop.  But if you showed dedication, they’d teach you everything, not just about the job, but about life, too.

“In those days, the senior cutters on Savile Row were absolutely terrifying – they seemed to sit just below God”

Over the next five years, I got to know every aspect of the trade, from meeting the customer and taking measurements, to figuration and creating the paper pattern, to chalking the cloth and cutting out by hand so the trimmer can add the linings and buttons.  At the beginning, you’re only cutting trousers, as they were deemed easier than the jacket, though my view of that changed over the years: if you get into trouble with trousers it is far more difficult to correct. One of the first suits I cut from start to finish was the one I wore on my wedding day.  It was dark blue mohair: the jacket had narrow lapels and side vents, and the trousers were slightly flared leg… well, it was 1970.

By the time Sullivan’s was taken over by Henry Poole & Co in 1981, I’d worked my way up to be head cutter and that’s what I am here today, though the business has evolved a lot in recent years and you never stop learning.  With each new suit, you’re working from a blank canvas to create something that fits the customer perfectly.  The Savile Row style is very distinctive, but we’re offering a bespoke tailoring to an individual and, as our owner Mr Cundey always says, ‘a customer isn’t a customer until he’s ordered twice’.  During my career, I’ve cut thousands of garments, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s livery for court, a tuxedo for Joanna Lumley, a business suit for an ordinary man off the street, the best part of the job is always the same.  It’s the moment during the final fitting when everything looks immaculate and I can say to myself: ‘Yes, that’s it: I’ve done my job. Just try picking holes in that.’

Illustration Dan Williams