I had my first encounter with Mr Colin De’Ath a few years ago when I took along a much-loved vintage dress which had developed a hole near the waistband, to see if it was worth mending. Slightly embarrassed, I said ‘I know it’s just a polyester dress…but I really love it’ to which he replied ‘No Madam, not at all. It is of the finest silk!’.
At that point, I thought, this man knows how to treat a lady! (and all of his customers so it seems!)
Fast forward three years later and it’s the morning of my wedding. My sister, to be my maid of honour, tried on her dress for the first time as she had flown in from Australia for the wedding. When she went to take it off before her hair appointment, the zip broke. Straight away, I sent her to see Colin and in a huge stroke of luck, they had one long, white zip left. Colin and his colleague fixed the zip while my sister had her hair done, then returned to the tailors and she was stitched into the dress. Saved!
I had heard Colin was soon to retire and wanted to know more about the man behind the immaculate shopfront of the Traditional Bespoke Tailors. Anyone who passes through Southborough would notice the eye catching window displays and flower baskets on the footpath setting the tone of the High Street.
Colin recounted about how he had got in to tailoring ‘I was one of these silly people never went to school, used to skip school quite a bit…I lived in Essex, we used to go over the fields and far away and have a nice day out rather than school. I had a five miles cycle ride so it was easier to skip school. Fortunately for me my mother had two brothers who were in tailoring, there was no question of careers advice or anything like that. It was ‘On Monday you have an interview at Saville Row’. I was 15 and I just went up there and signed up as an apprentice, I didn’t know any different, it seemed to have worked, I haven’t looked back at all’.
Colin specialised as a coat maker, but after years of study at the London College of Fashion he broadened his skills to include cutting and fitting of trousers, waistcoats and jackets. When he got fed up with commuting from Essex to London, he moved to Kent and got a job working as a tailor and workshop manager in Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells.
Up until recently Tunbridge Wells was able to support eight separate tailors in the town, now Colin De’Ath is the only one left.
Before Colin’s arrival the shop was already an established tailoring business that had moved out from Tunbridge Wells when the rates and rent became unaffordable ‘I didn’t know the man but I knew of him, I came in and told him how wonderful I was and he couldn’t do without me, and I ended up buying the shop. That was in February, 1990′.
Prior to the existing tailoring business at the site it was sweet shop, A. Card Confectioners. Colin told me there had been a fire at the shop and when it was taken over by the tailor it needed a lot of work, so much so that only half of the original floor underneath exists. The woman in the photograph remains unidentified, but if you know anything about her, I’d love to know!
Benefiting from the affluent surrounding areas like Sevenoaks, East Grinstead, Canterbury and Brighton, Colin has had his busiest year yet, confiding ‘you’d be amazed what people spend…Some customers have their whole wardrobe made here’.
I was interested to hear if he had a fashion icon or a particular style he aligns his personal look to? ‘I’m West End. I’m traditional. End of story. It’s as simple as that. I see nothing wrong with it, I have built my business on it. You can say it’s old fashioned if you want to, but there is nothing wrong with it. You see even the white shirt and the black tie it looks really smart, you could go anywhere in that’.
He shares my disdain for the current fashion trend of jeans, trainers and a jacket. ‘You see the youngsters of today, a young man, he’s got trainers, jeans and a t-shirt and as far as he is concerned he is dressed. End of story. Don’t get me on my high horse. My biggest gripe is Saturday night television when they have a star or celeb on and he walks on stage in a nice jacket and a pair of jeans. I could scream!’
This leads me to probe him if he ever pops out to the corner shop on a weekend in comfortable tracksuit. Unsurprisingly – he doesn’t. Tracksuits have no place in the De’Ath wardrobe and has only recently softened his stance on wearing jeans. ‘I usually wear cotton trousers rather than jeans, I haven’t got a pair of trainers. I don’t wear trainers, I wear nice soft suede shoes…If I go out with friends, they know I invariably dress up, clean my shoes, I always put cufflinks in’.
Colin proudly showed me a photograph of his son who has continued in the family line of business and is currently working in Saville Row for Dege and Skinner. To Colin’s disbelief, he tells me he has seen him ‘come out of work without a tie which I was horrified!…He dresses down, tight jeans, incredible…terrible…awful!’ Everything is said with his lovely, kind, dry sense of humour.
What is next for Colin De’Ath? Definitely a break. Holidays, possibly a cruise down the Panama Canal. Asked what attire would he chose for the holiday? “I will be definitely sporting some tailored shorts!”. I would expect nothing less. End of story.
Colin De’ Ath Bespoke Tailors, Hardman & Hemming
116 London Road,
Royal Tunbridge Wells,
TN4 0PN Telephone: +44 (0)1892 526 051
All text and photographs are copyright by Castles on the Ground, 2016.