Andrew Ramroop may be one of the most highly sought after creative visionaries in London for his ultra-bespoke tailoring, but, he tells Business Day, his “navel string is buried in Tunapuna.”
That’s why, at the peak of his career as one of the masters of Savile Row, the owner of legendary men’s outfitters Maurice Sedwell packed his bags and returned just over a year ago to his homeland, with a singular mission to teach the refined and intricate craftsmanship emblematic of his trade to 27 lucky apprentices as part of a resurgence in fashion design, creation and marketability in TT.
“I feel immensely proud because I’ve put them through the paces for the last 365 days and they’ve come up trumps,” Ramroop, 66, said at a design showcase-cum-graduation ceremony for the inaugural class earlier this month at Stollmeyer’s Castle, Queen's Park West, Port of Spain.
The programme, a certificate in ultra-bespoke tailoring, was launched in November 2017, through a partnership between Ramroop, the Ministry of Trade, the MIC Technical Institute and Fashion TT. Twenty-seven aspiring tailors from TT, Barbados, Colombia and even India, endured a rigorous 12 months of learning to design, cut, fit and make garments – the full suite of skills necessary to become a master tailor, just like their mentor.
The grand finale was an exhibition of their skill, showing off their designs at the graduation ceremony, aptly titled A Renaissance of Sartorial Art.
"They’ve worked extremely hard. This is a full-time course that should be three years. They’ve managed to complete the course to a certain extent in just about a year. It’s only the early stages. (This show) is a dry run, a practice session and to show like this at the first Test match and make a century, I think that’s exceptional. Now that has to be sustained,” Ramroop said.
Nimble with a needle
Ramroop always know he would be a tailor.
“I don’t know where it comes from. It’s rather like Brian Lara picking up a bat and discovering his (purpose). I found that with picking up a needle and thimble. It was a privilege.”
In an interview with trade publication Savile Row Style, Ramroop recounted how he started making clothes out of newspapers, then graduated to creating his first pair of trousers, fashioned out of one of his mother’s pillowcases.
At 13, he turned down an opportunity to attend Hillview College, and instead, persuaded his parents to let him apprentice at the village tailor. He earned 45 cents per pair, compared to the $5 his boss made for each sold. He asked to learn how to make jackets, but his boss refused.
Eventually, he left and went to work for a tailor in Port of Spain who was willing to teach him to make jackets, but more importantly, had trained in London and first told him the tales of the opulence of Savile Row.
Ramroop made a decision. If he was going to be the best, he needed to be on Savile Row.
“I’d heard that was where prime ministers, captains of industry, presidents and Hollywood stars went to have their clothes made. Like a young athlete who wants to go to the Olympics, I wanted to go to Savile Row. I wanted to be among the best tailors,” he told Business Day.
He left Trinidad in 1970, at 17, dressed in a suit he had made, and another packed in his travel bag – what was effectively his resume – and arrived in England, alone in a strange place, and headed to Savile Row to find a job. He managed to get hired by Anthony Sinclair (who designed James Bond’s original suits), but “lost the job about 20 minutes later to a white Englishman named Richard,” he told Savile Row Style. He eventually got a job at Huntsman on Savile Row – because the person who interviewed him liked his suit.
Tired of working in the back office, he managed to save £900 – a fortune in those days – to attend the London College of Fashion. He graduated from his three-year course in two years – with distinction.
But he still couldn’t find a job, or at least one that would put him, a dark-skinned West Indian with a distinctive accent, to work in the front, even though he was probably the most experienced and qualified candidate. Eventually he was hired when the head of college recommended him to Maurice Sedwell, who had called looking for a new staff member.
He started again in the back room, doing alterations, but eventually convinced Sedwell to allow him to observe fittings.
His big break came when parliamentary secretary to the minister of energy Mark Lennox-Boyd came in complaining about the fit of a pair of pants. Ramroop persuaded him he could get them to fit perfectly, and when he delivered on that promise, Lennox-Boyd personally requested that Ramroop fit him the next time he returned.
Lennox-Boyd went on to become parliamentary private secretary to prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and Ramroop would eventually outfit six of her cabinet members. He also proved a shrewd businessman. In the late 1980s, when Sedwell was set to retire, Ramroop talked his boss into selling him the company, and even today, he is the sole owner of Maurice Sedwell, as well as the Savile Row Academy, launched in 2008 to teach the fine art of Savile Row ultra-bespoke tailoring. (He also eventually bought over Anthony Sinclair’s business and hired the same Richard who took his job after 20 minutes all those years ago.)
As his reputation for excellence grew, Ramroop eventually became one of the illustrious Savile Row characters he dreamed of as boy. He has not only dressed politicians, including Dr Keith Rowley, but cricket great Brian Lara and movie star Samuel L Jackson. Perhaps his most famous client, though, was the late Diana, Princess of Wales, for whom he designed several pieces.
'Pack your bags and come home'
Despite his success, Ramroop never forgot his country.
