For 56 years, Carl Stuart has made bespoke suits for the stars. Now the Ossett tailor’s own young star Samantha Fenwick is picking up the shears from the best in the business, writes Stephanie Smith. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson.
As a master cutter and tailor, Carl Stuart has made a bespoke jacket for Donald Trump and suits for Mick Jagger, Elton John, Robert De Niro and Vinnie Jones. He has created trousers for Xi Shun from China, the world’s tallest man at 7ft 9in, and jackets for the cast of Last of the Summer Wine, which the BBC distressed and dirtied, according to character.
All these famous jackets and suits, yet no one has ever met Carl Stuart. “It was a made-up name,” says Robert Middleton, who is in charge of the jacket and trouser room at Carl Stuart Ltd’s Ossett factory. Carl Stuart was, in fact, Walter Grimes, a master cutter whose reputation for tailoring excellence extended far beyond Yorkshire.
After honing his skills at Ibbotson’s tailors in Leeds, Walter set up on his own in 1963 and soon began to grow his list of A-list customers. Sadly, he died in 2017 but his meticulous work carries on at Carl Stuart, which is now run by his daughter, Jane Firth. There are about 60 employees at the factory and head office, working in cutting, tailoring, pressing and administration. It’s a friendly and fascinating place and many of the staff have worked there for decades, some since the beginning.
Some of its customers have remained loyal since the beginning, too. Carl Stuart prides itself on making “superior clothing for the well-groomed businessman”, bespoke suiting that exceeds Savile Row standards, with crafting and cutting by hand creating suits in the finest cloth, designed to flatter and, of course, made to measure so they fit to perfection. It also provides suit hire, visiting tailoring, and makes to measure for independent tailors and retailers from across the UK, Europe and the US. It has two shops, in Ossett and Huddersfield.
Carl Stuart is ensuring the future of bespoke tailoring by passing on skills to a new generation. Cutter David Jackson, who joined the company almost 50 years ago, has been teaching Samantha Fenwick, who joined the company two years ago, and is now a cutter herself.
“We are still doing very much the same as we did when I first came,” David says. “One difference is that Sam is in her 20s whereas I was 15 when I started. It was hard to get young people interested because tailoring died. Younger ones coming in from school, we didn’t have any of them for quite a while. But it seems to be resurrecting again, does tailoring.”
“Me and David specialise in doing checks and stripes,” says Samantha. Cart Stuart is renowned for matching stripes so they always line up, for example on the shoulder seam. “This is something that a lot of tailors don’t do and a lot of customers appreciate,” she adds.
It is Samantha’s job to lay out the patterns so that the lines match when the cloth is cut. “It can make my job really difficult. But it’s fun and you’ve got to be very precise, and that’s what I like about it,” she says.
Originally from Whitby, she discovered she loved tailoring while studying for her degree in Fashion Design at Leeds Art College (now Leeds Arts University). Her graduate collection was inspired by the empowerment potential of clothing and tailoring is key in this regard, she finds.
This year, Samantha reached the final of the Golden Shears Awards, a bi-annual competition for the UK’s tailoring students and apprentices and last month showed her entry at the gala catwalk show at the Merchant Taylors’ Hall in London.
“I created a jumpsuit rather than a three-piece by taking the two blocks and combining them together,” she says. “Taking the traditional methods of tailoring and then breaking them. A traditional tailor would never do something like this. The idea is that it’s unisex.”
Bradford cloth merchants Bateman Ogden sponsored her by supplying the purple check cloth, which is wool, but very lightweight and silky.
“I love making tailoring that’s a bit unconventional, different, new, contemporary,” she says.
A made-to-measure suit costs from £800, yet bespoke tailoring is indeed reviving, says Robert Middleton, and he puts that down to a growing desire for personalisation. “People don’t want to look the same as everyone else. They want to have chosen everything. It’s having something that’s made for you.”
A bespoke suit, Samantha points out, lasts a lifetime with resizing options crafted in. “We leave a lot of allowances. We like to choose cloths we know are going to last. We make it so it is going to last as well. There’s a lot of layers inside the jacket, a lot of canvassing. We can let it out for you years later if you’ve put on weight or the style needs changing.”
Robert agrees with Samantha about the power of bespoke tailoring. One of his customers once said he had got a job because of his Carl Stuart suit. “The first thing they said to him was, ‘wow, what a suit’,” he says. “If you see someone who got a suit that’s made for them, you can tell it a mile off. They have that look of confidence.”
Carl Stuart is at CarlStuartBespokeTailor.com. The company’s shops are at Dale Street, Ossett, and Cloth Hall Street, Huddersfield.