12 November 2013
A couple of weeks ago I met London-based tailor Ashley Elliott at the new slick Hoi Polloi in Shoreditch to learn more about his new contemporary approach to tailoring, his five-star service and to pick his brains on the current state of the menswear fashion panorama.
Where in the UK are you from?
I’m from Chelmsford, in Essex but I have moved all around. I lived in Brighton for years, then in Australia. I’ve been back to London for 15 years.
I would normally ask how you got into the fashion industry but you come from a family of tailors so you were sort of already in the business without even knowing it.
Yes, my grandfather was a tailor and my father was a seamster so it’s my blood. My old man tried to get me to follow his footsteps but back then I wanted to do my own thing. That’s when I started the styling. I never went to university, college, none of that. I came back from Australia and a friend of mine was working with Elaine Constantine at the time. And I thought I wouldn’t mind trying, at the time styling wasn’t even an industry.
That’s when it was nice and fun to start.
It was fantastic! I started just assisting a few people and then ended up working at i-D magazine. I assisted Merryn Leslie, who was Terry Jones assistant at the time. That was also when I got to know Edward Enninful and I assisted Karl Plewka for quite a long time. Then I worked with Corinne Day years and years down the line. And I somehow ended up going to New York to model for the Jil Sander campaign.
You were the face of the Jil Sander campaign?
Yeah, I was the face of Jil Sander. When I was working at i-D and Edward [Enninful] was styling with Manuela Pavesi at the time. They were casting for the Jil Sander campaign with Craig McDean. I went to the casting and they just asked me if I wanted to fly to New York to do the campaign. It was fantastic! From there I came back and start working with Karl Plewka and Anna Coburn. After about 10 months I decided to go on my own because I couldn’t really understand why people assisted for so long.
It’s just the natural evolution.
Yeah, I had all the contacts, you know. You don’t need someone to tell you how to put a pin in someone… What usually happens to people when stay with stylists for too long is they start taking their style. I was really set in what I did. So I did my own thing for quite a few years. I ended up doing shoots for L’Uomo Vogue, Interview magazine and i-D.
So you ended up going more high-end rather than alternative, which was one of big things in London at the time.
Yes, very much so. I was also doing a lot of music. Back then there used to be a divide between the two – you either did fashion or you did music. But I had no affiliation to any camp. I wasn’t part of the i-D family even though I worked for them, I wasn’t part of Dazed & Confused, or of The Face or Arena. I kind of floated in between everyone. And editorial [work] didn’t pay the bills. Music paid the bills. I worked with bands like Kasabian. I also styled some shows like styling PPQ and Pucci and doing look-books. The Internet wasn’t so much of a thing then so everything was hardcopy and the money people spent on look-books was crazy. Such disposable cash, it was great!
When you worked with the bands did you only style them for editorials or for appearances, shows, etc… as well?
For everything. From shows, to videos, promos… This was back in the day when there was a 100,000-pound budget for a promo and I would get a 15-grand clothing budget. Now it’s totally different, the way the industry is going is phenomenal. It was great for me being there right back then. I wasn’t there right at the start but I was pretty much there before things kind of changed.
You also worked in quite a few big films!
A friend of mine was working on feature films and asked if I wanted to help with the costumes. So I did a bit of styling and dressing and consultancy for movies – a bit of everything. I did quite a lot of Ridley Scott films like Robin Hood, the last one that I did was Prometheus, which is fantastic. And also on all the Sherlock Holmes films.
How did that work with you? When I think of a costume designer I think of research and creating clothes from scratch. Unless you work on a contemporary film, the job isn’t quite styling.
Prometheus was completely different because it was more about electronics than everything else. But I also worked on quite a few independent films where you’re the costume designer and because of my menswear background I would be given free rein to trucks and trucks of clothes to literally just style and get the guys ready. And then I found myself lost again because there’s a massive lack of creativity within the costume world because it’s pretty much driven by the brief. You take the jobs as they come along and some of them are just really banal. And you work on them for months! I don’t have a short attention span, but I guess I do to that degree. I also have a son who was very young then. Spending 18 hours a day 4 months of the year working I never got to see him. So it was a lifestyle choice as well.
It’s great. You experienced fashion in different contexts and you went back to tailoring.
Exactly. And I always had a passion for menswear, especially coming from that background. I felt much more comfortable in it and it was a niche. I set the business up and I’m here today. Because I have such a foot into fashion and the media world that’s my main client base. Now I am trying to move into corporate a bit to cover the whole spectrum. You can’t live on guys who only wear suits 3 times a year. The prices start between 12 to 15 hundred pounds a suit. You need to set yourself into that higher market. I’ve recently done a few wedding suits for Harvey Goldsmith’s son, Jon and for Aiden Shaw. Then there are some corporate people who’s name wouldn’t really ring a bell. I’m moving more into that industry.
