He was “an inspired young designer with a starry clientele.” Mick wore him (at his Saint-Tropez wedding to Bianca, 1971). Lennon wore him (at his Gibraltar wedding to Yoko, 1969). The Beatles wore him on the cover of “Abbey Road” (all except George, who wore jeans. George!).
At the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s, the suit owed a debt of gratitude to Tommy Nutter, the British tailor who gate-crashed Savile Row, the seat and symbol of English suit-making, and bent it — or at least, his own particular corner of it, at No. 35a — to his own image. Young, gay, handsome and socially effervescent, Nutter de-cobwebbed bespoke tailoring.
A bespoke suit, custom made, fitted and refitted, was an expensive, essentially conservative proposition, a suit of armor and the bedrock of a gentleman’s wardrobe, but distinctly not a fashionable item. A Savile Row suit “rarely looks new in the conventional sense,” the Australian journalist Lance Richardson writes in his new history of Tommy Nutter (and his brother, David), “House of Nutter.” Its magic, he goes on, “is that it enhances your real self into heightened fantasy, then presents this fantasy as your real self.”
House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row Author: Lance Richardson Publisher: Crown Archetype Pages: 377 Price: $28Nutter brought a substantial dose of fantasy to the fantasy. He began on Savile Row at the lowest levels, picking up pins at G. Ward & Company, where he eventually joined forces with a talented young cutter named Edward Sexton and, with him, opened Nutters in 1969 — the first new tailor on Savile Row in more than a century. His investors included Peter Brown, a manager of the Beatles (he stepped in when his friend and former boss Brian Epstein died), and the pop star Cilla Black.
Nutter was already a fixture on the London scene, well connected via Brown, his boyfriend for a time. The Nutters suit, unlike others on the Row, was cut for flash: tight-waisted and small-chested to emphasise the body, with a long jacket and mega lapels. Fabrics and colors were chosen to stand out rather than stand back. Men and women both flocked in: Bianca as well as Mick, Diana Ross, Eric Clapton, Twiggy, Peter Sellers. Elton John, who first came to Nutters in 1971, ordered in bulk.
“House of Nutter” traces the ascent and untimely end of Tommy Nutter, and the parallel history of his brother, David: also gay, also embedded in the world of rock ’n’ roll, though as a photographer and confidant. Tommy bloomed out of London’s Swinging Sixties and became an internationally recognised designer, a celebrity in his own right. He was as much a character as a person, natty and fabulous in a wild suit — “People expect one to turn up looking like a chic Bozo the Clown,” he once said — a salesman taking his show on the road. (Sexton, mostly back at base on Savile Row, was the better craftsman.)
The Nutter story intersects not only a steady stream of the rich and famous. It also joins many of the currents of the 20th century: the ebb and flow from wartime privation to excess back to austerity; the progress of gay visibility and the trauma of the AIDS crisis; the shaking off of dress codes and then (to Nutter’s sometime chagrin) the irrevocable casualisation of the wardrobe. His professional fortunes rose and fell as tastes changed, but he was, his last business partner says, profitable when he succumbed to an AIDS-related illness in 1992 at 49.
What Richardson has to contend with, not always successfully, is that, for all of their contemporary fame, the passage of time hasn’t been especially kind to the Nutter brothers. Tommy is still cited as an inspiration by both men’s and women’s designers — the much-imitated women’s wear designer Phoebe Philo has on occasion nodded in his direction — but his lasting influence is probably less than that of his contemporaries, despite his self-conscious alignment with the greats. (More than once, Richardson quotes Tommy as comparing himself to Dior, and when Giorgio Armani came to prominence in the 1980s, Nutter declared him “on my same wavelength.”)
As an act of historical preservation, “House of Nutter” is worthy, restoring Nutter to the record for future generations; as a scandal sheet of gossip, it is often campy and fun. But despite the parade of stars who pass through it, “House of Nutter” often wrestles with a sense of anticlimax. David Nutter did travel with Elton John, photographing his tours and performances, but so, too, did Terry O’Neill, whose photos are more definitive. Tommy did shake up staid Savile Row and charm Mick, Bianca and the rest, but it is noticeable that none of them agreed to be interviewed for this book.
That, and his durable belief in the power of the suit. “Although this is a far cry from today’s philosophy, where jeans, T-shirt and sneakers are de rigueur,” he said in an interview near the end of his life, “a young man would be hard pushed to find a better investment than a handmade suit, to give himself a lift up the ladder of success.” It did for him.