New book reveals colourful life of tailor who dressed Swinging London

Champagne, sex and the man who dressed Swinging London: Cilla, Twiggy, Elton, Jagger – Tommy Nutter was tailor to them all and his own story was as colourful as his suits

  • Tommy Nutter crafted beautifully tailored but impossibly ostentatious suits
  • House Of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor Of Savile Row reveals Nutter lived up to name
  • Champagne bottles dangled over the door, clinking when anyone came in
  • John Lennon and Yoko Ono once stripped naked to browse clothes at his shop

Whether they were honeymooning in Venice or just watching a day’s cricket at The Oval, Mick and Bianca Jagger loved to be seen in their three-piece Tommy Nutter suits.

When The Beatles strode across Abbey Road for their famous album cover, three were wearing Nutter suits. And as for Elton John, he might still be wearing anoraks had he not come into the rakish orbit of the enfant terrible of Savile Row.

Swinging London of the Sixties and Seventies was about cutting a dash and the finest peacocks got their plumage from the tailor who was every bit as outrageous as the stars he clothed.

The working class London boy-made-good crafted beautifully tailored but impossibly ostentatious suits for rock stars, artists, politicians and aristocrats who didn’t mind looking ridiculous just so long as people were looking at them.

If the music of the era was loud, Nutter’s fashion was deafening — fabrics in impossibly garish hues cut into suits that broke with tradition by showing off the body rather than hiding it.

If the music of the era was loud, Tommy Nutter’s fashion (pictured here with Cilla Black in one of his suits in 1973) was deafening

Lapels stuck out like aeroplane wings, waists were nipped in, shoulders were massive and trouser legs billowed like tents. Punch called the look ‘an eccentric mix of [the P. G. Wodehouse character] Lord Emsworth, the Great Gatsby and Bozo the Clown’, but aficionados didn’t care.

His clients included Twiggy, Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, Peter Sellers, Diana Ross and Nancy Reagan. But what of the man who presided over all this sartorial madness, a clothes horse with matinee idol looks described as the ‘living, breathing embodiment of Peter Pan’?

In newly published House Of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor Of Savile Row, biographer Lance Richardson reveals how Nutter — who died in 1992 — more than lived up to his name.

The son of a North London aircraft upholsterer, he seemed destined for obscurity as a civil service clerk. Then, he answered an advertisement for a tailor’s assistant on Savile Row and began a career in the hallowed home of bespoke tailoring.

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Although he never lost his respect for the painstakingly perfectionist and solid craftsman traditions of Savile Row, Nutter was determined to give the fusty street a style makeover.

A skilled social climber who was charismatic and funny, he exploited his membership of London’s gay underground to find people who could further his ambitions. He made a major breakthrough when he attended a dinner party at the home of fellow homosexual Brian Epstein and met Peter Brown, Epstein’s best friend and assistant.

Epstein was The Beatles’ svengali and Brown pretty much managed their lives. On Brown’s desk was a red telephone that — like the ‘Batphone’ in the Gotham police commissioner’s office — rang whenever one of the Fab Four needed help. ‘I conducted their affairs,’ Brown later wrote, ‘from getting their signatures on contracts to getting them out of jail.’

He and Nutter became lovers, a relationship that involved Brown ditching his boyfriend, a rising young radio DJ called Kenny Everett. The trauma of their break-up, says Richardson, ‘wounded the comedian so deeply he retreated into the closet and remained there for 17 years’.

Nutter and Brown became inseparable and shared a one-bed home in Mayfair. When Epstein died of a drug overdose in 1967, Brown effectively took over managing the Fab Four. He was a witness at Paul McCartney’s wedding to Linda and best man at John Lennon’s wedding to Yoko Ono.

Nutter was drawn into The Beatles’ inner circle. Brown recounts how he and the band were going out to celebrate recording Hey Jude. McCartney wanted Nutter to hear it and persuaded him to visit the recording studio.

