Made in Mayfair: Crafting a Legacy, Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts, November 2016
In November 2016, I was commissioned to write a story about the history of craft in Mayfair, by the Intercontinental Hotel & Resorts group, for use in their content marketing for a hotel in the area. All copy as supplied to the client. “I always look forward to reading Katie's work. I just know it's going to be an engaging story, deftly told, always on the cutting edge. One of my favourite and most trusted writers.” – Iain Ball, Contently
Mayfair has been at the heart of British craftsmanship for over two centuries. See how one of London's most storied neighbourhoods has weathered economic transformation and the changing face of luxury.
Comprising just 42 streets on the western edge of central London, Mayfair tells the story of British craftsmanship and perhaps holds the keys to its future. Since the turn of the 18th century, it has been the gilded shop-front of Britain's artisanal industries, but despite the apparent permanence of its Georgian façades, the neighbourhood has witnessed dramatic change.
The area became a destination for craftspeople after the Great Fire destroyed much of central London in 1666 forcing them West. The more affluent artisans set up shop in Mayfair—among them are Lock & Co, inventors of the bowler hat, and John Lobb Bootmaker, both of which survive to this day.
Political turbulence, namely the English Civil War and revolutions in France and America, drained the aristocracy's resources, forcing them to sell their country residences and move into Mayfair or lease Mayfair properties to craftspeople. Natalie Melton, co-founder of Mayfair craft retailer The New Craftsmen, explains why this was so important: “A gentleman living in Mayfair could walk around the corner to his maker," she says. “Economics and geography allowed them to exist side-by-side, so commissioning was straightforward."
In 1733 The Daily Post announced 'a new pile of buildings,' marking the arrival of Savile Row. By the 19th century it was populated with the tailors who made its name including Henry Poole & Co, originator of the tuxedo and famed tailor of Winston Churchill.
Mayfair's North Row, home to The New Craftsmen, was once entirely occupied by craftspeople – many of whom lived above their workshops. “My Great grandfather lived over the shop for a number of years,” says John Hunter Lobb, descendant of the original bootmaker. “I suspect most shopkeepers were the same.” But it wasn't to last. Eventually, rising property prices forced makers out of central London, and rents are now among the highest in the world. “With the exception of a few very longstanding business, it's simply not possible for modern makers to be in central London anymore," says Melton.
For a while, Mayfair became better known for luxury brands than the craftsmen behind them—a realisation that inspired the establishment of The New Craftsmen. “Products had become disconnected from the making process," Melton explains. “Brand names were driving consumption; the appreciation for the skills behind them had disappeared. We wanted to reconnect consumers with making.”
The New Craftsmen now brings craftspeople into contact with a bigger and more diverse audience than ever before. There has been a rebirth of interest in handcrafted products, and visitors and residents alike are now, once again, commissioning work directly from their makers. John Lobb confirms that the West End continues to be a centre of excellence for handmade bespoke, and echoes the craftspeoples' tenacity: “We continue to attract customers because of our steadfast commitment to craftsmanship. As long as economic conditions allow, we will stay well into the future."
Melton agrees that the definition of luxury is changing. “Time has become more valuable than wealth, so anything that has taken a long time to make is precious. The appetite for craft doesn't seem to be abating." As long as that appetite remains, craftspeople will continue to adapt to satisfy it. Thus, Mayfair will remain the making heart of London for generations to come.