Recently I was contacted by Giles, an old friend, to ask if we could meet for coffee near Green Park, London.
We first met in 1971 as volunteers for The Samaritans in Sunderland. He was training to be an Anglican priest, was ordained in Durham Cathedral and since then we have kept in touch.
We met and chatted for an hour until Giles, looking at his watch, said he had to go shopping and would I accompany him? Now I really do detest shopping, but for some unknown reason agreed, and guess what? An unexpected world was revealed to me, resulting in this story.
Our first stop was Trumper’s, Curzon Street, established 1875 to provide barber services for the elite and awarded a Royal Warrant “By Appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales.” It was as if entering an exclusive men’s club. I learned that “Facial hair requires the finest tools to maintain a well groomed appearance which, when used in combination with a lavender moustache wax, can sculpt facial hair into any required style”. Imagine, an entire shop devoted to mens shaving accessories! Brushes of badger or boar hair lined the shelves as did horn and rosewood special brushes for hair, moustache or beard.
Display of Trumpers shaving brushes.
Their gift selection included carbon fibre cigar cutters, sterling silver collar stiffeners and pocket handkerchiefs. It was here that I learned the difference between a pocket handkerchief and a pocket square: the first is for ‘blow’ and the latter for ‘show’. Nothing disposable here. They specialise in perfumery (elegantly named Wellington, Astor and Marlborough) and offer personal services – moustache trim, curl and wax, shave with hot towels, ‘Friction’ and much more all of which take place in discreetly curtained booths.
A Trumper’s leaflet advises on ‘the correct use of an open-razor’ and their Shaving School provides one-to-one tuition on wet shaving. I found it utterly fascinating – a tribute to the eminence of a tradition that, thankfully, is still upheld and admired world wide.
That same day I saw a web enquiry from an undoubted personage in Vancouver. His 16 year old son was beginning to grow facial hair. The father was adamant that his son should have a true ‘gentleman’s experience’ by having his first shave in London. Trumper’s was chosen. Apparently this is a regular occurrence for Trumpers at both their shops, the second one being in Duke of York Street, St James. I accept that this is a rite of passage that I, as a female, could never experience.
From here we strolled in leisurely fashion to Trickers in Jermyn Street to buy shoes. Giles as a 13 years old was greeted as ‘Master Giles’ on first entering their establishment by appointment in 1949. Now 81, he has never once bought shoes elsewhere. There cannot be many firms that can claim customer loyalty for almost 70 years. But this is Jermyn Street, a unique place that began in 1664 when Charles II permitted Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans, to develop the area near to St James’s Palace. From its earliest days it was a street of distinction.
All shoes in Trickers are stored in special sections of the cupboards below. This system has been in use for generations.
James Tricker founded his company in 1829. In 1840 young Walter James Barltrop (aged 7), made a leather boot which was a very early example that eventually was developed into their renowned waterproof country wear for the landed gentry. Barltrop married Tricker’s daughter and the company is today managed by his descendants who maintain high standards both in the quality of their merchandise and their exemplary customer services. The courtesy and care extended to Giles demonstrated how buying a pair of shoes can be transformed into an event to be savoured.
Today they have many Far Eastern clients who regard visiting Trickers for shoes as a ‘must’. However as part of the experience, they insist on having photographs taken with the salesman holding a Trickers bag containing their purchases.
On returning home I mentioned my shopping expedition to Charles who asked “Was it Trickers you visited?“ This surprised me, as to my knowledge, Charles has always been a strictly M&S shoe man, but appearances are deceptive. It seems that 40 years ago, Charles and his good friend Bob (later Lord) Gavron were playing squash at the RAC Club in Pall Mall. After the game Charles returned to the changing room to find that his shoes had been stolen. Unperturbed, Bob said “No problem, come with me.” and took Charles, shoeless but wearing socks, for the ten minute walk to Trickers.
Charles entered. The two salesmen obviously noted that he was unshod but, showed not a glimmer of either surprise or curiosity, instead politely asking “How may we help you sir?”. The French have a word for it – sangfroid.
Nowadays sales personnel can be brusque, dismissive or simply too busy on their mobile phones to pay attention to customers. Trumpers and Trickers have mastered the art of ‘doing things the right way’ an experience replicated at many of the shops in Jermyn Street. Turnbull & Asser (est.1885) produce, amongst other items, the finest hand made shirts. You choose from 2,000 fabrics, 13 collar and 11 cuff styles. Another rite of passage no doubt. Their customers have included Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Daniel Craig.
Display cabinets at Floris.
Many other establishments in Jermyn Street have illustrious histories. Aquascutum fashions (1861), Alfred Dunhill began selling motoring accessories in 1893, and Floris perfumers (1730) whose magnificent display cabinets, still used today, were purchased at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Their archives contain a letter from Florence Nightingale thanking them for a “fragrant nosegay” that helped her avoid the terrible odours in the hospitals where she worked. Daks fashion house dates from 1894 and holds three royal warrants and amongst all of this is Paxton & Whitfield, the oldest cheese shop in the UK (founded 1797) but not, I hasten to add, solely for men.
Walking down Jermyn Street is a journey through history. A statue of Beau Brummell, Regency dandy and arbiter of men’s fashion, stands immediately facing the magnificent Piccadilly Arcade – also filled with attire for men. He never lived in this street but is noted as saying “to be elegant one should not be noticed.” An adage that wins my seal of approval. He had an extraordinary life but, sadly died in a French asylum in poverty.
However Sir Isaac Newton lived here for 65 years and Napoleon III sought refuge here after the Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris in 1871. Another famous resident, who both lived and died here, was Al Bowlly, an iconic jazz singer of the 1930’s. He was killed instantly by a Luftwaffe bomb that exploded outside his apartment. He was 42 years old.
I looked him up on Youtube and was immediately captivated by this immensely talented performer. Surprisingly, I knew all the words of his songs such as ‘Blue Moon,’ ‘The Very Thought of You’, ‘Melancholy Baby’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, Two Sleepy People’ and more – possibly because they were classic hits for years, but also as they were used in much later films by Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and quite recently ‘The Kings Speech’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, (2014).
I urge you to spend ten minutes listening to him. He was elegant and urbane with a divine voice. Jermyn Street seems to me to be the ideal place for him to have spent time.
This story about sartorial elegance reminds me of the tale of the Jewish boy who escaped Nazi Europe and came to England. His father remained behind living in a small village but his son vowed that one day he would bring his father over to join him. Eventually that day arrived.
At the airport he embraced a little stooped figure, bearded and wearing traditional shtetl clothes.
“Papa, I am so happy to see you. I want to give you something now to make up for our years apart”. He took him first to a barber where his hair and beard were trimmed. Next, they visited top class outfitters where he was measured for the finest cotton shirts and following this a bespoke suit from Savile Row. Hand made leather shoes, a bowler hat and a rolled umbrella completed the ensemble.
Finally the son took his father gently by the hand and went over to a mirror so that he could see himself in his new finery. The son thought his father looked magnificent.
“Well Papa, what do you think?” he asked. Suddenly he saw tears streaming down his father’s face. “Papa”, he said anxiously, please, tell me what is wrong?”
The old man turned to him and sighed “I am crying because we had to give up the Empire”.