CONVIVIAL CELEBRITY CLOTH CUTTER. John Pearse has been tailor to an eclectic range of stars such as Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix and gentlemen with bohemian taste for many years. Now aged 77, for the last 40 years he has worked from his shop in Meard Street, in the heart of London’s Soho.
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John Pearse, how did you become a tailor?
I saw an Italian movie; the guys were sharp, wearing stylish suits. Taken by that look, the only way I was going to get this suit was learn to make it. Walking around Savile Row I walked into Henry Poole on Cork Street. The cutter said, “Go and sit over there.” The actor David Niven walked in, and hearing wonderful badinage between him and the cutter I thought, this is the job for me. I’m going to meet stars. Mr. Poole said, “See Mr. Watson at Hawes and Curtis, they’re going to give you a job.” Mr. Watson, a dignified gentleman in a chalk striped double breasted suit, smoking, brushing the ash of his lapels, said, “You are now going to Mr. David, coat maker, to become his apprentice.” I crossed the street and went up four floors into this ambience that looked like Fagin’s den, the apprentices all sitting cross-legged on the bench and sewing. That’s how I started.
In 1966 you opened the boutique Granny Takes a Trip in London’s King’s Road with Nigel Waymouth and Sheila Cohen?
I had learnt quickly and had a nice little sideline going on with my friends, making them suits. I didn’t like feeling an indentured slave to my Savile Row masters. I went to St Tropez and then Torremolinos when it was just a little town in Spain and when I got back to London a very interesting woman from Greenwich Village spent the night with me and said, “I’ve got to meet friends. Let’s go.” We went into this basement in Baker Street where two young people with a pile of vintage clothes were fumbling around trying to put something together. I said, “Do it like this.” “Oh,” they said, “You know about tailoring?” “Yes, I know tailoring.” A week later they rang me: “Look, we’re going to open a shop on King’s Road, you want to partner with us?” That’s how it began.
“We’re bohemian here, cater to a younger crowd. You couldn’t say we are crusty.”
John Pearse in the doorway to his shop in London’s Soho at 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG
John Pearse, why the strange name – Granny Takes a Trip?
The start of the acid taking in London, and vintage clothing had a granny’s connotation. From the word go we had the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix as clients. We were growing up together, going to the same clubs. It was incestuous.
What kind of tailoring?
The clothes were semi-bespoke. Someone would come in and say, “I’d love a velvet suit.” I would measure them vaguely and we’d finish it. So long as it was too tight, it didn’t matter. It had to be tight.
This was the time of the hippies?
Friends were going to Afghanistan buying carpets and sheepskin coats, the stinking things they’d bring and ask to sell in our shop. I could never stand that kind of look. It came into our place and left quite quickly.
Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull walked King’s Road without shoes?
I wouldn’t say Anita and Marianne were “Love and Peace” movement walking around with no shoes on their feet. Far from it. But there were a few stoned harlequins running around Chelsea.
How long did you stay in King’s Road?
Three years, then tailoring life comes to an end. And not only did we also have a poster company, we had a rock and roll band and made a performance in Amsterdam at the Paradiso Club. We disbanded there – egos were frayed. I had this 1947 Dodge car that had belonged to the homicide squad in New York. When it broke down we decided we’d cut it in half and mould it onto the front of the shop. For the background I wanted the New York skyline. When Nigel wanted a cosmic kind of stars I said, “I’m leaving. You can have the shop.” I walked.
What you were doing at that time was very British?
Hollywood had come to King’s Road. Polanski making movies and swinging London movies were made, Performance with Mick Jagger and Anita. I never felt particularly very British. When I quit Granny I wound up in Rome and got a job as an actor.
Where you met Federico Fellini?
I was living in a house with the wonderful Donyale Luna, the first black model to grace the cover of Vogue. Every Saturday night we would go chez Fellini for dinner. One midnight Federico says, “We go to the beach.” Donyale strips, swims out to sea, and Federico’s decided he wants to go, shouting: “Donyale, Donyale. Viens!” She’s not taking notice. He says, “Brother John,” – I was known as Brother John – “can’t you do something?” I said, “Darling, we’re going to f**k off if you don’t come back now from the water.” Of course she comes back, and he says, “Brother John, you could be a great film director.”
In fact you did then become a film director. What happened?
Like Orson Welles I started at the top and my career got worse. I made a feature called Moviemakers, which screened at the London Film Festival. I still remember silhouettes of people walking across the screen leaving the movie house! But years later, when it screened on TV on Channel Four, a lady introduced the film around midnight and said, “What you’re going to see now is a very moral piece of work.” It is a great social document of that time in 1971.
“Here it’s social, there’s always someone dropping by.”
John Pearse why did you then go back to tailoring?
I’m in the movie business – or not in the movie business, going to a party, thinking I’m going to meet another actor or a producer or someone for a project – but instead this guy comes up and says, “Do you remember you made me a suit in 1966? Do you think you could do another one?” So I started tailoring again.
Does it take long to make a suit?
The complete suit by hand could take a week. I was gradually finding a team to work with me so I could just cut and fit and design, because I change for every client. Some people say, “Just do what you like,” and when we make things in house that are hanging here in the shop just waiting for somebody it’s still a one off piece.
