It is a story of spies, of tailors, and of illicit luxury.
Edward VIII is to blame. It all began when I saw extracts from the Sotheby's auction of the Windsors' possessions. The Duke of Windsor's politics were at best suspect, his commitment to both country and duty questionable, but his taste in tailoring was indisputably magnificent.
Among the Scholte suits and magnificent tweeds, the monogrammed shirts and achingly gorgeous shoes, was an overcoat. Made in the 1930s, with an astrakhan collar and lined in the most magnificent fur, it appears in black and white press photos of a young and dashing Prince of Wales in a funeral procession, or older and burned, exiting a white-tied Parisian nightclub after the puritanical hypocrisy of a repressed establishment had forced him into abdication and exile. The coat was, history tells us, made with two brothers for, well, three brothers, and the trio worn by the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York – later George VI – and the Duke of Kent.
In February 1936, Esquire put it this way:
“Persian lamb, they tell us, is the ultimate fluff in women’s wear this year, and here’s a man wearing a double-breasted town ulster with Persian lamb collar and lapels. Only he didn’t get the idea from any woman. Old King George’s boys started it for men. Their coats, as it happens, are also lined with eastern mink. Yours can be too, we suppose, if you insist and if your insistence is prepaid."
A fur-lined coat is an outrageous, pointless, immoral and over-the-top indulgence. There is no practical reason to have one. Our is an era of central heating, air conditioned cars and moderate winter weather. Although my personal politics are on the left I'm largely impervious to the vegetarian plastic-shoe collective, with its whining intolerance that rejects all forms of dressing well, for as William Booth said, "Why should the Devil have all the best music?" But even for me the choice of fur and Savile Row in combination sits questionably in my ethical firmament in an era of austerity and appalling individualism. However, as secret vices go, I maintain that my love of fine old tailoring is probably less morally or financially ruinous than the potential alternatives.
It's of course entirely impossible for me to afford to have one made. We're looking at upwards of £15,000 for a heavy doeskin or herringbone double-breasted from one of the better cutters on Savile Row, once the price of mink is factored in. I couldn't and wouldn't spend that.
And then eBay came to the rescue.
The great find came up courtesy of Jake, my man at Victory Vintage. I'd recommend him to anyone who's underwhelmed by the flimsy shapelessness of the high street's anaemic sartorial offering. He's already supplied me with a lovely 12oz tan topcoat, cut in Marseilles from Crombie's finest wool, and a magnificent navy herringbone Guards overcoat from 1946. But I digress. THE coat appeared: beautifully cut, a heavy 28oz tough midnight-blue tweed with sharpest lapels and a suppressed waist, magnificently shaped and, best of all, lined in the deepest brown fur. I negotiated, I triumphed. And for less than the price of a new M&S suit I had the overcoat to rule them all.
It came with its own history. Made in the autumn of 1930, it was commissioned from Messrs Sullivan, Williams & Co. of 12 Savile Row, London W., by a British diplomat whose name appeared (discreetly, of course) inside the inner pocket. Descended from a line of bankers, its owner had been Our Man in Stockholm when he ordered something to keep out the chill. It turns out he was quite the man in diplomatic history. Sir Thomas Höhler had been the "Mr H" who played a critical role in the great deception of the Zimmerman telegram. As well as having exquisite taste in winterwear, he had brought America into World War I. Look it up.
I'm sad to report that the octogenarian fur has reached the end of its life, and parts of it have dried and cracked. What remains intact will be extracted and turned into a lining for Mam's leather jacket, and Sir Thomas's overcoat will go into its next chapter relined in a discreet scarlet silk by the splendid Wendy, Cardiff's finest alterations tailor.
There is a twist to this story. I was in London for work last December. I'd finished my meetings and beating my cosily-coated retreat west through the chilled gloom of the Metropolis, I was magnetically drawn in a diversion at Green Park en route to the late train to Paddington. Emerging into the fog and misty lights, I was in the Valhalla of fine tailoring. Tapping up Savile Row, I decided to explore – with the prodigal coat – its place of birth.
I found that no longer do Sullivan, Williams & Co. work their magnificent magic at No. 12. But their august neighbours at 11 Savile Row were worth a visit. They offered to have a look for the old order books of Sullivan, Williams & Co, who ceased trading in the sixties. Why, given that I'm not a customer? Because as I stepped from the chill into the clubby warmth of Huntsman, I was inspected instantly , as only cultured people know how, from toe to head. Fortunately my battered vintage but impeccably shined black Oxfords passed muster, and then trained eyes rose to my coat. The cut assessed in a split second, Huntsman's earthly representative was unable to contain his question: "Good afternoon, Sir. Those lapels… is it one of ours?"
The latest one is.
Thankfully, after Sir Thomas's fur was condemned, eBay has since done its magic again and for a song my wardrobe is once again complete. It's hard to find anywhere to wear it. It's indulgent, positively sybaric, quite over the top. But every gentleman worthy of the description needs a fur-lined coat.
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