From a very young age, I wondered – ‘what is it about a suit?’ For me, it is the mystery of it. Of how it can completely transform a person. I wanted to know how to create that magic.’
Master tailor, Kathryn Sargent was the first woman made head cutter for legendary tailors, Gieves and Hawkes. She was also the first woman to have opened her own shop on the famed Savile Row. Kathryn talks to First Women UK in this extended interview about her journey through tailoring and what she has learned en route to her pioneering achievements within her craft.
My dad (and James Bond) were my inspiration
My father left a great impression on me. Growing up, I remember he was very fastidious about his clothing and appearance. No-one knew how much time and effort went into looking that well turned out, and how he took supreme care of all of his clothes really stuck with me. Along with dad, who was always very smart, James Bond films were a massive influence – particularly the iconic Sean Connery. My fascination with Bond, plus my dad’s dedicated application to his appearance led me into an obsession with dress, fashion, tailoring, uniform and the psychology of clothes.
What is it about The Suit ?
For me it is the mystery of it. Of how it can completely transform a person. I wanted to know how to create that magic, to make that transformative thing. And that’s something that even now I think about all the time with clients: how can I enhance their stature or appearance? How can this suit make people respond to them differently? What do they want to tell the world about themselves and how could this suit do that for them? Creating something to make a person look even better, is something I constantly strive to perfect.
Necessity was my greatest inspiration
I have an inner determination which was borne of a survival drive. My parents and I had a good relationship, but they didn’t like the fact that I had chosen to study fashion. I remember my mum saying, ‘if you don’t get a job after this course, don’t think you are coming back here.’
I knew I was on my own, so I knew too that I would have to make this career path work – not least so that I could continue to do what I loved. And of course, I wanted to work with the best. I adored tailoring, so it had to be Savile Row. People told me I couldn’t be a tailor because I was a woman. I thought, ’well that’s rubbish and I am going to show that I can do this!’
In the early days, I really had to rely on that inner determination to step up and prove myself because I had no-one behind me saying, ‘I believe in you – you can do it!’ Ultimately, if I failed I had nowhere to go, and would have had to change career.
When I was learning my craft, all I had to drive me on were the legendary cutters before me – all men, of course – who I never knew personally, only by reputation. I just kept telling myself, ‘I will make a mark on this industry and I will be a cutter, just like them.’
No-one can take your experience away from you
In order to do this job you have to speak to clients confidently and gain their trust. A suit is an incredibly personal thing to make for someone. It took me long time to gain that confidence. I rarely get the wobbles now, but if I do, I remember that I am where I am because of my layers of experience. I try and remember that I am coming from a position of knowledge and that I am steeped in my craft. I can be confident because tailoring is something I know about and understand – and of course, that’s why the client is here in my atelier.
Opening my own business was my biggest challenge to date
That was a huge learning curve. Suddenly I wasn’t just making suits. I was responsible for VAT and cashflow and employing people. At times I thought, ‘what have I done?!’ Nevertheless, I do not regret it – despite the huge challenge. I am still learning.
I was of that generation that was told, ‘children should be seen and not heard’
…And that was ingrained in me and stayed with me, even when I was older and a trainee. I habitually kept my head down. I was the youngest on the team and not very confident when I started out, so I did what I was told without question. I just felt lucky to be at one of the world’s best tailors [Gieves and Hawkes], so I never asked for things or was pushy.
Generally speaking, I don’t think women know how to ask for things – or necessarily feel they have the right to ask for things. Not so my male peers, who were very proactive and self-assured in comparison. I learnt from them. I learned how to most effectively communicate with the management. I kept a record of my sales and accomplishments and I would take the facts and figures to my work reviews. I’d show them, ‘this is my contribution to this business and this is my worth here on paper in black and white.’ I found it was the best way to get what I was asking for, to further my career and be taken more seriously. I spoke to management in the language that they would understand and respond to. Back then, it got better results than saying, ‘he gets more than me.’
My colleagues in Savile row recognise that I am a proper tailor
I have learnt everything about the craft so they accept me. They acknowledge that I haven’t just come from nowhere and opened a shop and said, ‘hey, I sell suits’. I have done the ground work and earned my place. The fact that I am a woman in a male-dominated industry may be incidental. Arguably, it is about being a fantastic craftsperson, regardless of gender. But actually, it’s important to stand up and be a role model for young women coming into this industry. I think it is important to say, ‘yes, a woman can do this. Women can be great tailors.’ A female role model is something I never had.
Fear of failure keeps me going though the really tough times
I have never reached the point of wanting to walk away from it all, but I have caught myself thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I have always been a perfectionist but I eventually realised that sometimes you just have to let go of perfectionism and accept that things are out of your control. I learnt to tell myself that that’s not ‘failure,’ it’s just another challenge. It also helps if you are open to equipping yourself with as much knowledge as possible to deal with every situation. Ask people for help!
Women should celebrate other women’s achievements
And men should celebrate women’s achievements too – there are enough men celebrating men’s achievements in history! I think the First Women UK exhibition is balancing the scale of accomplishment. The more we celebrate ourselves, the more it will inspire other women to aim for what they want in life. Gender should not be an issue, but it still is, and in my lifetime I hope it becomes less so. I understand that some women may not want to be part of an exhibition like this because they want people to focus on the fact that they are a great pilot or baker or politician, rather than a woman. But actually, others can learn and be heartened from their stories. I feel a fantastic privilege to be a part of that.
Nobody can definitively say what is ‘The Best’
If I have learnt anything it’s that you can’t define the best. There will always be someone with a different set of criteria or a different scale. I have realised that it is about how much you enjoy what you do. Yes, be ambitious but also stop comparing yourself to others. Appreciate the freedom that what you do brings you. Seek contentment as enthusiastically as you would seek success.
The Golden Work Rules I live and work by…
Having a structure to my work helps me focus. I know that being a multitasker is considered an asset, but I think that that is misinformation. I do juggle a lot of things but when I am doing one thing and I am focused on it and I have structure, I achieve much more.
It’s about the client – not about you
Robert Gieve taught me this and I believe it to be true of any business in which you are working to provide a service for someone. He said, ‘the art of a good tailor is to listen to the client, ask the right questions and show an interest.’ I also try to remember that the client might be nervous too – and I try instead to focus my attention on putting them at ease, rather than how I might feel.
Work at Your Self-belief
Constantly. Know that you can achieve great things if you put your mind to it and work hard. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – just learn from them. It is great to have mentors and supporters to encourage you, but actually you have to learn how to say, ‘you can do it – you can’ to yourself as well.
Don’t let anyone tell you why you won’t be able to do something
How do they know? It’s about you and the skills you acquire and how you apply them. When I got into this industry someone said to me – ‘you can’t be a tailor – tailors are old men with grey hair.’ According to who?!
Find out more about Kathryn Sargent and her craft at http://www.kathrynsargent.com
Interview by Deborah Willimott