James Weir: Tailor made for Savile Row
Belfast-born James Weir tells Una Brankin about his Ulster heritage and how he's making his name in fashion
It all began for James Alexander Weir with a plain white school shirt. As a teenager, the Belfast-born tailor took exception to its shapelessness and was encouraged to alter it by his mother, a poet who runs her own textile and design business.
"My mum believed that I should look respectable and have some sort of an understanding of looking after my clothes," recalls James from his London studio.
"I realised that no school shirt would ever fit me the way I wanted it to, so I took to getting myself onto a sewing machine and learning how to take neat tailored darts at the back to make the shirt more fitted.
"Before I knew it, people were asking me, 'Where did you get your shirt from?' and from that moment on, I realised that it was cool to look smart -- I understood its power."
Rows of crumpled shirt-tails hanging out of baggy school jumpers spring to mind. The Rathmore Grammar boys I went to school with could have done with a few nip and tucks by James, but he wasn't even born in those days. At 21, he is the youngest apprentice tailor at Henry Poole & Co on Savile Row and has developed a passion for clothing that goes beyond his day-to-day work. He recently made himself a three-piece Donegal tweed suit and, although he lives in London and grew up in the Peak District of Derbyshire, he feels more at home in his Irish tweeds than in any other outfit.
"Donegal tweed and linen are both very important in what I do now and I love wearing my three-piece," he enthuses in soft Northern English tones.
"I also wear braces pretty much every day and socks are incredibly important -- they're the sort of item which both men and woman can get excited over and they're the sort of item which can make or break what you're wearing; whether it's plain staple colours, to polka dots, or even the odd stripe with a flash of colour.
"I've never really been a fan of belts, unless you're going for the complete Mad Men look -- the grey flannel trousers with the boxy coat and black belt and shoes. With the face of Jon Hamm, you can't go wrong!"
James is a lot more slight than the strapping actor who plays Don Draper, but is just as dark and quite photogenic. In fact, he's the perfect model for the classic English look currently in vogue with hip young men -- epitomised by close-fitting suits, big glasses, bow-ties and loafers. He's just back from a trade exhibition in China, where this look is all the rage, along with vintage Savile Row tweeds -- complete with leather elbow patches, as seen in Downton Abbey.
"China was fascinating. They want to learn how the English bespoke tailoring tradition works and to copy it, and they are also fascinated with the fact that men are tailors -- in China, many are women," he remarks. "However, the real desire seems to be to link and exploit the hand-crafted look with mass production, which ultimately never works completely.
"It takes the heart and personal relationship out of the clothing, because there is no personal contact of any kind between the maker and the person who wears the garment.
"I like the idea that Savile Row is a place where men -- and nowadays women -- can come to have something of incredible craftsmanship made exactly for them. It's a place you can have a one-to-one, and men especially don't have this service as much as women do. I think that's why a lot of men like to have a garment made for them, and Savile Row allows this to happen."
James offers a bespoke neck and bow tie service, working one-on-one with his clients. Prices start at £45 and all his ties are hand-cut and slipped, using the finest printed silks, wools, and cotton-blend cloth from the best quality merchants in the UK and Italy, where he has close links.
The young tailor's family on both sides is steeped in the textiles industry. His originally Scottish surname, Weir, refers to the water used to power his ancestors' small linen mill in Straid, outside Randalstown. (The Straid Mill complex was moved to the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra, where it's now open to the public.) James remembers seeing the famous United Irishman martyr William Orr's, name carved on the weighing machine in the mill. Orr was a friend of Robert Weir, who built the original mill.
His direct descendant, James, was born in Belfast's Mater Hospital on the June solstice in 1992 to John Weir, a teacher from Antrim town, and his Anglo-Italian wife, Jane, who has Ulster connections on her mother's side and links with the Northern Italian couture fashion industry on her father's side.
"I haven't lost that link with textiles -- even though we moved to Derbyshire when I was still very young, I spent a lot of time as a teenager in derelict mills and factories," James recalls.
