If there is one thing that the Great British Sewing Bee has taught us, it’s that down-to-earth, burly blokes can be a real dab-hand at running up cute, gorgeous clothes for women. Who knew?
Actually, Sewing Bee judge and tailor-of-note Patrick Grant did know. “No, I’m not surprised, because I have a workroom full of tailors on Savile Row, who are largely still blokes, so I’m surrounded by men who sew every day,” he says. “But I think for the broader audience, it was an eye-opener.”
The third series finished last month, won by 37-year-old IT consultant Matt Chapple. Grant says: “We started with four guys out of 10, but we had two in the final, three in the semi final, four in the quarter final, so they were all of a great standard.”
Credited as the man who revived Savile Row after buying Norton & Sons in 2005, Patrick Grant has, for the past three years, been putting the bobbin back into British sewing industry as co-judge on the BBC2 show. He’s been amazed at its impact.
“We’ve been blown away by the success of it, but the spin-off for the sewing industry in Britain, the home sewing industry particularly, has just been mad,” he says. “Sewing machine sales have gone up something like 400 per cent in three years, sewing clubs are full all across the country, sewing schools are popping up everywhere and haberdashers are reopening.
“It’s been great for me personally because my business is in making clothes and I think the higher number of good home sewers that there are, the easier it is to find people to train up into professional sewers, and hopefully it’s part of a cycle generating a professional sewing industry in Britain that creates thousands of jobs.”
Grant is back in Leeds, where he was a student, on the day of our interview because he is visiting Leeds College of Art later to give ‘An Evening With…’ talk for students. He is threatening to tell them “some truths and some lies” about working in the fashion industry.
“As a teenager, you grow up reading Vogue and GQ, and it all looks very glamorous and very fun and like we spend our time hob-nobbing with Oscar winners and Brit award winners and drinking Champagne and falling out of taxis at the Groucho at 2am,” he says. “But actually, the truth of it is very different, so I am going to talk to them about the realities of living on baked beans and being broke for years on end.”
In spite of his traceless accent, Patrick Grant is a Scot, born in 1972 in Morningside, Edinburgh, where his mother worked at the university and his father managed nightclub bands before becoming an accountant. Strands of flamboyant flair and canny business brain seem twirled in Grant’s DNA, as does a true sense of style. In his teens he borrowed his father’s skinny, cool suits, until he grew out of them (Grant is 6ft 3in).
“I don’t remember ever not being interested,” he says, of clothes. “I remember being five years old at my first day at school and being madly keen that my uniform was spot-on, and my tie was tied properly.
“When my friends were putting Bon Jovi posters up on their wall, at the age of 13 at boarding school, I was putting pages of Vogue up. I used to dress in a way that my friends were thoroughly embarrassed of, but such is life - if you like this stuff, you get used to getting the mickey taken out of you.”
Being tall must have helped, and anyway Grant was a keen sportsman, representing this school and university at tennis and athletics. He studied not fashion, but engineering and material science at the University of Leeds. “I’ve always had a fascination for how stuff is made and what stuff is made from – I think it’s a fairly standard male obsession with stuff,” he says. “It just so happens that I have ended up designing a product that is a lot less technical than a lot of things people might imagine an engineer doing, but at the end of the day, the same rigour and discipline applies.”
He had, he says, a great time during an interesting period for the city. “Leeds emerged as this fashion and clubbing capital in the early ’90s. From being slightly grungy, a bit grimy city, it became a city that people travelled miles to come and buy their clothes on a weekend and go out on a Friday and Saturday night, and it was a real buzz to be in Leeds at that time.”
After a spell in manufacturing, he went to Oxford for a masters degree in business administration where he wrote his thesis on Burberry’s resurgence, trying to work out a magic formula for reviving old brands, and while there found out that Norton & Sons, Savile Row bespoke tailors established in 1821 and quietly famed for dressing the likes of Cary Grant and Winston Churchill, was for sale. He bought it in 2005 and increased the customer base from 20 to several hundred. Then he relaunched E Tautz as its cooler ready-to-wear brother and in 2010 won the British Fashion Council’s Menswear Designer of the Year for its distinctive lines and bold contemporary tailoring. This spring, E Tautz has launched its first capsule collection for women, a range described in the fashion press as being inspired by his girlfriend, Katie Hillier, who is the creative director at Marc Jacobs. Grant laughs. “Everyone likes a good soundbite,” he says, then concedes: “For sure, because I think there are a lot of girls in London who dress in a cooler, slouchier sort of boyfriendy – I hate that expression – but that sort of boyfriend, masculine clothes worn by girls.”
Then there’s Hammond & Co, the menswear line he creates for Debenhams, with which he is very happy indeed. “We’re expanding and adding products, going into another 55 stores in Debenhams in August – it’s been phenomenal,” he says. “It’s just a philosophical decision to make great quality, simple clothing that has a sense of style about it, and enduring style.
“If you design a simple product and you focus on the material and the fabrication, you can actually execute something that is really of excellent quality. If you spend all of your money on frippery and weird details, you’ve got less money for making it and choosing good fabrics.”
The swing for men to dress smartly again has helped. “Now young guys are wearing three-piece suits and smart shoes and bow ties and hankerchiefs and their grooming is different. All that dress down feels a bit old fashioned now.”
He’s not one to become complacent, however. “Young guys don’t want to dress like their parents, and their parents dressed in slouchy old stuff. It all comes in 15 to 20 year cycles.”
He uses fabrics made in Yorkshire and gets as much made as possible in the UK. “You take a philosophical stance that you want to support British manufacturing because it’s good and we cannot afford to lose it,” he says, adding: “If we put the right effort and investment into it, we could rebuild a big industry making clothes.”
There’s another series of Sewing Bee planned for making at some point this year. “Claudia’s a busy woman,” he says. “We’re all busy.”
Meanwhile, he’s off to tell those Leeds College of Art students what the fashion industry is really like, warning: “It isn’t all sketching and draping and running things up on the sewing machine.”