Houston Chronicle Interview

Tailor rises to the top of Savile Row

Published by: Houston Chronicle, Wed, Dec. 9, 1998 "He persevered — and beat the odds" by CARL HONORE - Special to the Chronicle

London, England - To most Europeans, buying a suit on Savile Row means the same thing as it did 200 years ago.

Immaculate craftsmanship. Sky- high prices. Traditional English service.

Many of the best tailors in the world still ply their trade along this august street in the heart of London.

But the old image of rich white men buying sober suits from stufly white tailors is starting to fray like an aging lapel.

Today, Andrew Ramroop, a black immigrant from the Caribbean island of Trinidad, owns and runs Maurice Sedwell, a leading shop on "The Row."

"Yes, there is an element of surprise when customers come in off the street and are welcomed by a West Indian," he says, a Caribbean lilt rippling through his voice. "But they are soon put at ease when they realize what you know and what you can do for them."

Some might dismiss Ramroop's rise to the top of Savile Row, that great totem of the White Establish- ment, as a fluke. But others prefer to see it in a wider context - as a beacon, a sign that the immigrant story in Europe is not all exclusion and failure, that, despite the institutional barriers and the petty discrimination, newcomers can thrive here.

  Ramroop at work

Ramroop at work

Now 45, Ramroop came to London in 1970 with a dream and a couple of homemade suits. His handiwork quickly earned him a back-room job in a tailoring shop on Savile Row. Long years of discrimination followed, he says. Less-gifted white colleagues were regularly promoted ahead of Ramroop. But his talent eventually prevailed.

Today, a decade after he took it over, the Maurice Sedwell store is thriving in his elegant hands.

Ramroop has clothed British Cabinet ministers and made outfits for Diana, Princess of Wales. Last month, he was in Houston, measuring board members of a leading company. Earlier this year, he was chosen by his peers to chair the Master Craftsmen's Association, the ultimate accolade for a tailor.

"I always aspired to be the best tailor on Savile Row, and to some extent, I think I've achieved that," he says, caressing one of his gold cuff links. "You could say this is a dream come true."

In general, immigrants seem to have more luck making good in Britain than in the rest of the European Union, but countries across the English Channel also have many success stories.

Throughout the EU, people of foreign descent have made great strides in sports and entertainment.

European soccer leagues are filled with dark-skinned players. The superstars among them are household names who earn millions of dollars in wages and endorsements. Nearly half of the members of the World Cup-winning French team were immigrants, and all were feted like national heroes.

In much of the EU, non-white pop groups churn out hit songs and slick videos in European languages.

Denise Jannah and other black singers dominate the charts in the Netherlands. Young Swedes fall at the feet of the black singer Doctor Alban. Black rapper MC Solaar is a hero in France, where rappers of North African descent are also on the rise. One of Britain's chart-topping Spice Girls is black.

"Compared to other industries, the music industry is relatively open, and black people, in particular, have seized the opportunity with a vengeance," says John Rogers, a London-based pop music journalist.

Immigrants have made more modest gains in higher-brow pursuits such as literature, classical music and art.

Britain seems to have the strongest non-white literati. Indian-born author Salman Rushdie, whose writings incurred the wrath of the Iranian mullahs, is a star here and abroad. In 1991, Nigerian-born Ben Okri won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious award for fiction.

Dark faces are fairly common on British TV. The country's soap operas feature many non-white actors, and several news anchors are black or Asian.

Britain's nearest rival on the Continent is the Netherlands, where TV personalities come in different shades and colors.

But non-whites are also creeping onto small screens elsewhere. On weekday mornings, many Germans tune in to a chat show hosted by an Asian immigrant. France has a news anchorman of North African descent.

The score card in politics is less impressive. Parliaments across Europe remain much whiter than their electorates, and no country has produced a dark-skinned leader with the standing of a Rev. Jesse Jackson or a Gen. Colin Powell. But a few pioneers are climbing the political ladder, particularly in local government. One example is Trevor Phillips, a black who is a strong candidate for the new post of mayor of London.

Outside the corridors of political power, ambitious young immigrants, particularly in Britain and the Netherlands, are carving out careers in such professions as law, medicine and banking.

Sanjay Patel is an example of a slowly emerging breed: the non- white yuppie. He grew up in Birmingham, England, where his Indian parents still run a grocery store. He went to university and now earns a six-figure salary as a trader in the City, London's Wall Street.

"In one generation, we've gone from selling tinned vegetables to selling stocks and bonds," says Patel, a brash 27-year-old with a penchant for flashy clothes. "That's pretty good, don't you think?"

Like Patel's parents, many of Europe's immigrants yank themselves up through the world of small business. Restaurants are a favourite route. Throughout the European Union, immigrant entrepreneurs from almost every ethnic group are busy parlaying their home cooking into profits.

A few immigrants have broken into the top of the European business club. Minoo Akhtarzand, an Iranian- born woman, has risen to become a managing director of Vattenfall, the largest electricity company in Sweden. Indian-born Lakshmi Mittal founded and still runs the LMN Group, one of the five largest steel producers in the world. With a personal worth of $3.5 billion, Mittal ranks among the richest people in Britain.

Successful immigrants often bring with them a fresh energy. European cuisine, soccer and pop music have all been galvanized by foreign influences.

On the famously conservative Savile Row, Ramroop is always experimenting with new stitches, materials and designs and with new ways to keep customers happy. He is even injecting a little Caribbean joie de vivre into the neighbourhood.

To mark the 60th anniversary of Maurice Sedwell in July, he did the unthinkable. He threw a party inside his mahogany-paneled showroom. A steel band played Caribbean tunes, while guests dug into West Indian food. Ramroop mixed the rum punch himself.

"It's not the done thing on Savile Row to have a party. No one has parties. No one wants to change. No one thanks their customers," he says.

"But our party was great, and people danced for hours."

Like many successful immigrants, Ramroop never forgets the discrimination that he faced en route to the top.

But he prefers to look forward. He stresses his own industry and ingenuity. He argues that being non- white can be an advantage, a badge of honour signaling that he has beaten the odds.

Above all, he seeks to encourage others to follow his lead.

In August, Ramroop took on a promising young immigrant from Iran as an apprentice tailor. Earlier this year, he sent a message of support to London's hottest young black designer, Ozwald Boateng, whose business was hit hard by the economic downturn in Asia.

Sitting on the burgundy leather sofa in his own showroom with sewing machines clicking gently in the background, Ramroop allows himself to indulge in a little optimism on the future of immigrants on Savile Row and in the rest of Europe.

"Whatever people think about it, we live in an increasingly multi cultural world now," he says. "It will take time, but I think more and more (non-white) people will go on to achieve success."