"In Matlock, there are many small mills, as well as the larger cotton mills built by Richard Arkwright, and we'd also go back to visit Straid. It's a very compact water-driven 17th century mill for corn with a small terrace of cottages where the workers lived, and there was a linen 'scutch' mill (for a machine which pounded the fibres) as well as other buildings which were not moved -- blacksmiths' and carpenters' workshops and a turbine which drove a very early electricity supply, in the early 20th century.
"My great-grandfather was the last person to run the mills -- he took over the mill when his elder brother died -- and the complex was, I am told, used during the Second World War, connected with parachute production. Unfortunately, the old 17th century farmhouse, which was adjacent, was moved, so there's no sense of a small-scale family business -- which was incredibly innovative for its period."
James went to work on Savile Row at 17, straight after his A-levels in fine art and textiles, history and drama. His parents had educated him at home, after he found it hard to fit in at the local school.
"I had a terrible time and I was bullied -- not by the students -- but by the teachers, because I wasn't fitting in with everyone else," he explains. "I'd be asking too many questions if I couldn't do something and was constantly being put on the naughty table. It was a very depressing time and I was so glad to be out of it.
"Then, after my A-levels, I went to London and walked round the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate, and it suddenly dawned on me to go and see Savile Row.
"I was like a little boy in a sweet factory and when I got to the end of the road, I had a Eureka moment -- I suddenly knew this is where I wanted to be. It had everything I'd been interested in for 17 years -- arts, history, craftsmanship, textiles."
In that dreamy moment he found himself outside Henry Poole & Co and decided to walk in and ask for work. In a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and a pair of Marks & Spencer trousers he'd altered to give them a higher waist, it was a case of the right time and right place for the teenager. "It was daunting to walk into this very classy place and they must have thought I was a bit scruffy, but I went on ahead and was just myself," he says.
"Alex, who's now the MD, gave me an informal interview on the spot, then went off to talk to somebody else. When he came back, he offered me a trial run the following week, and after that, they offered me a full-time job.
"The company has since taken on more young people, which is great. It keeps tailoring alive."
Old Robert Weir would no doubt have been delighted that his great-great-great-great-grandson's style and craftsmanship have been influenced by the skilled post-industrial working-classes of Northern Ireland and England -- cuffed heavy-duty braced overalls, chunky sweaters, coarse weaves and flat caps.
James is well regarded on Savile Row for his keen eye, his adherence to traditional practices -- and his obsession with rare thimbles. When he started his apprenticeship his grandmother, a former couturier, gave him one of her open thimbles, an item he has collected over the years, along with scissors and rulers: "They're the sort of items people chuck in the bin or aren't really too sure what they're for, but they're the tools of the trade and they're like hen's teeth to get hold of."
I'm sure I could hoke out a few from one of my auntie's ancient tea-leaf tins, which have been filled with buttons and other bits of sewing paraphernalia down through the years. While James builds his unusual collection and his bespoke business, he has only one ambition in mind.
"I want to be the finest craftsman I can possibly be," he concludes simply. "I'd like to give men the experience of feeling comfortable and confident in knowing how to create their individual wardrobe of exquisite clothes, meant and made to be lived in.
"And I'd like for people to learn and understand why I love what I do, as well as to carry on the trade for the next generation."
* For more info and to buy ties by James go to www.jamesweirbespoke.com
WHY HE'S GOT DESIGNS ON VALENTINO ...
James' list of style icons also runs to the more sophisticated, including classic musicals composer Ivor Novello, silent movie heart-throb Rudolf Valentino, the Scottish architect/designer/artist Charles Renee Mackintosh and Mark Rothko, the American abstract impressionist painter.
"I take my inspiration from all eras -- there are 'classic' fashions in all of them.
"On the other hand, the era I most despise is the 1980s -- that Miami Vice/Don Johnson look and the new romantics. I don't like that at all.
"These days, in Ireland, I think Ciaran Carson is arguably the best dressed poet I think I have ever met, apart from my own mother, the poet Jane Weir. In England I believe people like Paul Smith still retain integrity in terms of classic independent and eclectic street style which -- although is not my forte -- he is still changing for the better.
"The thing I most like about Paul Smith is that he is genuinely curious and interested in popular culture. But the most important thing is that men and women do not need to be celebrities to have style -- in fact difference and distance from celebrity IS style."