Tailor who emerged a cut above the rest
Published in the FT, 20th November 2003, by Harriet Arnold
Andrew Ramroop's journey from a humble home in Trinidad to owning a bespoke tailor's shop in London's Savile Row began with some old newspaper and a razor blade.
As a young boy he was fascinated by how a two-dimensional object - cloth - could become a three-dimensional artefact - clothing. He practised with newspaper wrapping from the salt fish sold in his parents shop.
He also experimented on his clothes. "Once I wanted to remove the bagginess under the arms of a shirt," he recalls, "so I did some stitching, only to find I could hardly move my arms."
Soon there were no such problems. Now, in his office at Maurice Sedwell (Savile Row) Limited, he says: "Customers are often surprised at how light the clothes feel as they are fitted in perfect harmony with their figure. Human bodies are not symmetrical, and we create ways to make the shape look smooth and comfortable.
Entrepreneurial skills as well as tailoring talent have taken him from the back alteration room to owner of a business supplying handcrafted suits worn by customers in around 50 countries, with business in the USA accounting for more than 40 per cent of sales. Last month he won the Black Enterprise Award for international business.
Mr Ramroop, 51, is the first and only Professor for Distinction in the Field of Tailoring - University of the Arts London - and visits at the London College of Fashion. He is also president of the Master Craftsmen's Association, so it is not surprising that he is keen to do whatever it takes to make sure Savile Row's international reputation for excellence persists.
He reveals an unease about potential threats to its reputation for bespoke tailoring. For instance, he says, if a Savile Row tailor took your measurements to fax them overseas for someone to make up a completed suit, it would not be "bespoke" tailoring. Bespoke, he says sternly, is "handcrafted, something exceptional, that has taken many hours of observation and skills".
When he left Trinidad in 1970 at age 17 for Savile Row - because he wanted to be amongst "the pinnacle of sartorial excellence" - he did not plan to own and run a business. But in the end, achieving his ambitions depended on running his own show.
Savile Row was his goal, but Mr Ramroop worked first in the Kings Road and put himself through the London College of Fashion, where he ended up teaching fellow students.
Yet his experience and a diploma of Distinction could not get him a Savile Row job at the front of the shop, meeting and measuring customers. He "wouldn't fit in", he recalls, adding that he saw rejection as "a positive thing, a learning experience".
Then, in 1974, Mr Maurice Sedwell, a very "clever East Ender" and a skilled tailor with a small outfit, engaged him "supposedly" at the front. "Supposedly," explains Mr Ramroop, because there was not a proper front or back.
"I was allowed to do alterations," he recalls, "but I was also a dogsbody doing all the administrative errands. At the time I hated it".
Yet one lunchtime, when everyone else was out, Mark Lennox-Boyd, parliamentary private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, brought in some suits for alteration. Mr Ramroop seized his chance to impress, later Mr Lennox-Boyd telephoned and told Mr Sedwell he wanted to see the young tailor in future. "I can still remember Mr Sedwell patting me on the shoulder with congratulations". Soon several Conservative party figures were coming through the door and Mr Ramroop increasingly contributed his ideas for better customer service.
By 1988 he owned 45 per cent of the business and, frustrated by the lack of say in its direction, raised enough money to buy out the other owners, with Mr Sedwell keeping 10 per cent.
At last Mr Ramroop could introduce changes to the business he had longed to see. He kept the Maurice Sedwell brand - "I made a promise to Mr Sedwell to develop the name to become synonymous with quaility and service" - but everything else changed to match Mr Ramroop's ambitions for a successful business.
"Our customers are people who are used to the finer things. I upgraded everything, from the staff to the fabrics, the threads, the buttons. I revamped the premises - the change was incredible."
One of his business strategies was to ask customers to vouch for the quality of Maurice Sedwell suits and this led at the start of the 1990's to a flight to New York one cold, gloomy February day. "It was very daunting," he says, but the trip won £75,000 of business. Next thing he knew, he was taking his swatches of 3,000 fine fabrics to Washington DC, where the power dressers provided a warm welcome and helpful advice. As he says, it is probably enjoyable to mention "my tailor is flying in from Savile Row, London". And Mr Ramroop aims to make sure the prestige is deserved - both for Maurice Sedwell, and for the Row.