During lockdown, Cock of the Walk hit the headlines for making much-needed gowns for the NHS – but what’s not perhaps as well known is that they’re one of our region’s few Savile Row-trained bespoke tailors.
Phil Ascough spoke to Gill Long as she prepared to get back to the day job…
In a year of cancellations and postponements, two dates should be forever ringed in the calendar at Cock of the Walk.
The first is Friday, April 17, when Hull North MP Diana Johnson made the introduction to Hull Royal Infirmary that opened the door for the tiny tailoring firm to at last provide the NHS with surgical gowns that were desperately needed.
The second was Monday, June 1, when the resumption of horse racing in Britain brought hope that Gill Long and her expert team would soon be able to return to the day job – applying Gill’s Savile Row skills to creating the finery in demand by those who parade alongside the thoroughbreds at courses from Beverley to Royal Ascot.
They don’t call it the Sport of Kings for nothing, and even more exacting standards are required by clients who want to make a memorable impact at such special occasions as weddings, and various ceremonial events.
Cock of the Walk makes the official apparel for High Sheriffs of the East Riding and is the first port of call for outfits for new brethren at Trinity House, but the bread and butter is the man, and occasionally woman, in the street who has done well for themselves.
Gill said: “Our customer is the working-class northerner done good. They want to mark success with a suit and they want a tailor who makes them feel at ease. We have very wealthy customers who work in London and are from a northern background.”
After opening in Salford 10 years ago and then working from a back room at Poorboy Boutique in Princes Quay, Gill has had her own shop in Hull for six years, the only one of its kind in the north, and definitely a hidden gem.
The company’s profile picked up as a result of the NHS work, which was as last-gasp as it gets. After persevering for five weeks with the NHS procurement maze, Gill was about to give up when a business contact suggested she drop a note to Diana Johnson and her Hull West and Hessle counterpart Emma Hardy, who were asking how local firms were coping with the coronavirus impact.
By the time Gill was able to reopen, her team had turned out nearly 3,000 surgical gowns for staff in hospitals, care homes and dental surgeries. Hull East MP Karl Turner joined his colleagues in sending a heartfelt letter of thanks and congratulations: “Your initiative, hard work and commitment was one of the highlights of the amazing community response we have seen in Hull.”
Gill said: “It was clear early in March that work was slowing down so I punted the idea on social media that this country still has a pretty good textiles industry and we could have a go at making what was needed.
“It was so frustrating because it seemed nobody wanted to know. We were about to call it a day and go back to pottering, waiting for the time when we could start doing fittings again. The introduction to Diana changed all that!”
However fetching the nation might find that NHS blue, there’s no future in the factory mentality that the pocket-size Cock of the Walk team had to adopt for a job which, while spectacularly successful, was still no more than a fun one-off.
But what the NHS projects did was showcase the expertise of Gill’s international workforce, coupled with a commitment to hard work and the organisational skills that enabled them to deliver under intense pressure.
Gill moved to Hull with her family from Leigh in 1988. She studied at St Mary’s College and then Hull College before doing a degree in fashion construction at Rochester: “Far enough out of London to make it a bit more affordable but close enough to go there for inspiration.”
She wrote letters to Savile Row tailors, rang them up and knocked on their doors, becoming a coat-making apprentice with Gieves & Hawkes and bringing her skills back north to lead a team of eight from quarters in Grimston Street which are cramped and full of character.
Malgorzata is a bespoke trouser maker from Poland. Natalja from Latvia is a semi-bespoke trouser maker. Katerina, also from Latvia, is a semi-bespoke coat maker. Luke from Bilton Grange graduated from Hull College with a first in fashion and is training as an undercutter, serving under Gill, a bespoke coat maker and master tailor.
Fiona, from Hull, is a fashion student at Sheffield Hallam and is the summer and Christmas apprentice. Ji Soo from South Korea lives with her family in Hull and is the Saturday girl. Jorge, an undercutter from Spain, is leaving for Denmark but the hope is he will work freelance, looking after some of the European clients.
Gill said: “We have learned a lot from looking at the rest of the world as their lockdowns ended. There’s a big tailoring market in Italy, Spain and France and we have seen some good practice, which we follow, and some not so good, which we don’t. We gain confidence when we see that people in those countries are managing to make it work.”
The nature of the business is such that Cock of the Walk doesn’t have to make many changes.
Gill said: “For fittings people have to wear masks and use hand sanitiser but we don’t engage face to face, we speak through the reflection of the mirror while the fittings are going on. The room is fully ventilated and we limit each outfit fitting to 15 minutes.
“A lot of the things our industry has been doing for hundreds of years seem to be the solutions to the current problems. We don’t have a shop full of people working side by side, nothing is mass-produced and we don’t share tools. Everybody has their own machine which is their responsibility. We don’t have people trying on different clothes. One garment is for one customer.
“We don’t have to quarantine clothing. In Spain tailors have been steaming clothes after a fitting and we can do that here because we have multiple irons. Fittings are by appointment only anyway and for most of the week they are for one person, but we allow couples in on a Friday and Saturday. Sometimes we have queues with wedding groups, families coming in for measuring, but with all the postponements I don’t think we’ll see much of that this year.”
The future is about gradual and modest expansion, with Gill planning the resumption soon of monthly visits to her Savile Row office and to Manchester, where rising demand has encouraged thoughts of opening an office, showroom or second workshop. The business will also revisit plans to expand its offer of more affordable products, such as nice casual trousers and jackets.
Gill said: “We adapt the block but it’s still made by hand, by us as quality cheaper products. We wanted to get them out in April for the new Bond film because there’s a lot of casual tailoring in that, but the film was postponed so we’ll aim to be ready when it finally comes out.”
International orders come from the Caribbean, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Dubai, Ireland, Norway, Qatar and Switzerland, but Brexit casts a shadow of uncertainty over many aspects of the business.
Gill said: “It’s difficult because we still don’t know what will happen but we have to rely on the Made in Britain reputation still having the same cachet.
“We began to stockpile materials and were proven right by the virus. Much of the stock is European, from Portugal, Spain, Poland, Romania, Italy and a lot of the threads are German.
“The wool isn’t a problem, from Yorkshire and Scotland, but with the pieces which go inside the suit the UK has not been supporting its own industry. Buttons come from Nottingham, shirt cloth from Lancashire but things like shoulder pads, canvas, horse hair, wadding and pocketing are all from central or eastern Europe where there are a lot of tailors. There’s a respect for artisanship in Europe which is not easy to find in the UK.”
Gill’s concerns also extend to availability of staff, with the hope that the frantic search for sewing skills for PPE will encourage the government to tackle that skills gap.
She said: “We are committed to training local people but I worry about us being able to hire skilled hands. We all come from a highly trained background and we make everything on our premises, we don’t use a factory.
“Doing the work for the NHS made us realise that it’s a good job these skills still exist in this format because we were able to help the NHS in a way that people who sell suits can’t. We demonstrated the clear value of these skills and we need to keep people trained and employed.”
“When lockdown happened everything just paused but we’ve got a full rail of work. The weddings have gone on the back burner – a lot of people have come off their diets and are happy to not come in for a fitting for a while but we’ll catch up with them in time.
“We’ve had a few inquiries as a result of the media coverage, taking video calls to get an idea of people’s tastes and minimise the amount of face to face contact, and a lot of our existing customers have been standing by us. We’ve had a lot of people asking when they can come back.”