Picture this. It’s 1970. you’re just 17 years old. you left school at 13, never read a book, don’t know much about geography. But you’re sitting on the darkening docks of Port of Spain, waiting for a boat to take you to England. you are terrified, in tears. Saying good-bye to your beloved mother is heartbreaking. Finally, after what seems an age, you are taken on a tiny boat, onto the pitchblack, rolling seas to meet the majestic northern Star.
Ten days later you arrive at the Southampton docks. It feels strange: the sun is cold, and it seems as though everyone is speaking a different language. It’s English, but you don’t understand their accent and they certainly don’t understand yours. Alone, you take the train to London. It’s misty and foggy, and staring out the window it looks like everything is on fire—you’ve never seen chimneys before.
Your eyes are set on Savile Row. you enter the London College of Fashion and exit after two years, the only student to achieve a Distinction in your cohort. Graduates are in high demand but somehow you can’t break through. Bearded, black, with your lilting Trini inflection, you go to interview after interview for a job in the front-of-store on the Row. Finally a breakthrough! you’re hired! Twenty minutes later, a young white boy walks in the door. you’re fired; he gets the job.
You persist. Finally, on July 22, 1974, an open-minded ex-navy man, Maurice Sedwell, hires you. But not for the front-of-store. you’re in the back room. you do everything you didn’t want to do — bookkeeping, payroll, paperwork — and along the way you learn to run a business. Eighteen years later you buy the company. And that first company that fired you after 20 minutes? you buy that, too. Now your clients… royalty, business magnates, sports superstars… send limousines to meet you, and fly in private jets to London to be fitted for your bespoke suits. The tailored pants you once made as a 14-year-old apprentice in Trinidad for 50 cents now go for £1,200
Part 2: Savile Row
Andrew Ramroop OBE, Master Tailor and Director of Maurice Sedwell Bespoke Tailors of Savile Row, London, was born on November 10, 1952 in tiny Maingot Village in Tunapuna. Descended from indentured Indian labourers who came to Trinidad 160 years ago, he was the first child in his family to be born in a hospital. He is also the first black bespoke tailor to own a Savile Row tailor shop, the Indian ethnicity being considered black in the UK. It’s an incredible achievement, breaking through the British establishment. Savile Row has been the bastion of bespoke tailoring for more than 200 years; it is the most British of institutions.
Bespoke tailoring is the haute couture of men’s clothing. A bespoke suit requires at least 90 hours of hand-stitching. The pattern is hand-drafted, laid on the material and then hand cut. The suit is sewn together entirely by hand, down to the last buttonhole. A suit can range in cost from £5,000 to £10,000. Andrew Ramroop is considered a master of the craft—The Ultra-Bespoke Tailor.
He is also a highly respected teacher. He taught at the London College of Fashion for 12 years and is a visiting professor at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. He serves on the National Advisory board of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University where he has been honoured for Outstanding Contributions to Faculty and where he sponsors the annual Andrew Ramroop Prize. Ten years ago, Ramroop founded the Savile Row Academy, which trains the next generation of master tailors, and has graduated 161 students so far.
He has a lasting, deep connection to Trinidad and Tobago, with homes on both islands. He is a Chaconia Medal Gold awardee. This November he will host FAME-Caribbean 2K17 in Tobago, a celebration of fashion, art, music and entertainment that will showcase Trinidad and Tobago’s wealth of innate talent to the international fashion media. It is his first step on a mission to transform the Caribbean into a global centre for fashion.
Part 3: Andrew
“Sometimes, I stand outside of myself and I wonder: How did I get here? It’s surreal. I recognised very early in my life what I wanted to do. But I really had no master plan. What I did have is a deep, unshakeable confidence in what I can do. And I just ran with that.
“I was so naïve when I was young. I never even recognised that I was encountering racism. It’s only when I look back now that I understand what was happening. Maybe that helped me succeed? What I do know is that if you get knocked down 100 times, you have 100 opportunities to stand up. I’ve taken the word NO and for me it spells ON.
“It took me seven years before I decided to stay in London. Even now, I tell people I’m here on holiday—I just overstayed! My heart is in Trinidad and Tobago; my national flag is right there in my shop window. “In many ways I never left home. I just brought it with me.
“Each suit I make is a unique expression of my ethos. The tiny details and distinctive silhouettes are all about delivering the unique sartorial image each of my customers is seeking. What I do is more than just making a suit; it’s about sculpting cloth around a figure to give customers, comfort, style, elegance and a feeling of confidence.
“I’m at a new stage in my journey. I have been very fortunate. I could not have excelled if I had stayed in Trinidad. I had to leave physically, even though mentally my soul still resides there. But now I think perhaps I can give young aspiring talent a leg-up and shine a light on the Caribbean. I can open doors for others and reverse the journey: I can bring Savile Row to Trinidad and Tobago!”