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Little shop in Leeds that’s the spiritual successor to menswear factory that once clothed the nation

Des Merrion with examples of his work. 'Picture by Gerard Binks
Des Merrion with examples of his work. 'Picture by Gerard Binks
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IT is a small offcut of the industry that once dominated the region, but the understated, single-storey retail unit, just off the traffic lights on the road to Rawdon, makes up in status what it lacks in scale.

Des Merrion’s father oversaw the production of some 30,000 gentlemen’s suits a week. Des himself manages only one and a half. But they are, last time he checked, the fourth most expensive in the world.

Des Merrion at work. Picture: Gerard Binks

Des Merrion at work. Picture: Gerard Binks

With just two display windows and someone else’s semi attached to its right-hand side, his shop is the spiritual successor to the planet’s biggest clothing factory.

Some 10,000 people worked at the old Montague Burton site on Hudson Road in the Harehills district of Leeds. It was the biggest employer in the city and ranked among Britain’s six biggest companies. Even its staff canteen was the biggest. Some 8,000 could sit down to meat and two veg, with apple pie for dessert, at a single sitting.

But when they left, they took their skills with them. The site was turned over to warehousing and the city that once boasted that it clothed the world, clung to its heritage by a thread.

Three decades later, Mr Merrion, who says he is on a one-man mission to preserve the traditional skills of bespoke tailoring, is attempting to claw back its reputation, one stitch at a time.

His shop, 10 miles north-west of the old factory, is now also the base for a consultancy and a suitmakers’ masterclass, with a maximum roll of four students a year, at £10,000 each.

“Leeds used to have its own tailoring district but the skills were never passed down,” he said.

“It’s a crying shame. But tailors thought of each other as rivals. Even in New York, two of the best in the world were in the same building but they never spoke to each other.”

At around £1,600 for a semi-bespoke suit in the best Yorkshire cloth and £3,000 for a fully bespoke number, it’s a long way from the £20 outfits the Burton’s factory turned out when Mr Merrion’s father, Terry, was its chief engineer.

He took his son to see the machines on Saturday mornings, and the boy was awed at the size of it.

“The mech­anics’ workshop alone was big as most factories today, and the image has always stayed with me of the rows and rows of tailors,” he said

Burton’s had other factories at Doncaster, Goole and Gainsborough to service its chain of branches, all bearing the slogan, The Tailor of Taste.

“No-one ever earned a fortune at Burton’s but you were looked after,” said Mr Merrion, who went on to train in London’s Savile Row.

His customers come to him from around the world. “These days, people will find you wherever you are,” he said, noting that those with “old money” favoured subtle hues and timeless styles.

“The word ‘bespoke’ has been devalued over the years. I’m trying to preserve the art and craft of true tailoring.”