ROCK N ROLLA | Interview with Soho Tailor Sir Tom Baker
Soho tailor Sir Tom Baker chats about what it’s like designing suits for the Prodigy, Savile Row, and the secret behind being one of the most rebellious bespoke talents in men’s fashion
He’s made suits for rock royalty. From Robert Plant, to the Prodigy, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger even Barry Manilow. His fashion shows, like his designs are both bold, anarchic and theatrical.
His don’t give a shit attitude toward the fashion crowd, rebellious style, endless curiosity for design and skill within his craft have long separated him from the stuffy Savile Row crowd where he himself once worked.
When we meet he’s wearing a slick black jacket with leather detailing, studded belt, black jeans and metallic snakeskin Jeffrey West’s, with a twinkle in his eye that speaks volumes for how much he still love’s what he does and also the wild ride he’s been on.
Immaculately stylish, charming and filled with fascinating stories it’s no doubt why he’s become not only greatly liked but also one of the most respected and successful tailors in the business.
You began very early at the age of 7, and describe yourself as being self taught….
SIR TOM BAKER: That’s right, it’s something I’ve only just realised a couple years ago actually how I first started, because I was being asked all the time. But I think the probable seed must be when I had to take some time off school at 7 to convalesce from an accident that I had had. My mother used to take me around shopping with her while she was looking after me, and we used to go into the Haberdasher’s. I just remember being fascinated by that particular shop. It was the smell of the place I think that used to get me so excited, and I was just curious. It was really just a complete natural attraction and curiosity that I had.
But of course I didn’t take it seriously until I was a bit older. So the next step was that I was given a pair of trousers, which were Bay City Roller trousers. They were all the craze at the time. So combined with those trousers, and the beauty of them I suddenly became interested in clothing. Probably more for technical purposes because I’ve never really been interested in fashion as such. It was more about the power of clothing that excited me I think, and the power to stand out.
What was the first thing you designed?
I guess the first time I got a real kick /or one of the earlier things I made was… I remember writing Deep Purple on my jeans with bleach. I had ‘DEEP’ down one leg, in the vertical formation and then ‘PURPLE’ down the other and I did that in my mum’s bath tub. I just wore them down to the local café and everybody was like “Whoa! They’re amazing!” and that’s what made me think “Shit! My ideas actually ain’t that bad” So I think that was really the first realisation I was going to be a designer. And when you get that confidence and that sort of sense of adventure with it, it’s brilliant. People really start to admire that I think.
Do you have an era where you think fashion and music was at it’s the best?
For me the golden period of rock n’ roll is early mid sixties to early mid nineties and then it was dead either side really. So you had it kickin’ off with the Teddy Boy’s and then sort of ending with Brit Pop, even the 80’s was a pretty lousy period really. I mean there’s still some good bands out there today, I don’t want to sound negative but for me it was really the 60’s to late 70’s that was the very fertile period.
Speaking of music, your last collection at the 100 Club was extremely powerful and atmospheric, opening with a spoken word track by Leonard Cohen. When you’re working on a collection or putting a show together does the music come first, during or afterwards?
Yeah, I start very early on with the music actually, strangely you should ask. It’s one of the first things I think about. Particularly the opening track. It’s funny, I’ve got the opening for the next show, and as soon as I’ve got that right; it set’s the mood for the rest of what I’m gonna design and do. I play it over and over. I don’t know what my neighbours must think, because I’m playing it non stop sometimes. Then I plan the first and the second song and then I have an abstract idea as to what I’ll use there after for the rest of show.
But the beginning I think is so crucial. The impact and that first moment to grab everyone’s attention.
You have dressed many many rock stars over the years. Is there one who you’ve enjoyed working with more or that’s stood out from the rest?
I like them all, they’re all great! But on a creative level, Keith Flint from the Prodigy always has extremely adventurous projects. He’s very specific to what he wants but he hasn’t got a clue how to achieve it, and neither have I half the time! But I’ll certainly get it, and I love having that challenge.
