Lately I’ve been thinking about the British designer, Tommy Nutter. He and his work have crossed my mind. I don’t know why, but there does seem to be a resurgence in interest of his work as evidenced in London’s “Tommy Nutter: Rebel On The Row” exhibit at The Fashion and Textile Museum in South London.
I review his pictures on Google Image search. I come to the same conclusion I made in 1974, Tommy Nutter was irrepressibly cute, boyishly attractive, if not at times a strikingly handsome man, a man with dimples. Men and women found him attractive. How could they not? He had an indomitable sense of style, what the French call panache. As an adolescent, I found myself attracted to him and his work. He was British, which I equated with “class”. Nutter dressed the kind of people (mostly rock musicians) that I listened to alone in my bedroom with the sound up too loud. Mick Jagger sang Red Rooster and Elton John sang Crocodile Rock in Nutter suits.
Nutter rises on the fashion spectrum in the late 1960’s at a time when men wore boxy suits, narrow lapels, white shirts and skinny ties. A Mad Men like uniform, but not as slim, shiny or sexy. In reality, men dressed more like Mr. Mooney (The Lucy Show) and less like Don Draper.
Savile Row was a predictable double-breasted navy blue pin stripe world of three-piece suits custom made for bankers, banisters and the gentry. Nutter was however, an avant-garde Savile Row tailor, who single-handedly reconciled the traditions of Savile Row, laid down in the late 19th century, with the modern look of the new bohemians. Nutter emerges just as the “Peacock Revolution” is about to take place.
Nutter’s work with its nipped in waists, handmade rolled wide lapels, contrast piping, shoulder pads, slacks styled in a nineteen thirties cut, pleated/cuffed pants that invoked John Held illustrations appealed to the youthful exuberance of the young “hippie chic”. That is hippies who appreciated fine tailoring and had deep pockets. A Nutter suit cost as much, if not more than the best bespoke tailors on the Row. Nutter was a gifted tailor and a talented designer, who understood textiles and scale, and could artfully mix plaids, tartans, windowpane check, stripes, herringbones, and ginghams to create a kind of quilted suit. Nutter’s designs may have been rooted in the nineteen-thirties design aesthetic, but spoke to the new hip generation.
If you do not know who this talented gentleman and designer of Savile Row was, let’s start at the end and then look at the beginning.
Tommy Nutter was among the many men who died of AIDS related illnesses earlier in the epidemic. He passed away in Cornwall Hospital in August of 1992 after several prolonged opportunistic infections. He was only forty-nine years old, just barely middle-aged. With rare exceptions his obituaries are scant and do not lament his loss. Perhaps because Mr. Nutter passes away in close proximity to Robert Mapplethorpe, Patrick Robinson, Tina Chow, Keith Haring, Way Bandy, Kevin Aucoin, Gia Carangi, Perry Ellis, Halston, Willi Smith, Colin Birch, and Robert Benzio. Weary from grief, in a relatively brief period, the fashion community was robbed of a litany of great talents. Dying of AIDS was now deemed neither shocking nor tragic; it was commonplace, just another accepted everyday kind of thing. For the most part Nutter fell under the radar in America, as not many Americans were, or are aware of British designers. The New York Times and WWD give him only a brief paragraph, and do not include a head-shot or fashion photograph in his obituary. This for a man who is among one of the most important tailors, designers and arbiters of style and taste for several decades.
Why the dis? Too often seen as a lovable fop, a witty homosexual, vacuous, the news failed to recognize Nutter's insouciant manner masked a serious and continuing purpose, to make sure that the techniques and traditions of Seville Row tailoring were preserved, and valued by his generation.
Mr. Nutter was born in 1943, during the height of World War Two, an auspicious time to bring a child into the world as Europe was falling apart from the ravages of war. There were frequent air raids, bombings, food shortages, rationing, and viral epidemics to contend with. Nutter was born in Barmouth, Merioneth, Wales, but raised in Edgware, Middlesex, North London, where his father owned the successful High Street Cafe which catered to a clientele composed mostly of ordinary “blokes”, truck drivers, gas-fitters and builders, burly men, laborers who were not interested in the fine art of fashion. The Nutter's were a typical post-war middle class family with aspirations of upward mobility. Nutter’s childhood was relatively suburban and middle-class. Father Nutter moved the family to the more respectable Kilburn, as soon as finances would allow it. Nutter attended Willesden Technical College, where he was an average student. Like all great designers, Nutter initially studied plumbing, apprenticed, and then decided to pursue architecture, but he abandoned both by age nineteen to study tailoring at the Tailor and Cutter Academy.
Despite humble beginnings, out of the post war malaise rises Tommy Nutter, the quintessential British tailor, famous for reinventing the classic Savile Row suit in the 1960’s and 70’s.
What’s in a name? The family name “Nutter” is defined as British slang for a mad or eccentric person, as per the Collins English Dictionary Complete and Unabridged© Harper Collins Publishers 1991, through 2003, which may be an apt description of Tommy Nutter and his collections.