In newly published House Of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor Of Savile Row, biographer Lance Richardson reveals how Nutter — who died in 1992 — more than lived up to his name (pictured: Mick Jagger in one of the tailor’s three-pieces after his 1971 wedding to Bianca)

McCartney and Lennon watched him intently, trying to gauge his reaction. After a long pause, Nutter declared he didn’t like it.

The Beatles were ‘crestfallen’, says Brown, until he told them this was Tommy’s idea of a joke. Aged 26 in 1969, Nutter opened his first business, at 35a Savile Row. His backers included not only Brown but Cilla Black, a close friend of the couple through Epstein, who had also launched her singing career. Cilla and boyfriend Bobby Willis would holiday with Nutter and Brown in Portugal, and Nutter was best man when they married.

In publicity terms Cilla proved a godsend for the fledgling Nutters of Savile Row. ‘It’s going to be terribly posh,’ Cilla gushed. Nutter insisted his tailoring shop would be ‘thoroughly square’, championing sobriety after the hippy scruffiness of the Sixties. When asked why, in that case, Ringo Starr had ordered a pair of scarlet PVC trousers, he shot back: ‘They’ll be very square scarlet PVC trousers.’

Life at his Savile Row HQ was as riotous as his clothes. Champagne bottles dangled from red ribbons over the door, clinking when anyone came in. A group of American tourists once peered through the door and spied Nutter and Cilla on the floor drinking champagne. They were invited to join in.

Nutter’s camp personality infected his shop. McCartney and Twiggy were among those at the opening night bash which was lit by giant purple candles. Cilla loved them, only later discovering to her horror when she took some home that they were penis shaped. ‘I burned them,’ she later said. ‘Destroyed the evidence.’

It was a new direction for Savile Row, as was model Christie Brinkley wearing a white Nutter tailcoat on the cover of Playboy.

Nutters was an almost instant success. In its first year, it sold more than a thousand suits — each costing several hundred pounds, at least £2,000 today. Robert Stigwood, manager of the Bee Gees, bought eight summer suits in mohairs, silks and light worsteds. Twiggy had a suit made in a crushed tomato-coloured velvet, David Hockney had a tweed check one in ‘healthy gums’ pink.

Champagne bottles dangled from red ribbons over the door of his Savile Row shop, clinking when anyone came in (pictured: Elton John wearing Tommy Nutter)

Rivals agreed Nutter was outrageous but completely original. When one of the first Nutter suits was worn to a cocktail party hosted by Hardy Amies, the Queen’s dressmaker, he immediately pulled out a tape measure and measured the length of its lapels in awe.

Amies proclaimed Nutter ‘marvellous’ and spent several thousand pounds in his shop the following day. Shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, then starting out in his career, described visiting the shop as ‘a great hoot, because Tommy always had wonderful stories and gossip’.

One of those stories was that John and Yoko once turned up and stripped naked to browse his clothes. ‘The customers were complaining, but what could I do? This was John Lennon,’ said Nutter. A bottle of sherry was always tucked away in a drawer which Nutter liked to sip from a tea cup.

Stronger stuff than sherry was also consumed, according to John Reid, Elton John’s long-time manager. ‘It was quite an event going in to Nutters. You’d write the whole day off,’ he recalled. ‘Maybe you’d have lunch, a couple of bottles of champagne…’ Everyone would become ‘hopelessly drunk’, says biographer Richardson.

Elton first visited the showroom in 1971 when he was 24 and, off-stage, wearing anoraks and flat caps that — Nutter sneered — made him look like the comic strip character Andy Capp.

‘It was a big job changing him,’ Nutter said later. ‘Fittings would go on for hours, sometimes days. It would get edgy, so I’d send out for sherry to smooth things along.’

But Elton proved a loyal friend and reassuringly profligate customer. For his 1984 wedding to Renate Blauel, he ordered 20 Nutters suits in a range of primary colours including bright orange and yellow, each with a matching boater, shirt, tie and shoes.