Which is great because they also have their own little circle and they talk to each other.
Absolutely. You need the bread and butter to fuel the creative side. And that’s what they are. I can have more of a creative conversation with the guys from the creative side. It’s always about the conversation between the tailor and the client. You can never push your view on anyone, you’re there to advise.
It’s also interesting because you don’t have a shop, you don’t do ready-to-wear at all. In a way, you’re quite an old-school traditional tailor –everything is made to measure – but then you have this modern website. You have a cool the mix of the really old and the really new.
It’s slightly schizophrenic, I suppose! The website was a starting point because of the economic climate, obviously. I don’t want to get into debt initially. I would rather build this up slowly and not have to owe huge amounts of money and gamble it straight away because this [venture] is for the long haul. I did styling for 10 years and left it, film for 6 years and left it. I can’t keep leaving stuff. So I want to build this business very gradually.
As well as a high-end totally bespoke product you offer a very luxurious service.
The service I offer makes customers feel instantly comfortable because it’s in their domain – I go for appointments at their home, their hotel suite, their office space. It’s about the experience, not just buying something. It is like trying to build a very subtle friendship with someone. And I think especially in menswear you want a relationship where it’s not too friendly but not too dry so you’re not walking into Harrods and talking to someone who doesn’t have a soul. It does make you feel really good when you feel like you’ve connected with someone at a certain level. It’s also about the after-sale care. I do believe in that almost heraldic approach to menswear – that classic feel. In Britain you don’t get much of a service. But it’s important to make your clients feel special when they’ve bought something. I do this 7 days a week and 24 hours a day. Though I would prefer someone didn’t call me up at 3am. But if someone did ring me at 3am because they were leaving the country and they are on a tight schedule I would be there because I believe in taking that step further. It’s about fitting in with other people’s schedules. People aren’t just working in one place anymore, people move around the country and between countries.
That’s also what makes it such a luxury – the client is saving time.
It adds a different angle to my work. I find that fun. I wouldn’t offer the service if I didn’t want to do it because it wouldn’t be organic.
What’s the next step for Ashley Elliott?
I would like to do a small ready-to-wear range. I do made-to-measure shirts as well as the suits. But at the moment I’m focusing on the bespoke business. Ironically, after not doing womenswear for so long I am thinking of moving into women’s tailoring. It’s a huge untapped market.
When it comes to fabrics, do you have a set range? Or can people ask for whatever they want?
Yeah, they can. I can gage… because there’s only so much I can take to a fitting with me. I would have hundreds and hundreds of books. I’d say that 90% of the fabric I use is British and 10% is Italian. Once you have a conversation with the client and you know what it’s for you can cut down the options. You understand the type of weight they want, the different weave… And then some people want specific things. A guy the other day wanted linen mohair. Because the mohair makes the linen spring back out and not wrinkle. So I’ve had to source that for him because there are few places that do it. You have to keep up with what’s going on by going to fabric fairs.
What I always say to clients is that just because I go visit them, there’s no obligation to purchase because I don't have a shop. If I did, you could look at the product and walk out. It’s the same thing.
Which music – album, song, artist – are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve an eclectic taste in music, it’s right across the board from reggae to rock, soul, disco, funk, punk, 80’s boogie or even a little bit of jazz so I don’t ever really listen to one particular artist or album I’m always flitting in between different artists and styles. Something off the Downlow Radio or SoundCloud is generally what’s playing in the background while I’m working.
What’s your fashion essential – a classic piece you always have to have?
It would have to be my John Lobb double monk shoes and an AE-LONDON tab collar shirt for day wear with a suit, and my burgundy Larkin tassel loafers with an AE-LONDON button down oxford for a more casual evening look. Also a good-looking umbrella is definitely needed this time of year! I’ve gone for a cane handled folding umbrella from London Undercover this time around.
Which are your favourite eating and/or drinking places in London?
There’s so many good places to eat and drink in London really, but a few places that spring to mind would definitely for breakfast be either E Pellicci on Bethnal Green road for a proper East End fry up and breakfast banter or the Woolsey for the hangover haggis special with a glass of champagne, lunch at Scotts and then back Eastside for drinks at either the Royal Oak on Columbia road or Wiltons Music Hall in Shadwell, a hidden gem and favourite for a Friday night drink and then if still feeling peckish (more than likely!)I’d head over to Mangal Ocakbasi in Stoke Newington for the best Turkish food in town.
Click here to visit the AE-LONDON website, learn more about the services, and make an appointment with Ashley.