In the early 1960's, Nutter joined the tailoring firm of, Donaldson, Williamson & Ward, one of Savile Rows most proper (read: orthodox) Bespoke Shops in the toney Burlington Arcade. Starting as an apprentice, this is where Nutter learned his craft. He absorbed the lore and the rules of the English gentleman's classical wardrobe, and developed a lifelong respect for its rules from world class tailors.
After toiling for seven years, in 1968-9, he joined up with Edward Sexton, a master cutter, to open Nutter’s of Savile Rowat No 35a Savile Row on Valentine’s Day. A day that the meticulous Sexton and gregarious Nutter felt would provide them with good luck, personally and professionally. Sexton and Nutter had an off again on again relationship for many years. Their relationship and business was tried by the new mores, recreational drugs and recreational sex of the period.
Location is often a determinate of success. The Savile Row location had the House Of Nutter at one end, and the headquarters of The Beatles company Apple Corps at the other. It was a well tread street by wealthy tourists and nearly everyone in the music industry. Having such close proximity to the music industry, Nutter and Sexton were soon financially backed by Cilla Black and her husband, music producer, Bobby Willis. Ms. Black is the well-known singer who scored huge hits with “Anyone Who Had A Heart”, “Alfie” and “Fool Am I.”Rounding out the trio of backers was the Managing Director of the Beatles' Apple Corps, Peter Brown, and their lawyer James Vallance-White. Nutter learned early on that pop stars and rock icons generated free press, and as setting style was concerned where it’s at… fashion wise.
Intrue democratic fashion on a street of hierarchical iconoclasts, Nutter was the first tailor to open up his Savile Row premises to anyone, including passers-by; introductions and business cards were not necessary to enter the store. Nutter’s shop had windows at a time when bespoke tailoring was usually situated behind austere closed doors, and dense velvet drapes conveying the message “stay out unless you belong”. Nutter’s shop soon attracted rock stars and aristocrats who wanted the mix of innovative styling and traditional made-to-measure tailoring.
To demonstrate how pioneering his approach to brand image was at the time, Nutter's shop windows were also innovative featuring displays of patchouli-soaked stuffed rats wearing diamond chokers. On Savile Row, the bastion of the old world, staid sobriety was the order of the day. Nutter was seen as an upstart and know it all whose shop was on the wrong side of the street. The elegantly carved doors with the engraved “N” did not relieve the tension in the sartorial neighborhood. Nutter was considered a “bad boy”, part of the neauveaux riche, practically a fashion anarchist. Nutter didn’t thumb his nose but did push the envelope visually. His window presentations were the talk of the town, To be certain; the huge purple candles in the shape of phallus's can't exactly have endeared him to his neighbors. Simon Doonan, the British Creative Director of Barney’s department store in New York, started out his career producing some of the outlandish windows displays for Nutter back in the day, and helped recreate the feel of the shop.
Tommy Nutter’s Seville Row emporium was a haven for London’s gay fashionistas and for some people, the Nutter suit became a symbol of something more than just stylistic élan. Drawing inspiration from the self-styled flamboyant Oscar Wilde, Dorian Grey and the Edwardian period Nutter found his bailiwick. Nutter was also successful navigating the complex social revolutions of the sixties and the often extravagant and idiosyncratic demands of his clients, the leading dandies of swinging London.
The business was an immediate success, as Nutter combined traditional tailoring skills with his innovative designs. By no means an also ran, Sexton too proved out to be a highly skilled designer. Together they were a talented duo and their collaborations were flawless.
Hardie Amies David Hochney
Nutter also dressed the eccentric and flamboyant octogenarian photographer, Norman Parkinson. Nutter’s early clients included his investors, plus Sir Roy Strong, then Director of the National Portrait Gallery and modern art master, David Hockney.
Twiggy, who was at the apex of her popularity adored Nutter, and wore his classic red velvet pant suit often, so much so it was copied (albeit poorly) by every other fashion manufacturer, in the UK and US. Ms. Hornsby looked to Nutter for fashion advice and counsel as the Mary Quant Carnaby Street “Mod Look” now seemed tired. Twiggy wore Nutter in front of the camera and off. Not since Audrey Hepburn collaborated with Givenchy has a celebrity and designer has such a successful artistic partnership.
Other frequent clients included Mick Jagger, and wife, Bianca Jagger. In fact, Mick and Bianca chose to wear Nutter’s designs on their wedding day. In the early 1970's Nutter created many suits for Bianca Jagger. Bianca, already a fashion icon wanted a man's suit, and not a suit cut for a woman. She asked Nutter for the darts to be taken out of her first pistachio green suit to make it sexier. Bianca Jagger is an altogether differently shaped women from the waifish Twiggy, but in a Nutter fitted suit they both looked like the powerful and intelligent women they are. Their posture and presence convey confidence and intelligence.
Return in a few days for the second and final installment of Tommy Nutter: What We Forget to Remember