Peter York (seen here wearing Richard James) on how we dressed a tribe of men intent on embracing the modern spirit of something new. Taken from the new, in-store and online now, Richard James book.
This green tie – that’s going back into rotation pretty darn quickly. How did I live without it for so long? It was coiled up in a basket at the back of the dressing room. It’s about a certain moment, one utterly defined by these Richard James Big Lunch ties, thick, colourful, densely patterned. I’ve got a fair few of them and they look so right now. And particularly this green one with its lava-lamp swirls of emerald, forest and black. It’s a small work of textile art, utterly different from these polite paisleys, those bankerly spirographs or those diagonally striped symbols of American belonging. This tie is saying something quite different, and much louder.
Who knows when the 1990s really got started? At the beginning there was just that dismal feeling that the 80s were completely over – with the Beloved Leader gone and the economy shot – and no sign of anything much to look forward to. Which makes that first Richard James moment all the more important. I’d remembered it as 94 or even 95. But I’ve checked it out and it was 92. 92! Before Chris Bodker’s The Avenue opened in St James's (1995) and well before anyone seriously expected a New Labour government. It was, however, well after I’d met Peter Mandelson and he’d introduced me to this tremendously smiley man he said was going to be the next Prime Minister. Labour Prime Minister.
So the world was so ready for the first Richard James shop when I came across it. It had things in the window and you could see in, neither considered Good Form on the Row then. And inside there was masses of colour, in socks and ties and accessories. And what I’d call a New Regency Buck kind of suit, one with a longer jacket, higher armholes and very slanty pockets – one that made you look thin and sharp and very 90s, whatever that was (they’d barely invented Blur and Oasis then).
There were other cues to say it was our kind of place – early intimations of the Modernist Revival that became the key interior look of the decade, no period pastiche or Post-Modern, absolutely no concessions to the clubland look of the old tailoring houses. Everything to say that, yes, there would be a Next Big Thing after all and this shop was part of it.
A friend, Alfred Tong, a fashion student in the 90s, tells me how he felt about the Row then: he was interested in the history and the skills, but not in the gent-ish product. And he was convinced they didn’t want him – non-white and non-posh – coming through the door. But Richard James was positively inviting him in.
Although people said Richard James was breaking Savile Row rules with its plate-glass accessibility and its jazzy palette, it was clear even then that Richard actually did know the classic form, but it was the new form, for a bunch of design-conscious contemporary-art-loving New City Mayfair boys – hedge-funders, private-equity and private office people – who didn’t actually take over the area ’till nearer the end of the decade. They piled into the ‘new bespoke’ style. Those boys wanted to look sharp, not fake Sloane.
The 90s shop, number 37, was nothing compared to the new place in 2000 – on the corner, number 29. It was seriously big, full-on Modernism with plate glass all round. And it had that orange counter in the centre, hard shiny lacquer-y orange, the classic colour of the period (I have a Richard James orange knitted tie which I still wear constantly – I’ve got it in raspberry, emerald and mint green too).
I’ve got a clutch of RJ suits. Two are in that rather bright blue – Adrian Gill told me it was Yves Klein blue – that RJ seemed to have pioneered; everyone’s copied it now. And a couple in re-worked versions of a Prince of Wales check with the colourways re-done. A midnight blue evening suit, cut like a sharp day one, a subtle half-cashmere suit in navy and a more out-there all-cashmere one in the Klein blue.
My friends all seemed to seize on the RJ look at the same time – a variety of hacks and 80s survivors, bitsas from media and design and a few young City types making the trek from EC something. But then we realised our betters were there too. There was Hugh Grant on a magazine cover and the nicer type of celebrity generally, which couldn’t have been better. And it became clear that RJ himself was winning big fashionland awards all over and being asked to design other things – we were expecting an RJ special edition of Concorde next back then (there is an RJ all-carbon-fibre black bike now).
The trousers of my bright blue cashmere suit tragically caught moth in 2007 just before the recession but I’ve asked Richard James to re-do them so I’ll be back out there again in the bright blue and the bright green any day now.
Peter York is a writer and cultural commentator, co-author of the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, and writer and presenter of the BBC documentary Peter York’s Hipster Handbook