Stitching for the stars

    21 September 2013

    Though the firm was established in 1849, H. Huntsman & Sons’ most famous clients are from the Hollywod golden age: Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Paul Newman and Gregory Peck (whom cutters recall to this day as a real gent) and our very own Laurence Olivier and Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde’s orders were sober but suave (along the lines of brown cord waistcoats and suits), while Olivier’s taste was more outré: black-and-white checked trousers, for instance, and a checked postboy waistcoat. Olivier’s tailor also had to disguise the actor’s rather sloping shoulders.

    These stars bolstered Huntsman’s cachet, but ‘the Hollywood influence was two-way’, says Huntsman’s archivist, Andrea Tanner. ‘Studios sent their stars to Huntsman to gentrify them, but the need for the garments to photograph well influenced the Huntsman style profoundly.’

    It was not just male icons who loved Huntsman. Marlene Dietrich was a fan, as was Katharine Hepburn; both bought bespoke blouses, suits, cashmere sweaters and wide-legged trousers (which Hepburn ordered three sizes too wide, because she believed that ‘those damn dry-cleaners in America’ shrank them).

    Womenswear couturiers such as Hardy Amies, Ralph Lauren, Hubert de Givenchy, Norman Hartnell and Bill Blass all admired Huntsman’s meticulously detailed suits. In his autobiography, Bare Blass, Blass speaks of Huntsman as the pinnacle of tailoring. ‘Up and up I went, until I finally hit London, Savile Row, H. Huntsman — and, my God, if a man doesn’t have his insecurities knocked out of him by that point, there’s no hope for him.’

    The brand has clothed statesmen — Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan — and artists and photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Lucian Freud (who often painted in a Huntsman grey flannel suit). The composer Benjamin Britten’s suits had extra-loose armholes so that when he was conducting his movements were not restricted.

    Huntsman made headlines when it was bought earlier this year by the financier Pierre Lagrange together with his partner Roubi L’Roubi, an elegant Sudanese-born designer who is now the brand’s creative director. L’Roubi, who has previously worked at Joseph, assisted Henry Poole with their women tailoring and designed for Holland & Holland, as well as his own atelier, is quick to defend himself against accusations that Huntsman is a vanity project: ‘My role is about focusing on the DNA of the Huntsman brand, the heritage of Huntsman values.’

    Neither L’Roubi nor Huntsman are interested in fads. Exquisite tailoring is always in vogue. At Huntsman, a bespoke suit with ermazine lining (silk wears easily) starts at £4,600 and takes 80 hours to make. There are more than 3,000 materials to choose from, including every permutation of fabric weight and design. Clients are assigned a tailor for life, to ensure that the tension of stitching remains consistent.

    It’s appropriate, given L’Roubi’s background, that he has already begun to expand Huntsman’s womenswear division, where bright furs and tweeds pay mild homage to Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel and Fendi. He has also introduced a ready-to-wear line. For Huntsman, off-the-peg may be a compromise, but the concessions to modernity have proved fruitful. Earlier this year, Huntsman’s first ever line of jeans (price tag £150) sold out almost instantly. The revamped website even allows you to browse pieces worn by Hollywood legends and order your own version.

    Despite the Huntsman shop’s newly unveiled refurbishment, it remains pleasingly old-fashioned in character. The giant stag heads above the fireplace remain — a customer left them in 1921 while he went for lunch and never returned to collect them — and propped outside is a shiny red Pashley bike, ready to deliver suits. Deliveries are mostly to foreign clients at Claridge’s, who don’t want to wait until Huntsman’s next bi-annual trunk show around the States.

    About their present famous customers, Huntsman keeps schtum, although they are known to include British actors such as Colin Firth (who was dressed by Huntsman for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Hugh Bonneville (ditto in Downton Abbey) and Mark Strong, as well as another former prime minister, Tony Blair.

    With a new wave of dashing young British actors such as Max Irons, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Nicholas Hoult imprinting themselves on the Hollywood scene, no doubt Huntsman will have plans in place to resume its close relationship with Hollywood, while of course staying true to its great tradition of English tailoring. L’Roubi, a member of the Costume Guild of Hollywood, is sanguine when I ask how he’s going to do it.

    ‘They are all very talented,’ he merely observes, smoothly. Watch this space.