As soon as I know it’s game on my brain doesn’t stop working! His projects are always… not theatrical I guess, but theme related. He’ll come in with a brief saying “I want to look like master of the hunt” you know like someone on a fox-hunting expedition with the red jacket and the white trousers. But he’s says “Prodigy Style”. So then we make him a red jacket with leather details and punk it all up . You just apply a rock n roll, anarchic flavour to a very classical look and it’s actually the oldest trick in the book really.
Well perhaps not a trick per se, but certainly your signature or your unique selling point as as a designer….
You’re right, it is actually. I mean A.) I love doing it and B.) I’m getting better and better at it. I want to do a like a gym look you know, but highly tailored, and a military look but again highly tailored. Not this literal style that designers do you know. I want to take elements of both of those styles but make it really smart. It’s things like that, that I like to play around with.
When you left Saville Row to open your own business and to start your own line, did you think there was a demand and a need for things to change? For bespoke tailoring to become more creative and edgy?
Yeah I did, but it took years to develop because at any stage of an early career, the first thing you got to do is make a living and make money. I did it all from scratch, and it was all self financed. I didn’t get handed wads of money from wealthy parents or any of that, which I’m glad about! I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way but at the initial stages your busy working out ways to survive economically, and again I operate that way to this day. Even though I’ve been lucky to do, and design a lot of things I love, you still have to do the work that pays the bills. So if you’re prepared to understand the two sides of that than somehow I think you’ll always get by.
Why Soho? I mean it’s obvious to me that your talented enough for Savile Row but it’s not really you…
Well I came to Soho because Savile Row was far too expensive really. But also it’s not me, you’re right.
I always like Giorgio Armani’s description of Saville Row he say’s “Savile Row? That black and white movie” and I mean I have a few good friends on Savile Row and there’s some there still who are very talented. But you know they go on and on about how they’re modernising and how their revolutionising but I don’t see it! Some of them aren’t even that good technically, it’s strange. And a lot of it is still, very frumpy old suits.
How many people are you designing for per season? Whose your regular clientele?
Well it varies. Depeche Mode come here a lot, I’ve been working with them for two world tours. I don’t see them more often than ever 3 or 4 years which is a shame. I would rather them come more because it’s always a huge order!
So Depeche Mode every 3 years, The Prodigy is more often like every 18 months, or every year really. Duran Duran are now customers, and I just did stuff for them because they’re on a world tour. I’m getting into this cycle now, where every year I’m going to be doing a world tour because of the staggering, which is great! Barry Manilow too, I do lots for him. He’s a wonderful guy to work for, absolutely fantastic.
Robert Plant was one of your first customers?
Yeah he was. But he doesn’t come here that often nowadays because he doesn’t need that much clothing because he’s not touring. But I made the wedding suit for his son Logan. He was the first one really. I bumped into them in Soho and I just said Hello and that, and gave them my card. Then they came up to my old studio in Berwick Street and Logan rang up a day later and said “I’d like to come get my wedding suit from you”. That then materialised into an invitation to the wedding.
You were the perfect designer to do his suit as well, that’s such a nice chance encounter…
It was a nice. Yeah life is funny like that. I’m convinced that you usually end up meeting the people you’re supposed to meet.
Like Mike Scott from the Water Boys they come here , and they were one of my all time favourite bands as a teenager. I just thought they were the nuts you know?! Mike just walked in here one day and I went “Fuck, Mike Scott, how are you?” and now you know he’s really just one of my favourite people of all time Mike Scott. He’s extremely spiritual, extremely intelligent and extremely talented and completely non-commercial. He just does what he wants, and I love his ethos.
Is there a dream person that you’d like to dress?
I mean I used to like the idea of David Bowie but now I ‘ve kinda come to the conclusion that David Bowie is quite boring especially in his old age. I mean his early stuff was utter rubbish and the more stuff I’ve watched about his career, it’s his wife Angie that’s really more responsible and totally should be credited for making him who he is. I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that actually she had a lot more personality than he did! I think she’s just brilliant!
