Life Magazine, SUNDAY INDEPENDENT, June 2023. Banshee of Savile Row feature.
Ruby Slevin, The Banshee of Savile Row
When someone mentions London’s Savile Row and the world of bespoke tailoring, it generally conjures up a man’s world, perhaps with a male client getting his made-to-measure suit fitted by a couple of male tailors. Most of the famous Savile Row brands have very manly names like Davies & Son, Gieves & Hawkes, and the newly established Cad & The Dandy.
Irish tailors have had a long history with Savile Row, with Rory Duffy being a fifth-generation, Savile Row-trained master tailor. He became the first-ever trainee of Savile Row founder Henry Poole & Co. to take home the highly coveted Golden Shears in 2009. Shortly after his victory, Rory was approached to train an apprentice of his own, making him one of the youngest Master to an Apprentice in Savile Row’s 200-year history. Former Irish Olympic rower Cormac Folan recently joined Savile Row with a brand of sustainable men’s shirts. Cormac is the co-founder of Alder & Green, a responsible menswear brand focusing on 100% organic cotton men's shirts. Alder & Green recently opened their flagship store on Lamb's Conduit Street and launched at John Lewis in August 2022.
What we hadn’t seen, until now, was a female Irish tailor taking the row by storm. In 2019, Dublin born Ruby Slevin founded Banshee of Savile Row, the only Savile Row bespoke women's tailoring house. She chose the name ‘Banshee of Savile Row’ because of its roots in powerful female symbolism and Irish mysticism, and the whole brand’s identity is rooted in the heritage tradition of bespoke tailoring, which is responsible and conscious, creating garments made to last. Banshee is a commitment to the tradition of slow fashion cultivated on Savile Row; the belief that an investment in quality rather than quantity is the foundation for the future of clothing. The brand’s aim is to combine the worlds of tailoring and fashion, and last year that plan came to fruition. Banshee was the first female tailoring company to show at London Fashion Week and became a member of the British Fashion Council in 2022.
Ruby says her grandfather is from Donegal, and she feels a deep connection to that part of Ireland. "Even though my family is dispersed around all pockets of the world, when we meet at family gatherings, you can spot us a mile away as we are often all wearing tweed. We would visit Magee’s up in Donegal town during our visits to Lough Eske and always pick something up. Later on, I discovered Studio Donegal, whose tweed we work with a lot to create our bespoke overcoats. Irish tweed always connects me to Ireland."
Ruby, 38, grew up along with her two younger sisters in Donnybrook and went to an Irish speaking primary school, Scoil Bride. She credits her schooling for solidifying her love of Irish folklore and culture, which inspires her work as a designer today. At home in Dublin, Ruby never learned to sew, even though her grandmother had studied fashion design at Central St. Martins and her father "was always running things up on the sewing machine". She says her mother had a keen eye for fashion and was her original muse. As a little girl, she would watch her mom getting ready to go out and take great delight in the whole ritual. She said she was enthralled by her mother's ability to style an outfit from a treasure trove of belts, feathers, sequins, shoes, coats, and dresses. "When I was older, we would get into arguments as she would go to wear something that I had ‘borrowed’ without asking! The velvet opera coat I designed last year is based on an antique opera coat my mother used to wear that she had found in a vintage market in Notting Hill."
Ruby’s path to Savile Row was indirect, to say the least. "I was studying economics and sociology at UCD, so fashion wasn’t really on my radar as a career back then.
When I was travelling after college, I started buying cloth and cutting it up to put outfits together. When I came back from Australia in 2011, I joined a sewing class and made my first skirt, and that got me completely hooked. I bought a bit of orange tweed and made a mini skirt from it and I felt so proud to wear it. I still wear dresses my grandmother made in the 1960s, and they still look incredible as she always used amazing fabrics."
Ruby went on to enrol in fashion college at The Grafton Academy, renowned for its practical, hands-on approach to sewing and offers a great foundation in tailoring. Her first mentor was her teacher, Colin Atkinson who recognised her talent for tailoring and her aspirations to work in the field and encouraged her to study the history of Savile Row with a view to getting an apprenticeship there. She says she was also influenced by the style of Irish art collector and notable patron of Irish arts (traditional Irish music in particular), Garech Browne. "He used to wear handwoven Aran jumpers with Savile Row suits using cloth he had bought in Connemara or Donegal. When I was studying fashion design, I thought his way of dressing—having beautiful pieces of clothing like talismans that he cared for and had maintained for decades was the most stylish way to dress."
