Traditional technology looms large for luxury companies

Leonard Barratt takes the measurements of a customer to be fitted with a bulletproof waistcoat in Pall Mall, London Suits you: Tailoring in 1956. Can companies that cling to old methods of production survive in today's machine-driven world?

It's a tall order to be best dressed at the launch of a tailor in Savile Row, the home of bespoke tailoring in London for almost 200 years.

Technology of Business

But James Sleater, co-founder of Cad and the Dandy, is doing his best.

At a party to mark the arrival of Savile Row's newest resident, he is dressed in a suit with a difference - one made in-store on a 200-year-old loom.

The suit was created to showcase the company's in-house talent, but it is unlikely the loom will be fired up again.

At nine weeks, the loom-made suit took around 10 times longer to finish as it would take to fashion a suit with the aid of modern technology.

James Sleater James Sleater in the handwoven bespoke suit

It would also come with a price tag to match.

"Our average suit costs around £1,000 - for this one we would probably be talking around £10,000 to £15,000," Mr Sleater says.

Bespoke tailoring remains a very labour-intensive and highly skilled process - the cloth-making alone has seven stages and can involve five different companies.

But taking tailoring back to its most traditional of roots is simply not viable for cads or dandies, it seems.

These days, most intricate procedures can often be performed quicker, more accurately and cheaper than when left to human hands or traditional methods.

So other than out of misty-eyed sentimentalism, is there any point in sticking to traditional techniques when machines are often superior?

Cad & Dandy's 200-year-old loom Traditionally built: Weaving suit fabric on this 200-year-old loom takes 10 times longer than its 21st-century equivalent
Rug for Obama

Far from the grandeur of Savile Row, in the shadow of the Himalayas, overlooking Kathmandu, there is weaving of another kind.

Here Nepalese craftsmen are weaving rugs with vertical looms, using the same methods practised for hundreds of years.

The rugs they are making for Luke Irwin are destined for the rich and famous.

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The joy is the feeling there has been a human interaction with it”

End Quote Luke Irwin

Mr Irwin, who is set to open an eponymous store in New York next year, has even seen one of his rugs given as a gift to President Barack Obama by another head of state.

He is quick to accept that a machine can create a rug that is more accurate to a pattern than his Nepalese staff can manage.

But to praise such accuracy is to miss the point, he believes.

"Computer software can create a rug that is perfect to the nth degree, but you can tell every time which is machine-made," he says.

"In our world the customer gets exactly what they want - they have total control - but the joy is the feeling there has been a human interaction with it. It gives the item depth and character."

Well-heeled clientele

But like the tailors of Savile Row this comes at a price.

Mr Irwin's rugs cost an average of £4,000 for an 8ft x 10ft item.

He says you can snap up a similar-sized rug for £50 when it has been mass-produced.

Nepalese vertical loom Made with care: Vertical looms have been used by Nepalese craftsmen to weave rugs for hundreds of years

Indeed, time and again when asking whether the old ways still had a place, the companies that replied "yes" were selling products with price tags that restrict them to a well-heeled clientele.

On a few occasions companies said they were yet to encounter technology that could replicate the skills of the artisan.

For example, at the studio of rare decorative surfaces specialist Decorum Est in India, they practice repousse, a technique whereby malleable metal is hammered into shape.

The company says the pattern created by this method imbues a "subtle, inconsistent texture that creates a beautiful play of light that a stamping machine could never produce".

Reminiscent of yesteryear

Mr Sleater makes a similar observation about human input in the tailoring process.

"If you get me to measure you, you will suck in your stomach and puff out your chest - everyone does it," he says.

"If I ask people to relax then their waistlines can increase by three inches.

"If you rely on a computer to scan you for five seconds for a fitting then you already fail at the first hurdle."

In other cases companies are forced to eschew the latest technology for heritage reasons.

Orient Express Steam age: The carriages of the Orient Express are the same today as the ones Agatha Christie's Poirot would have travelled on in Murder on the Orient Express - if he wasn't fictional

For example, the vintage British carriages used by the celebrated Orient Express keep not only their traditional interiors but also technology that is ancient in railway terms.

Lighting and the main power circuits are still powered off a dynamo run off a pulley attached to the wheels.

The traditional frames used underneath the carriages conjure up a more noisy, rough ride, reminiscent of yesteryear.

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I can't envision a eureka moment when we will find something to replace the old stills”

End Quote Nik Fordham Bombay Sapphire

But even a brand as venerable as this has to face up to the technological future, according to chief engineer Julian Clark.

"Eventually you just aren't going to be able to get the parts - and the skills to maintain these trains are almost non-existent," he says.

"Take the wheels: there are only two companies left in the UK that can fix them."

Indeed, so rare are the skills needed to maintain the old technology that the company is starting an apprenticeship scheme to teach them before they die out.

But in all these cases we are still at the luxurious end of the market.

So perhaps the old ways have a place, but only for those who can afford them.

Perfect tonic

It's enough to make you turn to drink - for a solution to the problem anyway.

Nik Fordham is master distiller at gin brand Bombay Sapphire. His company ships millions bottles of gin annually across the globe.

But at the heart of the operation is technology unchanged since 1834.

The company uses stills called pots as part of the vapour infusion process used to create the flavour of the gin.

Not only are any new stills a direct copy of the 1834 design, the original still remains in operation.

"The pot stills are core to our business and there isn't a better way of doing it," Mr Fordham says.

Bombay Sapphire stills Bombay Sapphire stills

"I can't envision a eureka moment when we will find something to replace them."

Mr Fordham also has an interesting claim to fame: in the 1990s he did research into the creation of an electric nose.

But no matter how hard he tried he couldn't create something to replace the human input required to create products such as Bombay Sapphire.

"The electric nose could smell 9,500 different aromas - but it couldn't tell you if something tasted nice," he says.

So maybe there is a place for the old ways as technology continues its unstoppable march.

But to find the products that result, it seems that more often than not it won't be a case of following your nose, but your wallet.

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