“I always say I left Trinidad on an extended holiday – albeit a 50-year one,” he chuckled, standing on the Stollmeyer’s Castle lawn. He still has his accent, albeit with a slight English lilt, and even in an impeccably tailored suit, exudes a relaxed Caribbean charm.
And even though he left to learn and excel at his trade, he always expected to come back with the primary intention of imparting his vast knowledge and building an industry where TT could be the epicentre of the world’s bespoke tailoring skills. The impetus came when, one day in London in 2013, then opposition leader Rowley came into Ramroop’s establishment.
“He was impressed with what I was doing and he said if his party won the next elections, he wanted me to pack my bags and come back home. His party won, so I packed my bags and came back home.”
Ramroop returned with what he boldly calls his master plan.
“I want to take this empty slate and really build something here that in ten years’ time or perhaps less than that, you think, 'Wow, TT is not only where you get the finest tailoring in the world similar to Savile Row but where people can come from all over and learn the skill.' We are exporting this skill. We will be earning foreign exchange. We will create a business here where 80 per cent of our production will be exported out of the Caribbean to North America and Europe and the other 20 per cent will be those who would otherwise go abroad and shop,” he said.
But he needs support.
“I’ve talked myself hoarse and I shall continue to make presentations of this exciting opportunity, because it’s where my skill lies. The Government has pitched in, spending about $4 million on this project, investing in the best equipment and outfitting work stations to be as similar to one on Savile Row.
TT tailoring for export
As an export product, Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon said the bespoke tailoring business has excellent potential and Government is pleased with the results so far.
“We’ve seen the tangibles. The work produced has been outstanding. This is only the beginning. The students have to commercialise and we want Andrew to do the training and stay involved with them. We will invest more in this ultra-bespoke tailoring programme and the whole burgeoning men’s fashion industry to see it be successful,” she said.
Already, this first group is showing its earning potential. Ultra-bespoke tailoring is, by definition, a luxury item. One student in the group, Laura Sanchez, 24, has already secured three commissions, totalling about $100,000.
“It’s actually amazing. I wasn’t expecting to start getting sales right away,” she said. Originally from Colombia, she came to Trinidad and was working as a dress maker when she saw an advertisement for the tailoring programme. She signed up to learn how to better make men’s clothes, and was specially selected by Ramroop to design and deliver a suit to businessman Peter Ghany.
Ghany was so pleased with the outcome, he even modelled for Laura at the graduation.
“I felt very privileged (to be chosen by Ramroop) since I was given the responsibility of making a pinstripe suit which is very difficult. You have to get all the pinstripes matching, not only on the collar but on the sleeves and the back,” she said.
Ghany was initially sceptical, not only because he wanted Ramroop to make his suit, but his very expensive suit was being made by an apprentice. The end product made up for it.
“Laura spent 200 hours on the suit. I always wanted a pinstripe suit and I wanted it to be a blue pinstripe suit and I think she did a fantastic job. For me personally, a pinstripe suit never goes out of style. She spent a lot of time catering to what I wanted. I certainly champion what Andrew has done here for Trinidad with bringing his bespoke talent here. We need more people like him to come back and give back to the country,” Ghany said.
Paying the price for quality
The starting price for a suit by these graduates is $15,000 – a bargain, Ramroop insists, compared to one bought directly at Maurice Sedwell, where just the trousers cost that much. (A Maurice Sedwell ultra-bespoke suit can range anywhere from £4,000 to £6,000. )
“If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it,” Ramroop says when asked. But, he said, it’s aspirational. And that is what can help guarantee a market. “My first car was not even a second hand Mini, I was probably the fifth owner. But as I got more successful, I upgraded, until eventually I bought newer and better cars,” he said. It’s the same with these bespoke suits.
For his students though, he reminds them not to let the customer determine the value of their work.
“In this region, you have the customers in the driver’s seat. They say ‘oh, I’m not going to pay for that’ but those who say that they aren’t going to pay that amount are not your customers. You have got to target the customers who will (pay). You have to be calling the shots in the business. It’s very labour intensive what (these students) are doing. When they become expert it will take them 70 hours to produce one suit. At the moment, it’s taking them 300 hours,” Ramroop said.
His next plan for this group of grads is a trainer’s programme. “There’s only one Andrew Ramroop and I can’t be here all the time. I’d like to train them and out of that, extract at least ten to use as trainers and my company will employ three of them,” he said.
An advantage of this programme, as well, is that it gives Ramroop the chance to find the best and brightest. “It was almost like a one-year interview. I was looking not just at their aptitude but their attitude towards professionalism and that I found quite a number and in fact we’ve offered a scholarship to one of them,” he said.
That lucky tailor is 19-year-old Andre Conner, who won a one-year internship at Maurice Sedwell in London, and “if I behave myself” will get a one-year scholarship at the Savile Row Academy.
“At the time I was playing around the idea of what to do. Just so happened my dad heard an interview and told me about it so I said I’d try. At first, I wasn’t enjoying it because it was really hard. I never touched a needle before so going from that to this is a big accomplishment for me,” Conner said. “I’m very excited. Very honoured. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I came out of school but I’m pretty sure now. And for him, at his calibre to choose me, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”