After she graduated from the Grafton, Ruby travelled to London to work for a newly established Savile Row company called Cad and the Dandy. She started out as an apprentice tailor, which became the catalyst for her moving permanently to London and then eventually setting up her own brand. She had initially thought she might work in tailoring for a year or two and then move to a more traditional role in fashion, hoping for a dream job with another hero of hers, the late Vivien Westwood, but she became so happy and accepted on the Row, she never left!
"It wasn't long before I began to notice there was a gap in the market for women’s tailoring. When I started working on The Row, there was nothing for women, and I would struggle to get the cutters to help me with my block. Women were deemed difficult to tailor for, and it was very much a man’s world. In eight years, it’s really encouraging to see so many more women on the street and more women getting tailored clothes made."
While she may be living and working in the heart of London, her Irish roots run deep. As part of her London Fashion Week debut, Banshee of Savile Row created a promotional film where the sprawling gardens of Birr Castle acted as the grand backdrop for her collection. The clothes were entirely made by hand and cut from sustainably sourced cloth. They were styled in Banshee silhouettes: flared trousers, belted waists, soft shoulders, and bold lapels. Along with Irish tweeds and linens, she uses seersucker, velvets, and corduroys. Ruby says that Banshee collections aren’t designed with a season or trend in mind; instead, the dynamic materials, colours, and textures are deliberately used to evoke feelings of freedom, sustainability, and versatility.
Banshee caught the attention of Vogue magazine recently, not least as actress Claire Foy wore her tailoring in her cover story shoot earlier this year. In a separate feature Vogue said of the label ‘ Banshee of Savile Row combines technically brilliant and precise tailoring that transcends seasonal trends. This London-based, Irish-born brand does exquisitely beautiful suits and timeless separates that you can wear pretty much anywhere.’
“So each piece can take up to twelve weeks to make”, she tells me. “We start the process with a private design consultation, where we pick the fabric from one of our swatch books and match the colour to skin tone and existing wardrobe palette. Our clients get to pick their own buttons and silk linings which is also a lot of fun. We design the shape of the trousers and jacket to be what works best on our clients as all women have unique shapes and sizes and the joy of bespoke is that we can cater to that. We then take measurements which our master pattern cutters turn into a personal pattern which is then turned into a baste fitting (a mock up of the suit in a mock material). This baste fitting is crucial to make sure the fit and design are perfect. About six to eight weeks after the baste fitting we meet for a final fitting in the finished garment.” I can hear the passion in her voice as she describes the process. “We usually like to do a few small alterations at that point which are updated into your pattern and means future suits you order will require less fittings. Each of our jackets and coats have roughly 80 hours of hand stitching, using Savile Row methods that have been around for hundreds of years ensuring longevity.”
Tailoring is a labour intensive process with so many elements to consider before the final garment is created. From choosing the fabric to painstakingly matching up the tweed’s lines when cutting out the pattern. The construction of each piece is a layered and lengthy process with intricate, invisible stitching to finish. All this work costs, so you can expect to pay in the region of E300 for a bespoke Banshee shirt, and E3000 for a three piece suit.
Ruby delights in her Irish heritage and consistently includes Irish fabrics in her work. "I always bring either Irish tweed or Irish linen into my collections. We have a huge Irish client base that loves us using Irish materials. They are fabrics I am passionate about and have worked with since my days at the Grafton Academy. I just see beauty, longevity, heritage, and history in using these cloths that feel like part of my identity.”
With a growing client list including Stefani Martini, Claire Foy, award winning director Antonia Campell Hughes and presenter Angela Scanlon Ruby has successfully broken into the male-dominated world of tailoring and earned her place among the skilled tailors on Savile Row, so has she any advice for any young Irish person who’s more interested in the sharp, crisp finish of a tweed jacket than the flows of a lavish ball gown?
"I would advise anyone who wants to start a brand and become a designer to also back it up with knowledge of business or marketing if you can, as running a business means that designing is only one aspect of the job. Take advice from mentors and people who have been in the business longer than you and whom you admire. Be prepared to make mistakes as you go along, learn from them, and always pick yourself up again. And finally, work hard and enjoy the process. There is nothing as rewarding as seeing your ideas turn into a reality!”
It’s exciting times for the brand, along with a growing client list, Banshee of Savile Row will be showing again this September in London Fashion Week and there are firm plans for an Irish store to open in Dublin later this year. In the meantime, Banshee of Savile Row holds trunk shows in Howbert & Mays on Clare St. Dublin, with the next one coming up at the end of July. Ruby will be attending, bringing a taste of Savile Row to Dublin, meeting new clients for private design consultations.