Very few young people can afford, or have the faintest desire to save up for, a tailor-made garment. Those that do probably go to John Pearse.
I find the 77-year-old tailor in his airy shop on the pedestrianised Meard Street in Soho, which is buzzing in the way it only does when the sun is beating down. Pearse, never one for moving to Savile Row (“I’m much more exclusive here,” he says), looks seasonally-suave in a slouchy beige suit, sitting on his leather sofa. He offers me a cup of tea. “Yes, please,” I respond. “I’ll have one too. If you find the girl downstairs, she can help you make it,” he says. Off I go then.
The basement houses his studio which he first began renting 40 years ago. The walls are lined with prints, freestanding rails are full of finished (and still to be fully-realised) jackets, and two of his employees are busy making a tweed jumpsuit for one of their clients. I rattle back up the stairs with two fine bone china cups and saucers, and take a seat.
Pearse secured his first assisting job at the Jermyn Street tailor Hawes & Curtis in 1960, when he was 15. “They had the Duke of Edinburgh and lots of good clients,” he says, beginning to laugh. Alexander McQueen infamously claimed to have stitched “I am a c***” into the lining of a jacket he made for the then-Prince Charles during his tailor’s apprentice days, which came two decades later. “I did the same for the King’s dad,” Pearse says. What did he write? “Some scrawls of stuff that remains secret.”
In 1966, he went on to open the seminal, swinging Sixties boutique Granny Takes a Trip on King’s Road, with friends Nigel Waymouth and Sheila Cohen. “You knew when the planes had landed from Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco,” he says. “We grew up with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix — they were all clients.” After stints in Rome (“Fellini told me I could be a great film director, and I believed him”) and New York (“I lived in the Chelsea Hotel for about three months. The first person I should meet there is Patti Smith”) he finally set up shop here in 1986. “But the bloody Granny’s shop never left me,” he says. “I’d have people coming in asking for the flower jacket that George Harrison wore, all those retro requests… which I’m only too happy to do.”
But today, a new flock of Gen Z customers have made his name buzz about town again. “It’s great because I have the offspring of these well known Sixties bands,” he says. “The shape or the buttons might change, but there will always be a suit. It’s quite a pleasure — and I think younger people get pleasure out of them.” This dapper-dressed vanguard is led by Sonny Hall, 25, the model, poet and “a great ambassador,” Pearse says. “I met John through our mutual friend Adwoa Aboah, five years ago,” Hall tells me. “I was instantly taken by his magical way — I would regularly visit him and stop by to talk. I now see John as family. A trickster in his trade, and intuitively gifted.” And what makes him unique? “I felt instantly seen by John. He knew exactly what eccentricities needed to be honoured or explored.”
Other younger clients include man-about-town Isaac Benigson, artist Alexander James and the Fontaines DC guitarist Carlos O’Connell — partner of Joséphine de La Baume — while Ella Richards — granddaughter of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg — used to work for him. “She was in here only on Saturday, and brought a couple of young men in with her,” he says.
His older clients keep returning too. Pallenberg introduced Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie to Pearse 20 years ago. “As we passed John’s shop, Anita asked me if I knew him. I said ‘no’ and she said ‘come on then’,” Gillespie recalls. “John is a Mod buddha. A Zen psychedelicist. A master tailor. As the global super brands continue to colonise every square inch of London’s streets, it’s important for the soul of the city that our artisans and small businesses still exist as some kind of cultural resistance. John’s shop is part of that resistance. Long may he cut and fit.”
Bill Nighy has been a client for 15 years, but it is Sir Mick Jagger who takes the top spot as longest standing. “I met him even before I had the shop on King’s Road. He used to have an affair with a girl from New York who shared a flat with us guys in St John’s Wood, and Mick would sneak around to come and see her,” he says. “He still comes in sometimes. His son was actually just here buying a shirt for his dear father for his 80th.”
More and more, Pearse feels out of place with the times. It is for precisely this reason people are drawn to his suits, some of which I try on in store include an expertly cut leather blazer, one completely unstructured jacket (“it’s like wearing a cardigan, isn’t it?”), and another of two-toned needle corduroy, in navy and burnt orange. “This is based on the Rothko room at Tate,” he says.
He thinks Soho today “is like a gastrodome — so many restaurants you’re lost for choice,” though his pick is The Academy Club: “It’s the last bastion of Old Soho and hopefully it will continue.” And he has given up on keeping up with the news, though wilfully wades into the ongoing dispute around the tightness of Rishi Sunak’s tailoring. “It looks like a Marks and Spencer’s suit,” he says. “Politicians only looked good in the Fifties, when they wore heavier cloth and chalk stripes and probably had to brush the fag ash off the lapels. Even fatty Churchill was a bit more charismatic.”
Then, in what feels like no time at all, I realise I have been in here for nearly an hour and a half. This is all part of the service. “I say I retired 40 years ago to come and work here. It’s nice to have stuck to this trade and have a social life, even just in this shop, which is how I see it now.”
In a world dominated by conglomerate fashion companies and starry celebrity designers, it is Pearse’s affability that earns him loyalty. “I am a niche, you can come and talk to me,” he says. “You’re not going to be able to talk to Marc Jacobs. That’s where I’ve lucked out.”