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New meets old as menswear shows kick off in London, home of the well-dressed gentleman

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LONDON - In the world of women's fashion, London often plays second fiddle to other style capitals — it lacks the allure of Paris's haute couture or the polish of Milan's luxury labels.

Yet when it comes to dressing the gentleman, no city can rival the British capital's heritage.

Steeped in a rich history of tailoring for kings, army generals and the world's wealthiest men, London is now being marketed as the home of men's fashion — the original birthplace of the tuxedo jacket, the bowler hat and the three-piece suit, among other classic items.

As trendy designer labels like Alexander McQueen and Burberry kick off the new season's menswear shows in London this week, the catwalks will be staged just blocks away from the elite tailoring houses that have been perfecting their craft for over a century.

"Men in this city have always made a point of dressing well," said Simon Cundey, who manages the historic tailors Henry Poole & Co.

The company, which first opened shop on London's famed Savile Row in 1846, has measured and dressed everyone from Napoleon III to J.P. Morgan, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Records of their orders and others dating back to the 1850s are bound in thick volumes and proudly displayed.

"We're very lucky in London — no other city in the world has a suiting street like this," he added.

Savile Row, a street lined with more than a dozen tailors, is a living museum of the English love affair with luxury menswear. It's a long-standing tradition that's closely tied to a history of royal dress, military uniforms and gentry sports like horseback riding and hunting.

One example is the tailcoat, whose cutaway front was originally designed for ease of movement when worn as an equestrian coat. And the brogue shoe, which came from rural Scotland, became fashionable as urban wear after Edward VII — a fashion trendsetter in his time — sported them on his golfing trips.

London shops had a big role in inventing and popularizing many trends. Lock & Co., founded in 1676 and said to be the oldest hat shop in the world, helped create the bowler hat — also called a Derby hat in the U.S. — in the 1840s. Henry Poole, who worked closely with Edward VII, helped the dandy royal develop the tuxedo jacket to wear during "informal" dinners.

Some of Savile Row's pedigree tailors, including Gieves & Hawkes, are showcasing their designs at London's menswear shows this week alongside much younger labels such as Tom Ford, Paul Smith and J.W. Anderson. The influence of their heritage may not be apparent on these runways, but experts say it feeds into modern designs in subtle ways.

"When we talk about work placements, the first thing a lot of my students mention is Savile Row, because it's so classic," said Chris New, who teaches menswear at London's prestigious Central Saint Martins college.

A tradition of apprenticeships means many young designers learn the art of tailoring from the best in the business, he said.

The best-known Savile Row apprentice story is probably that of McQueen, whose label is showing Monday. At 16, he trained for two years at Anderson & Sheppard, and many have attributed the late designer's success to his ability to combine excellent tailoring with subversive designs.

Burberry, which is showcasing its designs Tuesday, is one of the savviest in capitalizing on British tradition. Its signature trench coat, first worn by soldiers during World War I, is still a bestseller, and the brand continues to launch modern versions of it for both men and women every season.

Like many other brands, Burberry says menswear is a fast-growing money maker for them.

London's menswear week has expanded impressively since it broke away from the main womenswear fashion showcases in 2012. This year it started Sunday and runs until Tuesday, followed by other men's fashion shows in Milan and Paris.

Still, there's no denying that designer or bespoke menswear is far from accessible to the average man. Asked what sartorial advice he could give to those without deep pockets, Cundey said: "Invest in quality, not quantity."

"There are three things you need in life. A good day-to-evening suit, a tailored blazer or coat, and a tuxedo," he said.


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