Nutter also made him a sparkling pinstripe suit to which more than a million tiny black beads had been sewn on by hand.

Nobody was more demanding than Bianca Jagger, who threw back the first suit Nutter made her, insisting on borrowing his own jacket until it had been altered.

The Nicaraguan beauty demanded as many as five fittings for a suit and if a trouser leg was so much as an eighth of an inch shorter than the other, she’d demand it be altered. Nutter’s tailors would often have to visit the Jagger mansion for further measurements.

Bianca famously arrived at Heathrow Airport wearing a three-piece Nutter suit, black bowler hat and clutching a cane.

‘Bianca has been around this week and has been driving us all mad,’ Nutter once wrote to his brother, David. ‘She is very grumpy, but extremely beautiful.’

Nutter didn’t like dressing women and charged them a premium, claiming extra work was involved. The real reason was the gay man was uncomfortable with the proximity to the women he was measuring, says his biographer. Nutter told friends: ‘I don’t know how to deal with women’s t**s.’

Nutters was an almost instant success. Twiggy (pictured) had a suit made in a crushed tomato-coloured velvet, David Hockney had a tweed check one in ‘healthy gums’ pink

He was in his element, however, with the other Jagger. Nutter recalled how the Rolling Stone once walked up to him at a Beatles party and announced: ‘I’ll have a suit like the one you’re wearing.’

Nutter’s somewhat androgynous signature look — noticeably tight around the groin — was perfect for Jagger’s raunchy image.

Jagger patronised Nutter heavily but, according to Bianca, he ‘didn’t like it at all’ when she wanted to go there, too. ‘He said that a man’s tailor was very special,’ she explained. ‘It was a personal thing that a woman shouldn’t intrude on. But I went anyway.’

Nutter’s customers inevitably had their pecadillos — Tom Jones, for instance, refused to have his waist measured, insisting he was a ‘perennial 32 inches’.

Nutter could be just as much the prima donna as his clients. One night he went to a party at the Tate Gallery to celebrate a new Andy Warhol show. Humiliated in front of friends because he had no ticket and was denied entry, Nutter rushed across to the Embankment, mounted the wall and threw himself into the Thames.

Friends, fearing he had been swept downstream, peered over to discover he was floundering around in the mud in his tweed suit. He later joked that his suicide had been thwarted by a low tide.

Nutter said his proudest moment came when John, Paul and Ringo all decided independently to wear one of his suits for one of the most celebrated pop album covers of all time — Abbey Road. Only George Harrison demurred, turning up in scruffy denim.

Nutter’s meteoric career was ultimately brought down by a combination of the Seventies denim invasion, the decade’s economic downturn and his hopelessness as a businessman.

Preferring to lunch his famous clients than run the company, he was incredibly extravagant and foolishly generous. When Lord Montagu of Beaulieu cheekily offered to invite Nutter to his wedding in return for making him and his bride matching Jay Gatsby-style white suits, Nutter agreed.

His long-suffering business partner Edward Sexton finally bought Nutter out in 1976. He was saved from bankruptcy when a rival Savile Row business offered him a job, but Nutter privately complained his new colleagues were like the fuddy-duddies of Grace Brothers department store in the TV sitcom Are You Being Served?

Although he later set up another Savile Row business, he never managed to turn himself into an international fashion brand.

For decades, Nutter had indulged in a hugely promiscuous sex life, once being arrested for ‘importuning’ in Hyde Park. He died aged 49 in 1992 from AIDS, a disease that took a good number of his clients.

It was a tragic end. As Oscar Wilde once observed: ‘A man’s first duty is to his tailor…’ Tommy Nutter, who throughout his life had set such store on looking good, had always wholeheartedly agreed.

House Of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor Of Savile Row, by Lance Richardson, is published by Chatto & Windus at £25. To buy a copy for £18.75 (25% discount) call 0844 571 0640 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books Offer available until 24/6/18, p&p is free on orders over £15 

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