What would you say is exceptional about a John Pearse suit?
Sometimes I see a client wearing a beautiful suit and say, “Who made that?” He says, “Don’t you remember? You made it,” but I no longer recognize it. Once they’ve gone it becomes part of them. There’s a gestation period, they wear it and it moulds into them and becomes theirs; and it’s gone from the creator. It’s their suit now.
Do you have a favourite style and cloth?
The next suit is always my favourite. I do love working in tweed and flannel and heavy cloth because it moulds in better. I even like corduroy. I like stuff that’s comfortable to wear.
The actor Bill Nighy is one of your clients?
He’s a good example of someone impeccably tailored; the thing is he knows what he doesn’t want. Young people are also very interesting, because for them it can be an act of rebellion to have a suit made rather than go round in a jogging. They like that sort of going back in time. I also like tailoring for girls. A chic woman is a joy to behold, as is an elegant man. Style is a personal thing.
How do you dress a woman?
Girls come in all shapes and sizes. We do a lot of riding habit now for women who have horses and live in the shires; and then we do a lot of velvet and black tie events. It may be a long robe, for example.
What is the difference between John Pearse and Savile Row tailors?
We’re bohemian here, cater to a younger crowd. You couldn’t say we are crusty. I’ve always had a bohemian clientele around me.
You’re known for your eccentric lining?
That’s part of being the Picasso of tailors! I like lining. It’s a kind of secret. There’s a suit over there for a judge, and it’s black and it’s four buttons high, but you wouldn’t believe the lining inside the suit. He’ll be sending someone to jail and he’s got this amazing lining in his jacket.
Fred Stanbury celebrating 50 years in tailoring. He is seen here being presented with the very latest in stereophonic radiograms by one of the newest recruits – John Pearse, then a trainee at Hawes & Curtis.
John Pearse appearing as an actor with an electric Irish folk fiddle
John Pearse’s 1947 Dodge car that had belonged to the homicide squad in New York and became the frontage of Granny Takes a Trip
“There was no mobile phone, no parking facilities, and yet you still met your friends somehow.”
John Pearse, the Italian tailor Giorgio Armani once told me that he enjoyed finding inspiration from walking in the streets of London. Have London’s streets changed a lot since you were a young man?
Mayfair now belongs to Saudi Arabia, in effect. Mount Street is their street. King’s Road, now a rather generic high street, used to have a butcher a baker and a candlestick maker when we started. There was no mobile phone, no parking facilities, and yet you still met your friends somehow. Carnaby Street was a dirt track when I used to go as a kid.
Where is the hip place nowadays?
East London. London Fields all around there. The children leave their wealthy parents in Notting Hill and go and live in Hackney.
Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and artists like Frank Auerbach were in Soho at a certain time. Were you part of that crowd?
Jeffrey Barnard was a client because his niece used to work here. I did bump into Bacon and Freud. We painted a necktie of Bacon. Francis was most amused to see the figures of the crucifixion on it.
You like to have fun?
If you can’t have fun and you’re not happy in life it’s not worth living, so we better make the most of it because it’s all we’ve got. Here it’s social, there’s always someone dropping by. I lucked out. I’ve never worked for anybody and I’ve found a place and a niche out of the film business, where there was so much bureaucracy. I like to be free.
Are you a happy man when you cut a suit?
I love acquiring cloth, rolling it up and then thinking what am I going to do with this? A lot of the cloth I have to produce, because only when you see this half-made orange suit in the window and put it on do you see the point of it. I’m very optimistic, and luckily my own person with my own little domain here. You couldn’t ask for more than that.
Why don’t you wear shirts?
My wife says, “You’ve got a beautiful face; collars and ties take it all away from you.” I believe her and wear long sleeve t-shirts and suits depending on the season. I cycle everywhere so I wear a corduroy suit a lot of the time because it’s weatherproof.
Internationally people used to regard England as the epitome of how men dress. Is it still so today?
Probably in Scotland. The old lairds are still wearing tweed suits that are years old and have been handed down, and there’s a beauty in that. Maybe that appealed to the French, who liked the style anglais, but I remember going into a casino in Cannes and had on a dinner jacket but didn’t have my shirt with the papillon and he wouldn’t let me in. I thought I was perfectly well dressed and said, “C’est le style anglais.” He said, “Monsieur, c’est le style poubelle.”
These days few people wear a proper coat.
I love old coats. In my wife’s history, her grandfather had a beautiful coat made by Proust’s tailor, no less. It was lined in mink with the beaver collar that was down to the ground. Not too politically correct these days, but mother-in-law took the mink to see her through the Nazi occupation in Paris. I discovered it and brought it back to London, recut and relined and wore it for many years. Finally the coat no longer felt like it belonged to me, so I put it on display in the shop. The composer George Fenton came in, saw the coat and said, “I’m going to buy this coat for the writer Alan Bennett.” What a wonderful history! From Proust’s tailor to another man of letters in England.
Thank you very much for sharing your memories.
That’s my great pleasure.
All images courtesy of John Pearse.
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