So I guess I no longer want to dress him, plus there’s a lot of other tailors that just don’t stop talking about how he probably bought one suit for them 20 years ago. I never seem to get that whole thing with designers. You know I could claim to have dressed Mick Jagger because I made 2 jackets for him in 2003 for his Forty Licks Tour but he’s not really customer like Robert Plant is, or Barry Manilow. You know I would never say that.
What about designing for people from the past?
Yeah I haven’t answered your question have I?! ha Who is it I would really like to dress?… I mean from past Beethoven would be incredible or Paganini. I thought they were fantastic dressers all those people, so any of those. Mozart would have been something, I mean Mozart had such personality. He was such a sorta punk rocker really.
What do you wear? Do you wear your own designs, or do you shop from a certain other tailor?
Actually I don’t have many clothes strangely. I’m not really in to consuming clothes which is a bit weird. I’m just about boots and jackets really and the rest is jeans and just speed for me. I’ve got about 10/15 pairs of good boots, 10/15 good jackets and a couple of good overcoats and that’s me done. Black t-shirts, black jeans. I can’t stand fussing over my own dress really because I’m basically doing it all day.
You know it’s not that I don’t like clothes, I obviously need to look the part. But it’s that whole thing with chef’s where they’d rather cook for other people than cook for themselves you know. And I’ve seen tailors which are absolutely obsessed with the way they look as well, and I always think “Like how can you be doing any work?! You’re spending so much time looking good and getting ready yourself?”
Did you anticipate that a lot of your clientele would be musicians, or that your brand would become sort of synonymous with having this rock edge?
Well you’d be surprised really. I’ve been very successful with the clients I’ve had from the music industry but economically the rock side of this business actually accounts for a lot less of the business. It’s actually regular guys who normally wear conservative stuff who like coming here because it sorta has that bit of an edge if you like. That’s where the money is, and there’s a lot of guys in their 30’s, city guys who have a lot of disposable income. We’re still living in the rock n roll era if you like.
People are still trying to hang on to it, to those icons and that style they have. It’s becoming almost a fantasy in some instances because when these guys like Robert Plant, Jimmy Paige, Rod Stewart finally do all die off you know their going to be gone. They’ll become historical figure heads, and we have to remember that we were fortunate enough to live in the generation when they were actually alive.
So thankfully for now that fantasy is still alive, and I still got a lot of rich oil traders as well. Who’ve got the dough, their partying hard at the weekends, they’re taking plenty of drugs and they have different events they need to attend. They need business suits, they need party suits, they need the lot and I’ve got that flexibility.
I realised in Savile Row that there was this arrogance there, that “We don’t do that here” and “We are only this sort of tailor” and I always thought you’re missing a trick. People don’t shop that way, they want to be able to go to tailor and they want to be free to express themselves. And that’s where I get so much pleasure from it, I love being creative! It’s a bonus of my job.
Its incredible to get a guy come in here and say “I really fancy a tartan suit with some leather detailing” and I think “That’s sounds brilliant, that’s no problem!” and then I get paid to do it!
Do you still love it as much and feel that creative spark and curiosity that you had from when you first started?
Never a day goes by that I don’t think “Shit, I’m really enjoying this” . Of course you have your off weeks, and it’s not always easy being in business, but you always have to be ready for the inevitable and there’s always fragility with a business. Over all you know it’s been a fantastic journey. It’s been brilliant.
I don’t want to sound arrogant but I’ve become the person I basically wanted to be when I was a child, which was to establish myself as a tailor and make a living. I realised early on, that if you don’t enjoy what you do you’re going to have a miserable life. You should always prioritise the activity above the income, and if you love what you do, and you enjoy it then the money will come. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because your still having such a great time!
Words by Tracy Kawalik and Tom Baker
Photos courtesy of Sir Tom Baker | Dieter Liechti and Tracy Kawalik