“I’ve got clients who have been with me since I started…” – Tony Phillips
Ever walked through Soho’s buzzing streets and looked above the shop-ground windows to wonder what’s up above? Editor-in-Chief and Soho local, Kai Lutterodt takes us up into one of those rooms – the studio of Tony Phillips aka Tony the Soho Tailor– for a rare interview…
To get to Tony Phillips’ studio you have to walk into Borovicks Fabrics, Soho’s oldest fabric store, and up a short flight of stairs to where Tony’s studio is located on the first floor above Berwick Street. I get to wondering about the countless number of people who’ve taken the same steps up to be measured by Tony. I’m now amongst that number (including famous faces and local personalities which Tony name drops casually during our interview). I’m looking forward to it… someone with a 50 year (plus) history tailoring in Soho will surely have one hell of a story to tell.
50 Years a tailor in Soho
Tony’s story as a tailor in Soho doesn’t begin on Berwick Street, despite it feeling as though he’s part of the street’s fabric. He started at Noel Street in 1969, before moving to here four years ago. “I’ll be honest with you, I was in the basement. A lot of people didn’t even know me then, you know, and people would come down and say, ‘Hey, have you seen the new shop open?’ I’d say, ‘no, no, no, tell me about it. Menswear?’ because I’ll go down there and talk to them and see if I can get some work, you know. But I was tucked away.”
Despite the emotional change when he left his basement studio of 48 years for a new one above street level, life on Berwick Street has thrust him into the limelight and the ‘Tony the Soho Tailor‘ personality. He’s now an intrinsic part of the intimate Berwick Street locals scene. “It’s more lively over here.” Tony shared. Back in the studio: “I’m doing a second overcoat for a client. He liked the first one we made. He loved it so much, he wants another one.” It doesn’t take long to realise Tony’s secret weapon to longevity – keep the customer happy so they come back again. And with a 50 year service in Soho (established in 1969/70) Tony is clearly doing something right. “I’ve got clients who have been with me since I started,” Tony recalls, “Well, in actual fact, I can name one of them. Borovick, who owns this building, his son, when he was nine, used to come. And I still do work for him. Probably one of the oldest. But there are more.”
“I like to make a suit made to measure. And it looks absolutely perfect. That’s the way I do it.”
“I’m Not a Bespoke Tailor”
Tony’s connection to Men’s Fashion began with selling suits. “I enjoyed it, I was good at it, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to make clothes. I wanted to create styles.” Things took a turn for the better when he met the late John Michael Ingram and spent a few years working at his shop on Savile Row. “That was the year that the Beatles played on the roof. I think it was ‘67, ‘68, something like that.” A quick Google search confirmed it to be close enough: 30 January 1969, the Beatles performed an unannounced concert from the rooftop of their Apple Corps headquarters at 3 Savile Row. It was around this time that Tony got to mingle with the creme de la creme of bespoke tailoring. “I’ve got a lot of respect for these guys, but I don’t actually do bespoke.” Tony confesses, or to set the record straight. “I make suits made to measure, which if you do it properly, in some ways it can be better. But one person would say that, another person would say something different. But I like to make a suit made to measure. And it looks absolutely perfect. That’s the way I do it.”
Tony looks the part of a bespoke tailor even if it’s settled that he isn’t. Looking the part seems to be second nature to him. “I’ve probably got about a hundred Versaci ties. So you don’t see the same one for these two or three years worn again.”
2020 has been a tough year for small and Independent businesses. Two lockdowns and being classed as ‘non-essential’ must have taken its toll on business. “The first time I had three months off and ok, I enjoyed it because I’ve never had that long off before, you know, but this time I’m not ready for it. I’d got busy again. Clients were coming in, money was moving again, and now it’s gone back to square one. So I’ve got to start all over once this lockdown’s finished. It’s been hard, but thank goodness I’ve got good clients that keep coming back.”
As Tony explains about the various fabrics in his studio, there’s one in particular which catches my eye. It has the word love written all over… and it’s love at first sight for me. “That’s a Versace, and it’s got glitter all the way through it. It’s a lovely fabric. You can use both sides, actually.” Tony is no stranger to designer names and turning their fabrics into made-to-measure masterpieces. “I buy from people like Versace, Fendi. If they’ve got the rolls and they don’t want to use them anymore, I’ll buy them up and then make jackets.”
I feel comfortable in Tony’s studio, filled with the memorabilia of someone who is sentimental about every aspect of his great career (including his first, and subsequently almost every, pair of scissors he’s ever owned). As he takes the tape measure around various aspects of my torso, I’m taken back to familiar grounds. I grew up in a family of seamstresses – my grandmother was head of Singer in Accra back when Ghana was the colonial Gold Coast. My late Aunty Marian was my personal clothes maker. I got used to having the tape measure running round my waist and bust, standing in poses to get the measurements right, with expertly placed pins narrowly missing pinching my skin. Despite this, it wasn’t a given that I was gifted at sewing and that still bugs me today. I’m curious to know where Tony’s creativity and talent came from. Family perhaps? “Nobody in my family sews.” Perhaps school? “No, but I was good at school. I worked as hard as I could, you know. But I always wanted to do more. I always think that whatever I’ve done, I could do better. And I try to do better every time. I’m never satisfied.” Which may come as a surprise to those who see Tony through the mirror of social media, or out on Berwick Street always looking confidently dapper. “My wife would say ‘oh, you’ve done great.’ And I say, ‘Yeah but I could have done this, could have done that’. But I’m happy now.”
For Tony, proud moments are when he gets it right the first time. “That’s an achievement.” An example of this is in the suits made for his friend, artist George Skeggs, aka Soho George. “He fell down once and broke his neck. So he has a very round back and you have to create the jacket style to fit the shoulders and the back of the neck so it doesn’t stick up. And I hit it first time. I was, well, happy.”
Despite turning 71 on the first of December Tony has no plans to slow down. “No, no, no. I’m not slowing down,” he explains, “but I’m not getting any faster. I just want to keep going. I want to do what I love. What I love is fashion.”
Follow Tony Phillips on Istagram: @tonythesohotailor
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This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of My Soho Times. CLICK HERE to view online.
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